‘Give children their childhood back’ – reflections from the Developing Well conference 

The TCPA conference, Developing Well – creating places and spaces where children and young people thrive, was held in Birmingham on 18 June, sponsored by Sport England.  

Last week, delegates from across the UK convened in Birmingham to discuss the profound impact that our neighbourhoods have on children and young people, and to share best practices for youth engagement. The event brought together planners, councillors, developers and health professionals all united by a common goal: to create environments where children and young people can thrive.

The atmosphere was unanimously positive, with a clear consensus that we must prioritise the needs of our youngest citizens, as the negative health implications of neglecting this are too significant to ignore. 

A need for change

The conference kicked off with a keynote from Anne Longfield CBE, executive chair, Centre for Young Lives, highlighting just how important it is to consider children in the built environment. She shared some harrowing statistics: 

  • A third of children are growing up in poverty in the UK.1 
  • Around 1 in 6 children in England are living in vulnerable homes. 2 
  • Compared to the 1970s, children now spend 50% less time in unstructured outdoor play.3 

These statistics alone show how we need to prioritise giving children their childhood back.  

Prioritising playtime 

The built environment plays a critical role in shaping childhood health and wellbeing, and a well-designed built environment can encourage outdoor play, reduce sedentary behaviour, and foster social interactions, all of which are essential for the holistic development of children.

The Centre for Young Lives has announced a commission, Raising The Nation, to lead a conversation about how to encourage and support children to play more – examining issues like the growth of technology and its impact on play, the importance of outdoor space, and whether parents’ attitudes to play and children’s safety have changed how children play. 

The second session of the conference explored why it is so important to create places and spaces where children and young people can ‘develop well’. It began with an exercise led by Riva Kapoor, honorary treasurer at the TCPA, which illustrated how meaningful and formative outdoor play can be for young people. Attendees were asked to stand up if their favourite childhood memory took place outside, and to remain standing if it was with other young people. Nearly the entire room remained standing.  

Setting the blueprint for healthy lives 

The speakers then explained just how important healthy childhoods are to build self-resilience and set the blueprint for a long, healthy life. The way we design our communities must consider this, as our natural and built environments are the foundation for how we live. Especially as children spend so much time in their neighbourhoods, they are a true ‘indicator species’ for the health of our cities and streets.  

Promoting voice and inclusion 

The conference’s afternoon sessions centred around what local authorities and the private sector can do to create environments for children to develop well and amplify the voices of children and young people in the development and shaping of environments.  

Child-Friendly Leeds talked about their work and research with children and their finding that children were able to articulate the connection between play and their mental health, and that nature is a major component in their play – particularly near children’s homes. A core focus of the approach in Leeds is play sufficiency – the idea that all children should have adequate opportunities and spaces to play – and linking this child-friendly approach into their emerging Local Plan. 

They also showcased their work in engaging with children and young people, where they tasked groups of children to identify what makes Mushroom City, from the Mario & Luigi game series, a good place to live. Similarly, the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Youth Engagement Service talked through their youth engagement work and outreach, as well as detailing the apprenticeship and work placements they offer. 

The Voice Opportunity Power toolkit was highlighted as offering practical guidance on youth engagement to ensure that young people have a say in the way their neighbourhoods are designed and managed. Dinah Bornat, director at ZCD Architects, talked through the toolkit and why it is so important to engage with young people to understand their perspectives, as they too are a part of our communities.  

Similarly, Johanne Thomas, regional director for communities and partnerships at Urban & Civic and Mike Barclay, director at Ludicology explained that adults have a responsibility to provide places for children and young people to play. To do this effectively, we must consult young people, as they may use public space in ways that adults might not recognise.  

Sharing solutions 

Throughout the day, all four sessions explored the connection between children and the built environment and how to engage with children and young people at various scales. Although there may be challenges, there are numerous solutions and practical methods available. These include youth engagement initiatives, prioritising safe and accessible play spaces, ensuring access to nature, and fostering an overall emphasis on healthy place-making.

The event concluded with a renewed commitment to creating vibrant, healthy neighbourhoods that foster the wellbeing and development of all children and young people.  

Video recordings of the sessions will soon be available on the TCPA website.

For further information, see the below resources: 

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