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Can playgrounds be sexist?

Can playgrounds be sexist?


Girls around the world are being pushed to the edges of their own playgrounds – forced into corners, or under stairs, as boys dominate the space. Caroline finds the data that shows why this matters — and asks what we can do to fix it. She also whizzes down some slides in the name of research.


Caroline Criado Perez: Okay, ready, steady. Wee. Oh my God. That must be the first time I’ve been on the slide in about 20 years. 

Caroline Criado Perez, narrating: I’m in a playground in Badalona, a town just Northeast of Barcelona in Spain. 

Caroline: We weren’t expecting someone to come along and tell me off, “You’re not meant to be on that.” 

Caroline, narrating: There’s a massive swing, several different climbing frames. 

Caroline: I don’t actually want to climb any further. Can I come down?

Patricia Clarke: Yeah.

Caroline, narrating: And some nice reclining wooden benches that look extremely inviting. So after all that climbing, we go and lie back on them.

Hannah Varrall: So what do you, I’m interested in what your playgrounds were like that you grew up using, like school playgrounds?

Caroline: So I remember my playground in Portugal and I remember my playground in Taiwan. So in Portugal, I was quite little, and I remember there was a big sand pit, which we all got told off for eating the sand out of. Tasty sand, why did we want to eat the sand? But it was like an ongoing battle. And I remember-

Caroline, narrating: I’m with my producer, Hannah, and Patricia, who we have formally designated as this podcast’s official data correspondent. You remember Patricia, she found Jim, the Sheffield Head. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, by the way, go back and listen to episode one. Anyway, it’s only 9:30 in the morning, but it’s already a warm and sunny day.

Caroline: And then the Taiwan playground was basically just like a big grassy area. The main area was always the boys playing football. But then they had this little raised woodsy area as well, and I used to love that. I remember going into that a lot and looking at the plants and sort of imagining how I was making potions or I was a small urchin living in the forest. What about you?

Patricia: I think it was, it was kind of the archetypal, it had a middle section with monkey bars and stuff, and then the big football section, and a sort of another court area that also, I think, ended up being football.

Caroline: Right.

Patricia: The girls used to go to the back of the second pitch where there were fewer boys, and there was a hole in the fence and we used to climb through it and you weren’t allowed there. And it was not a playground anymore, but we used to just kind of hide there.

Caroline: What about you, Hannah?

Hannah: Yeah, I definitely remember there being a big football pitch. And then there were some monkey bars and slides and stuff. But I remember the trees by the fence boundary of the school and we’d play like between the trees and the fence in this tiny little space. And it was almost a bit out of bounds, so it was quite exciting. And the other bit that I really liked was playing under the sort of monkey bars slide section because you could just kind of wriggle under there.

Caroline, narrating: I’m Caroline Criado Perez, and this is Visible Women, my new weekly podcast from Tortoise, investigating how we finally fix a world designed for men. You might have noticed how much space football took up in our memories when Patricia, Hannah, and I were thinking back, but none of us ever played it. And that’s kind of what we’ll be talking about today. At least in part, because this week I’m asking, can a playground be sexist? And if so, how do we fix it? 

Caroline: Hey Molly.

Molly: Yeah?

Caroline: Alice is here.

Molly: Yay.

Caroline, narrating: It’s been a while since I was eating sand at playtime. So I knew that if I wanted to find out what was really going on in playgrounds these days, I was going to have to call in some experts.

Molly: My name’s Molly, and I’m 10.

Alice: My name’s Alice, and I’m 10.

Caroline, narrating: My friend’s daughter, Molly and her friend, Alice agreed to come and talk to me about their experiences. 

Caroline: What’s your favourite game to play?

Molly: Probably football.

Caroline: Alice, how about you?

Alice: Same.

Caroline: And when you’re not playing football, what do you play?

Alice: I normally just play like tig, concrete tig, cops and robbers.

Caroline: Cops and robbers.

Molly: Oh, that is fun.

Caroline: Yeah. You like that one, as well?

Molly: Yeah.

Caroline: So who do you play with?

Alice: Hatty, Carys, Summer…

Caroline, narrating: Molly and Alice both love playing football, it’s their favourite game. But their friends are mostly girls, and they tell me most of the girls aren’t interested. So when Molly and Alice want to play football, they’re usually playing with the boys. 

Caroline: And how are the boys about that?

Alice: They never pass.

Caroline: They never pass?

Molly: Yeah, they never do. But normally the only way for them to pass is if you score like three goals.

Alice: Exactly.

Molly: Which is hard to do when they make you go in goal.

Caroline: So they make you go and goal, and don’t pass to you?

Molly: Yeah.

Alice: Yeah.

Caroline: Have they ever said that you can’t play with them?

Molly: Yeah.

Alice: Yes. Loads of times.

Caroline: Yeah? And what happens when they say that?

Alice: They think we’re annoying and that we don’t play it properly.

Caroline: And what do you think?

Alice: I think we play properly.

Caroline: Yeah?

Molly: Well, the thing about them is that-

Alice: They foul a lot.

Molly: Yeah. Whenever I’m in defence, they always just trip me up, pull my clothes, push me. Yeah.

Caroline: And are they doing that to the boys as well? Or are they doing it more to you?

Molly: More to us.

Alice: More to the girls.

Molly: Yeah.

Caroline: Have you spoken to your mum or teachers about the boys doing this?

Molly: Our teachers.

Alice: Yeah.

Caroline: And what do the teachers say?

Molly: They just tell the boys to let us, but most of the time they don’t really.

Alice: Sometimes they say they’re going to give them one chance. And then the second time they do it and we go to the teachers, they say, “Well, it’s okay. It doesn’t really matter very much.” And they just act as though they don’t really care as much about the girls playing football, at least that’s like-

Caroline, narrating: Even when they aren’t trying to join in, football causes problems for Molly and Alice at playtime, because of a phenomenon I like to call the ever expanding football pitch.

Alice: And then it always takes up loads of space because they always go out of the lines of the football pitch, and they take quite a lot of space because they also go around the equipment to do a getaway kind of move.

Molly: So like when we go on the field, they normally take up, sometimes even half of the field. And then they don’t really have boundaries, so if they hit it and we’re skipping and then it goes in, they blame us for going too close. And the goals, they’re far away from where we are, which is annoying, because that means we have to stop our game and then we have to kick it back.

Caroline, narrating: The more I talk to Molly and Alice, the more I get the sense that they’re being literally edged out of their own playground, which is something I’ve come across before. 

When I was writing Invisible Women, my book about the gender data gap and male bias in design, I learned about the work of Eva Kail, an urban planner based in Vienna. Back in the nineties, Eva pioneered the idea of applying a gendered lens to urban planning, her work has resulted in Vienna becoming a world leader in woman friendly city design. And one of the first things Eva and her team looked at was the city’s public parks and playgrounds. What they found was striking. Up until the age of about nine, both boys and girls were regular park users, but after the age of 10 girls just kind of dropped off.

Thankfully Eva didn’t simply shrug her shoulders and conclude that girls just randomly stopped liking public parks past the age of 10. Instead she commissioned research to try to find out what was going on. And it turned out that the problem lay in the design of these spaces. When children were faced with a large open space, the boys tended to dominate it. The result was that the girls were just opting out of the parks and playgrounds altogether. It sounds a lot like what Molly and Alice have been experiencing. 

Caroline: And how do you both feel about all of this? You know, being picked last, the boys not passing the ball to you, the boys being violent to you?

Molly: Annoyed.

Alice: It’s quite annoying because you feel like… Does it feel like you’re less important than the boys or something like that?

Molly: Yeah. It’s hard to actually show them that you are good at football and stuff.

Caroline, narrating: I just want to highlight what Alice said there because it was a bit quiet, but it really matters. She said, “It feels like you’re less important than the boys”. It breaks my heart to hear Molly and Alice talk like this, and it makes me feel angry. It hardly takes a data expert to notice that boys tend to dominate playgrounds, anyone who’s ever been in a playground can tell you that. And even if this weren’t a blindingly visible problem, Vienna’s park research is pretty well known. Well, it is in the nerdy urban design circles I like to frequent. I feel like the problem here might not be so much that we don’t know we have a problem, it’s more that we don’t think it matters. And maybe you are listening and thinking the same thing. Like, “Okay, sure, Caroline, ideally we’d probably want girls to be using parks as much as boys, but don’t we have more pressing concerns?”

Well, my pitch for why playgrounds are worth paying attention to starts with the fact that I think any example of bias is worth exploring. Why does this bias exist? And what impact might it have? These questions are always worth asking, and you never know what you might find. But more specifically, there is just so much research showing that children’s play really matters for their development. And not just for exercise, although it’s worth pointing out that the data shows that children are often more active when they play than during formal PE, with kids getting up to 40% of their recommended physical activity from play times. And there’s even research to show that exercising early in life helps reduce the chances of developing osteoporosis, which is particularly important for women.

But play also matters because of all the stuff kids do while they’re playing, things like hanging upside down or spinning round and round, these all help to develop balance and coordination. And that’s not to mention all the social interaction skills we develop through play. In fact, play is seen as so important for children that the UN has written specific guidance to governments on their responsibilities to actively promote equal opportunities for both girls and boys to play. So, yes, in short, this does matter. And I want to know what we’re going to do about it.

Dr Fatemeh Aminpour: We perceive girls unwilling or unable to engage in physical play, but they would love to participate in sports, but they’re afraid of getting kicked by those competent boys or getting hit by balls flying all over the grass area. So they prefer to avoid potential conflict.

Caroline, narrating: Dr. Fatemeh Aminpour is an associate lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of New South Wales, and she’s been researching playgrounds for a while now. A lot of her time is spent talking to children about how they use the space and doing playground tours.

Fatemeh: The design of Australian outdoor school environments largely supports formal games, such as basketball, handball, and soccer, and these traditional rule-bound games and formal sports are mainly boys’ popular ways to socialise.

Caroline, narrating: Fatemeh tells me that, although she didn’t set out to study differences in how girls and boys play, she quickly ran into them.

Fatemeh: I wanted to explore children’s use of in-between spaces primarily. And it turned out that the users of in-between spaces are mainly girls.

Caroline, narrating: In between spaces are areas of a school or playground that are not formally designed as part of a space, but which children value as a place to play. Think Patricia and her hole in the fence, or Hannah and her area between the trees and the fence or, and this example is from Fatemeh’s research, even under the stairs.

Fatemeh: Yeah. And they are, here in Australia, usually characterised as out-of-bounds because they are partially hidden from the school staff, and they can’t be supervised directly. So they are not necessarily valued, or maintained well, or cleaned well. 

Caroline, narrating: Girls told Fatemeh that they did value these spaces because they’re quieter and more peaceful. But still I couldn’t help wondering, why are the girls stuck under the stairs? Fatemeh tells me about a typical play time she observed. The boys took over the main playing area with a football match, while the girls played around the edges or chatted.

Fatemeh: And then what happened was when the class bell rang, the boys quickly evacuated the area. And it was interesting to see that girls started using this area for a very short time to practise gymnastics, to go for cartwheels. And it was the only time that I could observe girls using the space that boys had used during recess.

Caroline: That just makes me feel so sad.

Fatemeh: Yeah. It was really sad. Yeah.

Caroline, narrating: So maybe the girls don’t want to be stuck out at the edges or under the stairs after all, it’s just where they’ve ended up because there’s nowhere else for them to go. And this acceptance that the main area of the playground just isn’t for them starts early.

Imogen Clark: As a rather brutal experiment, they decided to chop the playground in half and say only half is going to be used for football, the other half is for activity that’s not football.

Caroline, narrating: Imogen Clark is the co-founder of Make Space for Girls, a UK-based charity that is trying to fix the issue of girls being edged out of public parks and play spaces. She’s telling me about an experiment that was done in the Netherlands.

Imogen: She explained it’s very interesting to hear the different reactions because for the children who didn’t play football, mostly girls, the response was, “Wow, this is amazing. We’ve been given half of the playground. Well, this is all for us? This is fab, brilliant. How exciting is this?” From the footballers they were outraged, “How dare you take half of our space away from them? You know, that is not okay at all”… And these were not particularly old children, well they’re pre-secondary school aged kids. And I just thought that was fascinating because the boys who were responding in the, it’s-not-fair way were perfectly lovely boys. But they had learned that they had an entitlement that society gave them to use more space. And the children who didn’t do football had learned that they had less of an entitlement to use space.

Caroline, narrating: It’s quite stark to see just how early these ‘perfectly lovely’ boys learn that space is for them, and girls learn that it isn’t. It’s impossible not to see parallels in how adult men and women occupy public spaces, from the plague of man spreading to the more serious and, as I presented in my book, Invisible Women, widespread sexual harassment and sexual assault that women have to deal with as they simply try to go about their daily lives. All of this can have long-term consequences for girls’ health. Although naturally we have a data gap here.

Susannah Walker: Most of the research we just don’t have.

Caroline, narrating: This is Susannah who co-founded the charity with Imogen.

Susannah: We don’t know enough about what teenage girls do, what younger girls do. We don’t know about the impact of play on both mental and physical health. There’s a relatively strong set of causations that you could trace that make sense. So teenage girls are more likely to be obese in every age group, but we don’t associate that problem with the fact that we don’t give them spaces to be active in, whether that’s in school or whether that’s outside school. There’s a really clear set of work now, that says that access to green space has a positive effect on mental health, on low mood, on anxiety, and things like that. Teenage girls are three times more likely to have a significant emotional disorder than teenage boys. But again, we don’t correlate that with the fact that we don’t give them places to go outside.

Caroline, narrating: This data gap is one of the things Make Space for Girls was set up to try and fix.

Imogen: You’re only going to know what’s going to work and what’s not working if you measure it. And if you don’t collect your data and you don’t gender disaggregate it, you’re not going to be able to measure it. So I think we believe very strongly that quantitative data is incredibly important. You need the numbers.

Caroline, narrating: Make Space for Girls is really focusing right now on what are called multi-use games areas or MUGAs. A MUGA is generally a single open space or pitch where a whole range of games can be played – football, basketball, cartwheels, imaginative play, or anything really, or at least that’s the theory. Susannah has strong opinions on MUGAs.

Susannah: The thing about MUGAs is they are probably, although nobody’s ever counted them, the most common form of provision for teenagers. But there is literally one piece of published research about MUGAs, which is about using them for youth work. Then there is no research at all into what demographic uses them, what proportion of the teenage population as a whole are using them. You know, who is being catered for with this MUGA? It could be 50% of the population, it could be 3% of the population. We have no idea, but councils just keep building them. In any other context, people would be looking really quite askance, but not with a MUGA apparently.

Caroline, narrating: As part of their work to close the data gap, Make Space for Girls have been observing MUGAs, and they’ve noticed that these spaces are usually dominated by teenage boys. Make Space for Girls are also developing an app that they hope people will use to collect sex disaggregated data on who is actually using MUGAs. The hope is that this data will provide tangible proof that will force councils into actually doing something about this problem.

So while we wait for all this sex disaggregated data to be gathered, is there anything we can do right now to make playgrounds better for girls like Molly and Alice? When Eva Kail discovered the imbalance between girls’ and boys’ use of public parks in Vienna, she decided to experiment with subdividing some of the single large open spaces into several smaller spaces. The theory was that, if girls were dropping out of parks because they didn’t want to compete with boys for use of a single space, perhaps providing several distinct spaces would solve the problem. It worked, the girls came back, and now all new parks in Vienna are designed this way. But what about the UK? Could we make gender-equal playtime happen here? What are the standards that playgrounds are held to?

Standards klaxon

Caroline, narrating: Ah, my standards klaxon, I just love them. When I looked into this, I found that there are guidelines on how much space children have in playgrounds, but I couldn’t find any mention of gender. I called up Visible Women’s official data correspondent, the long-suffering Patricia.

Caroline Criado Perez:… Our Department for Health or even our Department for Education are interested. I also was talking to a friend of mine actually, who was the mother of Molly, one of the girls that we interviewed. And she said, she wondered whether Ofsted, when they’re inspecting schools, do they use a gender audit of how kids use the different spaces in the school? And do they take into account whether playgrounds are being commandeered by boys? And I thought that was such an interesting question because… 

Caroline, narrating: By the way, Ofsted is the body responsible for inspecting and rating schools in the UK to ensure they’re up to scratch.

Caroline: ….  should be the case for the Department for Education.

Patricia: Well, let’s find out.

Caroline: Yeah.

Patricia: So I’ll reach out to those departments and have a chat with Ofsted and see what they do.

Caroline, narrating: Patricia had her mission. And I had one of my own – I wanted to see one of these gender equal playgrounds for myself. Naturally, this meant we had to take a trip to Barcelona. 

Caroline: Is this it?

Patricia: [speaking to taxi driver in Spanish]

Caroline: Is this the whole thing?

Patricia: Yep.

Caroline: This just looks like a bog standard playground? This is actually quite disappointing. 

Caroline, narrating: Thankfully, we’d gone to the wrong end. The non-gender equal kiddies end, which just has a couple of swings, a car on a spring, and a little train house. Further along was Placa d’en Baro, our actual destination.

Caroline: Okay, right. This is more like it. You’ve got your nature stuff, you’ve got your different levels. You’ve got your massive swing.

Patricia: Look at that dog! Ready?

Caroline: Yes. Weeee! 

Caroline, narrating: I mentioned earlier there’s a slide and a massive swing, but there’s a lot more than that.

Caroline: This is like a balance… Ooh, pretty good at that, pretty good balance. 

Caroline, narrating: There were some climbing pole things, a rope ladder, a multicoloured zebra crossing.

Hannah: Okay, in the colourful walkway, I definitely want to jump between the sections.

Caroline: Yes.

Hannah: … that I can get one foot on each section, and no more than one foot.

Caroline: That’s exactly what I want to do….

Caroline, narrating: And there’s a separate, larger space.

Caroline: It’s a big square, which is all flat and smooth for playing various sports on, I expect.

Hannah: Yeah. There’s no markings on the concrete. I mean, is it concrete? I don’t know.

Caroline: I’m not sure what it is, something smooth.

Patricia: You can see all the little trainer marks on the floor.

Caroline: Yeah.

Hannah: Yeah, and there’s a lot of scuff marks. People definitely run around here. Don’t they?

Caroline: Those look like skate marks, don’t they? Little wheel marks.

Hannah: Yeah.

Caroline: I’m impressed.

Caroline, narrating: The Placa d’en Baro was designed by Equal Saree, an architecture firm that specialises in gender equal spaces.

Patricia: Hola, buenos días.

Caroline, narrating: After we’d tired ourselves out on the slides and swings, we headed into Barcelona to meet Julia Goula Mejón, one of the co-founders of Equal Saree. I do speak Spanish, but it’s a little rusty. So Patricia led the interview, and she’s agreed to take on the additional role of voice actor for the translation.

Julia Goula Mejón: [speaking Spanish]

Patricia, translating Julia: The first thing we need to do is to imagine spaces for play that are diverse with different centres of activity so that each boy and girl can find their place within them.

Caroline, narrating: Julia has been working on gender equal urban design for over a decade and was involved in creating Placa d’en Baro.

Julia: [speaking Spanish]

Patricia, translating Julia: Each space has different characteristics. In the Placa d’en Baro–that’s the park–we have a space with a hard floor where you can skate, run, dance, play ball, draw on the ground, and so on. Then we have a space made of softer material, that’s where you can play on the structures, and that space allows for more imaginative play. Then there are playful platforms where you can sit down, but also read, dream, jump over, et cetera.

Caroline:  [speaking Spanish]

Patricia, translating Caroline: We did all of those things.

Julia:  [speaking Spanish]

Patricia, translating Julia: We also want to incorporate play areas that give space to creative activities, which there are never enough of. And we’d also like to incorporate nature and other living beings, which we often miss in Spain because of the climate.

Caroline, narrating: Again like Make Space for Girls and Fatemeh have advocated, Equal Saree always begins by asking the children what they want. Julia tells us that they held sessions in the square every Saturday, open to all the boys and girls from the neighbourhood. They also went to the local primary school and they found something really interesting.

Julia:  [speaking Spanish]

Patricia, translating Julia: Yes, there is a difference in how children currently play. But when it comes to their dreams, what they want for the future, we don’t really see a difference there.

Caroline, narrating: What Julia is telling me is that although boys and girls do play differently in the traditional playground setup, when you actually talk to children about what they want, there really aren’t such striking differences between them. She tells me, for example, that one thing both girls and boys always ask for are quiet spaces. And it makes me wonder if playgrounds actually aren’t working that well for boys, either.

Patricia: [speaking Spanish]

Patricia, translating herself: That surprises me because when I was little, the boys only wanted to play football.

Julia: [speaking Spanish]

Patricia, translating Julia: Yes, because it’s the only thing that exists. That’s why this process is important, that’s why it’s important that the transformation of the space is decided by boys, girls, and the entire educational community. It’s not about reducing football, or I guess this isn’t about getting rid of ball games, it’s just about rebalancing these spaces and making space for new activities.

Patricia: [speaking Spanish]

Patricia, translating herself: Are you collecting information on who is using the park? 

Julia: [speaking Spanish]

Patricia, translating Julia: The Placa d’en Baro? Yes.

Caroline, narrating: Usually Equal Saree does a lot of data collection once the project is live, but Placa d’en Baro opened to the public in 2019, and we all know what happened in 2020. So they haven’t been able to do as much research as they would’ve liked, but they have been able to carry out some observational studies and the findings are pretty great.

Julia: [speaking Spanish]

Caroline, narrating: Julia says that, not only are girls and boys playing together, but children of different ages are playing together, too. She says that even teenagers are finding their space in the park, which wasn’t something they expected since the park was designed for children from the ages of six to twelve. 

After a false start, Placa d’en Baro did turn out to be the playground of our dreams. And experiencing it for myself made me even more determined to make things better for Molly and Alice back in the UK. I caught up with Patricia to see how she’d got on with her mission.

Patricia: My starting point was to reach out to the Department for Health, the Department of Education, and Ofsted. And I sent them pretty much the same list of questions. For the Department of Health, I said, “Have you conducted any research into gender differences in play in school playgrounds? Research from other countries suggests that there is a difference in how boys and girls use playground space. Do you acknowledge that? And do you acknowledge that might have a detrimental impact on girls’ health? And if so, what are you doing to change that? What are you doing to encourage gender equity in school playgrounds? And what are you doing to make sure that they have equal opportunities for play?” The Department of Health said, “Not our problem, reach out to the Department of Education,” and the Department of Education got back surprisingly quickly.

Caroline: Oh, great.

Patricia: With a statement that, if I’m frank, didn’t say much, but I can read it to you.

Caroline: I would love to hear it.

Patricia: So the Department for Education spokesperson said that, “Physical activity holds many benefits for young people, for both their physical health and mental wellbeing. Which is why we encourage schools and parents to make sure all children have the opportunity to be physically active and achieve the recommendation of 60 active minutes a day.” They also said that they’ve got a school sport and activity action plan to help more girls take part in physical activity, and a programme to give girls access to sport opportunities. But they didn’t answer any of my questions.

Caroline: Classic government response. And also the emphasis in the answer of the tangible stuff they’re doing, being on sport rather than play makes me suspect they don’t actually get this at all.

Patricia: Yeah. Yeah.

Caroline: And what about Ofsted?

Patricia: So I reached out with a similar set of questions and they said, “We don’t specifically inspect playgrounds, so this would be difficult for us to comment on.” And then they told me to speak to the Department for Education, like everybody.

Caroline: [Laughing] Okay.

Patricia: It’s interesting because it’s an educational space, but it’s ultimately, I think, a health issue.

Caroline: I don’t know if we have time, but I would love to go back to the Secretary of State for Education, although of course that person might be about to change very soon and say, “Here’s the findings, will you direct Ofsted to include play as part of its ratings for schools…” 

Caroline, narrating: We still had a few cards to play, but I’ll be honest, I was starting to despair of ever being able to make playtime better in the UK. But then I found Helen Easton.

Helen Easton: I’m in the playground three lunch times a week. I used to really dislike it and resent it, but I had to go into the playground and mostly deal with behaviour as a member of the senior team.

Caroline, narrating: Helen is assistant head teacher at Ivydale Primary School in Southeast London. I asked her what her school’s playground used to look like.

Helen: A bit of a bleak, urban playground.

Caroline, narrating: And they had a problem that might sound familiar to you by now.

Helen: The playground was dominated by ball games, and mostly by football, and the children that most wanted to play football were the boys. So we saw boys very heavily involved in physical activity, really engaged in their play, but through a sort of play that wasn’t self-determined. They were following rules, it was a structured game. And the girls were very marginalised. So there was no sort of deliberate intention to leave the girls out, but more and more often, the girls were doing things like seeking a lot of adult attention, holding the adults’ hands, going for first aid because there wasn’t really much else for them to do, and because they wanted that attention. They weren’t being physically active, and they weren’t being challenged, and they weren’t really getting a huge amount of benefit from their play times.

Caroline, narrating: Helen and her school decided that they had to do something about this, so they got in touch with OPAL. OPAL is a nonprofit organisation that advises schools on how to improve their play times. And under their direction, Ivydale Primary Schools started to make some changes.

Helen: So we started to bring in additional things like music, dressing up, lots of loose parts. A loose part is anything that can be reconstituted for play, such as a crate or a pipe, or an old buggy, and anything that could be used for things like den building, or making obstacle courses, things that just create a lot more added interest in the playground. We also built a sandpit and a mud kitchen to make sure that there were things for them to do involving natural loose parts, and access to kind of things from the natural environment.

Caroline, narrating: These changes don’t need to cost much either. Helen explains that Ivydale had a pretty tight budget.

Helen: We’ve done it almost free, almost. You can spend an absolute fortune, I don’t have exact figures to hand, sorry, but thousands and thousands of pounds on putting a simple climbing frame into a playground, which has limited capacity for children to really develop themselves. So it’s very easy, they’ve done it three times, and they know how to do it. So actually it’s not open-ended, they can’t transform things and change things. So that is one way that you can waste money on a playground.

Caroline, narrating: OPAL’s research shows that playtime in the UK accounts for up to 22% of the school day, and supervision of this time costs 750 million pounds per year. It’s worth thinking about how this time and this money is spent. And in the UK, schools can use the school’s sports premium to pay for playground changes. So there is money available, it’s just about prioritising how you spend it.

Helen: Lots of children only go outside when they’re at school. So if you think that we are responsible for the only time they spend outside, we’ve got to get that outside time right.

Caroline, narrating: Now, Helen says playtime is her favourite part of the day.

Helen: Because almost all of my interactions with the children are really happy and positive, and I absolutely love seeing their happiness and creativity.

Caroline, narrating: And the kids seem to quite like it too.

Helen: A playtime now just doesn’t look differentiated particularly by gender, or by any other lines. The children, there’s so much more for them to do. We get boys dancing on the stage in dresses and hanging out, the girls joining in. But the girls are a lot more physical, and they’ve got a lot more confidence to take part in really physical activities. So there’s a lot more sort of girls doing locomotive play, running around, showing their strength, girls making dens, joining in with boys hefting heavy loose parts across the playground to build a den. So we’ve just seen a massive increase in the girls’ physical activity and a lot less seeking out adult attention. They don’t need that support in the same way that they used to, because they’re happier.

Caroline: And is football still happening?

Helen: Yeah, it does still happen. When we first made the changes at Ivydale, the football sort of dropped away completely because the boys were just as excited by the loose parts and the den building. Then the European championships happened and it sort of picked up again. So we do still have football in the sports cage, but it’s not crowded, it’s not the only thing that the boys do, and it’s not every day. So the sports cage can be used for other things now, as well. 

The aim is to make every playground an OPAL playground, and change the world’s idea of what play should be.

Caroline, narrating: Helen says there are around 700 OPAL playgrounds in the UK. That sounds like a lot, but that’s only about 3% of primary schools, so clearly we have some way to go.

OPAL is doing important work, but given the significant role of play in children’s development, this feels like something that should be addressed more systematically. It shouldn’t be left up to the chance that an individual teacher will have heard of the OPAL programme and have the time and energy to bring them in, this is something that should be addressed by the state. Which brings me back to Patricia and her search for playtime justice. 

Caroline: So Patricia, where have we got to with Ofsted? Have we got through to anyone? Have they replied? Have they been in any way helpful?

Patricia: So I had a bit of an exchange with Ofsted where, as you might remember, they said that they don’t specifically inspect playgrounds, so this isn’t their problem, basically, this isn’t something that they feel they can answer. And then I asked them if they could let me know whose decision would it be to include a playground in a…

Caroline: To make it their problem?

Patricia: Yeah, to make it their problem, basically. And they said that that would be down to the Secretary of State for Education, who is Nadhim Zahawi. So I thought, the next step would be to ring him. That was obviously wishful thinking, he didn’t pick up.

Caroline: Did you try to ring him?

Patricia: I did. We sat in a room, tried to ring him, and we got through to the press team, but they weren’t around, left a message. So I emailed the press team and I emailed him directly. And I got a response from someone on the press team saying, “Your inquiry’s been passed onto me, so I’m going to deal with this.” And they’ll come back to us with some further information “soon”, which I’ll chase now. But I’m feeling slightly frustrated because I feel like constantly…

Caroline: You’re being passed around from pillar to post.

Patricia: You know, I send questions, I get a statement. And if I try to speak to someone senior, there’s just so many layers of people in the way. So I was wondering whether you could use your power and influence?

Caroline: To do what exactly?

Patricia: I think we should, yeah, contact him, not just in a send a statement way, but I think in a bit of a campaign anyway, and say, “Please, acknowledge that this is a problem, and it’s your role to fix.”

Voicemail message:…Thank you for calling Nadhim Zahawi…

Caroline Criado Perez:…A query for Nadhim Zahawi about Ofsted. I was hoping I might be able to speak to him?

Staff member: There is a dedicated phone number…

Voicemail message: Sorry that we can’t take your call at this time. Please, leave your name….

Caroline: Hi, my name’s Caroline Criado Perez, I’m calling from Tortoise Media, and I’ve got a query for Nadhim Zahawi about Ofsted… 

Caroline, narrating: At the time of recording, I hadn’t received a call back. So help us out. Send an email to Nadhim Zahawi, the Secretary of State for Education, explaining how important playtime is for children’s development, and asking him if he will direct Ofsted to consider how inclusive playgrounds are as parts of their standard school assessment. His email address is nadhim.zahawi.mp@parliament.uk. And please do let me know how you get on, especially if he responds. You can either email me visiblewomen@tortoisemedia.com or you can tweet me @CCriadoPerez.

This episode was written and produced by me, Caroline Criado Perez, alongside Hannah Varrall and Patricia Clarke. The executive producer is Basia Cummings. It features original music by Tom Kinsella, and sound design from Studio Klong.