I begin by thanking colleagues and all the organisations that have shown their support for this debate, which is an opportunity for the Scottish Parliament to discuss the importance of play. The subject is rarely debated at a political level, but play is increasingly recognised as essential for our children's development—not just for their physical well-being but for their mental health.
We must be careful as adults, as parents and as a society that we do not restrict the freedom, opportunity and room for children to play. There is a real danger that that is exactly what is happening, inadvertently or otherwise. I believe that the right way to counter that is by pushing play up the political agenda and developing a national play strategy. Given the concerns that we now face over the rising level of obesity and the particular importance that we give to tackling antisocial behaviour, a clear statement of national policy is required.
The physical benefits of play have long been recognised. Indeed, unstructured play is second only to physical education in relation to young people burning off calories. It is important to make the distinction between play and PE. PE and sport are vital contributors to our children's health and well-being, but the benefits of play go well beyond the physical. Play is an essential part of children's emotional, social, intellectual and creative development. It is through play that children express their impulse to explore, experiment and understand. As one of the children who was quoted by Barnardo's in its play strategy for Scotland put it,
"play is what I do when nobody is bossing me around".
It has recently been suggested that play can help children to learn foreign languages. That certainly rings true from the experience of my son, who has been learning French in primary 2. The school has set up a French cafe, where children may have whatever they like, as long as they order it in French. As members can imagine, it did not take the pupils long to learn "un gâteau", "une glace", "des bonbons" and "de la limonade"—although not the French for "healthy eating initiative". I have another local example. The family link, or family learning, co-ordinator at our local school has demonstrated through example the importance of families coming together through play and having fun, engaging parents with their children and their children's education.
There are too many restrictions limiting our children's freedom to play, including the television and video game culture, public fears over safety and the threat to young people from traffic. One thing that we can directly influence is the demands that are placed on children by an overbearing curriculum. Schools often measure achievement and attainment in terms of exam results, and they always find time to test our children at all ages. They can also restrict the amount of free time that young people enjoy.
In East Renfrewshire, schools are learning the advantages of allowing children, certainly in primary 1 and 2, room to engage in activities through play. Instead of there simply being a transition for children from the freedom of nursery school to sitting at a desk all day, pencil at the ready, schools are being encouraged to adopt a continental approach and to allow time within the school day for play. As colleagues on the Education Committee heard during our pupil motivation inquiry, it is not just about fun and—heaven forbid—allowing children to enjoy themselves; it is also about learning to focus, concentrate and think.
Away from school, there is reason to be concerned that play spaces are becoming less accessible. Roads are increasingly off limits, and play areas, instead of being havens for young people, can be dangerous places, frequented by older youths who leave behind the debris associated with alcohol and drug abuse. Perhaps one of the most important reasons to push play up the political agenda is the huge importance that we place on tackling antisocial behaviour. Antisocial behaviour does not affect just young people, but there is no doubt that the flip side of demanding more respect from our young people is giving them the necessary freedoms and opportunities to grow and develop.
Just as there are clear benefits to developing resilience and self-confidence among children
The briefing states that battery children, who are perhaps denied play opportunities because of traffic or parental fears, are
"often aggressive and whine a lot ... are emotionally and socially repressed, find it difficult to mix, fall behind with their school work and are at a much greater risk of obesity."
It should be of particular concern to us that it is often in our most deprived communities that children lack a safe, challenging and accessible play environment. A national play strategy would challenge those shortcomings.
Where local play strategies have been adopted, the improvements have been dramatic. My colleague Janis Hughes has previously highlighted the tremendous achievements in Toryglen. The whole community—adults and children—has been involved in upgrading successfully three local parks and in developing a whole new play provision between two sets of high flats. That development has in turn spurred on the development of a community garden club. I am sure that the minister is aware of that initiative, given that he has an interest in the area. The project has put play at the centre of regeneration. It is also notable that the project, which was led by Barnardo's Scotland, involved all the community groups in the social inclusion partnership—local nurseries, Glasgow City Council, the police, primary schools and the health service.
There is no shortage of good practice. It is certainly worth noting that the National Assembly for Wales published its play strategy only last month. We can learn from its example. The Assembly's strategy places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide for children's play needs. We can also promote the use of traffic calming measures and home zones within existing and new developments.
I believe that, to start with, our focus should be on providing small-scale local play areas, prioritising the most deprived communities and supporting projects that have been developed in consultation with local people and which address local needs.
Barnardo's Scotland and Play Scotland have shown us the way to develop a play strategy. I was struck by how many organisations, including Skills Active, Capability Scotland, Save the Children and the Scottish Pre-school Play Association, have taken the time in recent weeks