ON Saturday, aptly Independence Day, fathers, and not a few mothers, flocked excitedly to pubs to enjoy their first drink ‘out out’ in what must have felt like years.
But, with brightly-coloured footprints on the ground, special areas marked in yellow and black tape and a very solemn wait-your-turn system, it felt less like a delicious adult treat and more, according to one punter, ‘like a bloody playground’.
Which is ironic, since at the time of writing, a huge number of public playgrounds across the UK remain closed. Councils, including North Hertfordshire, Sheffield, Gateshead, Harlow and Rother, have stated that they simply are not ready to implement the Government’s guidelines on cleaning, social distancing (though basic instinct implements social distancing around swings in any case), signage, stewards, rules on eating and numbers allowed at any one time.
Concerns over potential insurance claims, should a child catch Covid-19 from a roundabout or swing surface, have paralysed councils. Playground owners and managers simply do not have the stomach to run a full risk assessment, although we are hardly talking about letting children roam unsupervised around a nuclear plant or heavy agricultural machinery.
Replacing the notions of old-fashioned common sense and personal responsibility, do we really need a risk-assessing park inspector with a clipboard to ensure parents visit the swings armed with hand sanitiser, wipes and sealed snacks?
Surely most parents are capable of implementing basic safety standards in their own children’s environments? Of course, there will always be those who do not, but they are not the norm and nor are they likely to be worried about ensuring their children can visit a park this weekend.
The vast majority just want a return to the lives their children knew before lockdown, to re-establish routine and exercise and have the daily changes of scene which are a lifeline of sanity to any parent of small children.
City parents must be frustrated beyond belief. How to explain to kids why adults may now gather, riot, crowd beaches and drink in pubs, yet still they may not go to the park and sit on a swing?
In Sheffield, Councillor May Lea, Cabinet Member for Culture, Parks and Leisure, announced, in the circular doublespeak of a customer service automaton, that while she understood the need for exercise for mental and physical health, the council would not be opening any of the city’s 154 playgrounds. Sheffield will try to open a handful ‘once confident that safety measures are robust and in place’.
This sort of demented passive aggression will be cold comfort to urban parents. Surely there cannot be a single adult left unaware of the detrimental effect on our children’s physical and mental health of being in lockdown for what is a huge proportion of their little lives?
What has Sheffield Council, along with countless others, been doing to prepare for an easing of lockdown if not ensuring that life returns to normal as quickly as possible for the vulnerable?
It does not monitor its Twitter account, so will be unprepared for the riots as parents state they will take charge of this farcical situation and remove the tape preventing playground access in response to ‘waffle, not an explanation’.
The front line of parenting has had enough; Mumsnet is currently a hotbed of guerrillas claiming they will pop their tots over the taped-up playground gates and to hell with the consequences. There has been talk of bringing strimmers, ropes and even bolt-cutters.
Yet risk-averse adults looking to the state for health guidance and play facilities are a sadly predictable feature of this pandemic. And the risks are serious.
Children who do not exercise in fresh air do not sleep or eat properly; they will become anxious, self-obsessed and unhealthily dependent on technology for distraction and entertainment. Their imaginations do not develop; they become passive and receptive, unquestioning sponges for whatever social media messages come their way.
As well as becoming obese, socially isolated and uneducated, our children are spending days cooped up in a situation mirroring the unhealthy state of current society; the vulnerable and child-like in a dysfunctional relationship with authority figures. And in depriving them of time playing with their peers, we are stunting our children’s development in more serious ways.
Social cohesion develops in children when they are left alone to play with other children, learning tolerance, teamwork and critical negotiation skills. Role play in childhood is a therapeutic way to address and unravel issues at home and school.
We are depriving kids of the chance to build the necessary proficiency to navigate social situations. Being free to spend time alone together lets children play to their innate strengths; learning to deal with bullies and protect the weak is key in a society that desperately needs more adults.
Instead, they are imprisoned indoors for months on end interacting with screens. Keeping our little ones out of the playground may have far more serious consequences than the bureaucrats have considered.