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Is COVID-19 the only impact on health we need to worry about?

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Is COVID-19 the only impact on health we need to worry about for our children?

By the end of March 2021 many children will have spent several months away from school, classrooms and playgrounds over the past 12 months. For many children access to school-based outdoor space is the only opportunity they have to run, jump, climb and learn outdoors.The press has been full of stories about the impact on children of playground closures outside of school, as well as the role schools play in delivering learning and supporting wellbeing, but what about the impact the removal of outdoor learning and play time has had on children? Has this had an impact on obesity and fitness levels? Has it made a difference to the many other areas of development we know that it supports, such as social skills, mental health and general learning? What provision is being made for the absence of outdoor learning and play when children return to school? Does the impact of COVID-19 go beyond the classroom?

Let’s set the scene

  • Children lose around 25% of what they’ve learned in a school year, over the summer holidays. Extend this to more than forty weeks and we could see a significant regression, not just in terms of learning but personal development skills.
  • US studies suggest that short-term changes in Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour in reaction to COVID-19 may become permanently entrenched, leading to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in children.
  • A National England report commissioned by the Government showed that 81% of children claimed to have spent less time outdoors in natural spaces with friends since the national lockdown in March 2020.
  • In our own impact evidence research we found that 43% of respondents reported significantly better behaviour as a result of the installation, 36% noted an improvement in positive attitudes to learning, 48% said improving facilities had increased physical activity levels, 54% noted an improvement in happiness and 42% an improvement in general well being.
  • Play England and Play Scotland said: “Following this extended period of restriction and isolation… outdoor play is particularly beneficial it provides a sense of control and independence; it helps children make sense of things they find hard to understand; it supports their coping and resilience.”

Here are some of the things they had to say…In January and February 2021 – at the height of the lockdown – we talked to a number of school teachers about the impact that COVID-19 has had on their children in terms of fitness, wellbeing and learning, specifically looking at the role of outdoor play and learning.

  • “When we came back in September the children went into new classes so it wasn’t easy, at first, to see what changes had taken place. But eventually we could see that a shocking number had put on a significant amount of weight in a relatively short time.”
  • “It’s not just a case of weight and obesity. General, overall fitness has dropped. So much so that we decided to top up the fitness requirements we already had in place to try to tackle this. It was shocking how many children could barely do a lap [of the playground] without complaining about being tired or having to walk, in the early days of their having returned to school.”
  • “Behaviour and attention spans have definitely decreased since the lockdown, which can sometimes impact on how the children respect each other.”
  • “The children have had to learn again about inclusion and interaction. Instilling a team ethos and school community has been something important we’ve had to work at.”
  • “Both outdoor learning and play vastly decreased over the first lockdown. As a school we provided online learning but this limited children’s outdoor time. They were asked to fill in a PE diary and we encouraged this but only about 30% actually did it. Weekly calls backed this up.”

Here are some more of the things they had to say…

  • “When we first came back children’s attitude to being active was considerably worse because the children were out of the habit and daily routine. The children were a lot less willing to get involved. There have been improvements but as teachers we’ve had to work a lot harder to be creative and promote a culture of activity and being positive.”
  • “Since we’ve returned we’ve struggled to keep outdoor learning and play opportunities the same. We’ve had restrictions on outdoor space use and a lot of curriculum to catch up on that made us feel children needed to be in a classroom doing that.”
  • “When you add it up the children are probably only getting 15-20 minutes outside as opposed to the 40 minutes they were getting. Now they have limited playground zones that they can use and we have to manage the time we give them to run around so everyone gets some outside time.”
  • “In the future I think that encouraging children to take ownership of their own fitness and wellbeing will become increasingly important. We’ll do more and more in schools in terms of helping them to see the connection between activity and wellbeing, health and feeling better.”
  • “Equipment is going to be important because we’re going to have to teach children how to play again, once this is over. They’ve lost a huge amount of time (potentially almost a year) and there will be a lot to catch up. Tolerance of winning and losing will need to be taught again. As will discovery and testing boundaries of risk and activities. Some have never experienced these things because of the lockdowns.”