The state of playwork

24 Nov
In this article from the International Journal of Play, Adrian Voce surveys the challenges facing playwork in the UK and suggests that the field needs to consolidate around a new representative vehicle to reverse its current decline.
Can a new vehicle for playwork help to reverse its current decline?

Can a new vehicle for playwork help to reverse its current decline?


Playwork in the UK is an approach to working with children in free play settings – and a body of theory and practice informing that approach – that emerged and has traditionally flourished in public play provision, funded to a greater or lesser extent by the state. After the ambitious 12-year play strategy (2008) of the last Labour government seemed to promise a bright future for such services, and for the professional development of the playwork community, the austerity measures of the coalition and Conservative governments since 2010 have greatly reduced the extent of staffed play provision in the public and voluntary sectors; and pushed this emergent profession into seeming decline.

Conversely, there is evidence of playwork’s growing influence and popularity in other parts of the world; but for the playwork community to withstand the dramatic downturn in its fortunes in the UK, it needs to unify, consolidate its resources, learn from its history and grow and retain control of its own support and representational structures. A new independent vehicle, emerging from a 2013 summit in Sheffield – called to find a response to the existential crisis facing playwork – may be the start of this fight-back.

This is an abstract of a paper published in the International Journal of Play. Access details here.

Responding to children’s forgotten right – Policy for Play book published today

28 Oct

Today’s blog is from Policy Press.

Adrian Voce’s book ‘Policy for Play: Responding to children’s forgotten right‘ publishes today. We caught up with Adrian to find out a little more about the background to the book, what inspired him to write it and why he thinks children’s right to play is ripe for reconsideration by policymakers.

Children’s play is an unlikely subject for a book about policy; what made you want to write it?

Well, that’s one of its main points. Because play is very important to children, but much less so to the adults who control their environments, it is widely overlooked within child policy. But from a wide range of perspectives playing is crucial, both to children’s wellbeing in the present, and to their on-going development.

When considered next to the growing evidence of constraints on children’s play, it is not difficult to conclude that a broad, strategic and sophisticated response is required at different levels of society. And, because all children need to play, this must be a public realm response, which means a key role for government.

The book looks back at the Play Strategy for England, which was abandoned in 2010. How is this relevant now?

Notwithstanding the Welsh Government policy, which makes play provision a statutory duty on local authorities, the Play Strategy of 2008 was the closest a national government has yet come to a full response to Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

Governments have an obligation to 'respect, protect and fulfil' children's right to play

Governments have an obligation to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ children’s right to play

The UN’s own General Comment of 2013 elaborates states’ obligations under the convention to make the plans, provide the funding and legislate as appropriate to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ all children’s right to play. The UK government set out to do that with a 12-year plan in 2008, but because it was then scrapped after only 2 years, there is a tendency to dismiss it as failed policy, or to overlook it altogether.

My book aims to stimulate a fresh look at what was achieved in terms of policy development; not to resurrect the strategy itself, which was of course particular to its wider context of New Labour’s reforms (universal outcomes and so on), but at its principles and its broad approach: as a detailed case study of what is possible in policy terms.

Wasn’t the Play Strategy mainly about new playgrounds? Can play advocates really claim that this is a priority when public expenditure is still under so much downward pressure?

The most significant – and longer term – elements of the play strategy were not the new play areas but the measures to effect change in the way public space responded to children’s needs. Traffic, highways, parks, planning, housing, and policing: these are each important areas of public policy that impact on children’s access to the outdoor world for their play. The approach I am advocating in the book, and which was begun through the Play Strategy, tackled each of these areas – nationally and locally – aiming to cultivate shared understandings, through professional development and joint planning, of what children need from the public realm.

Traffic, highways, parks, planning, housing, and policing…are each important areas of public policy that impact on children’s access to the outdoor world for their play.

One of the ironies of the premature termination of the Play Strategy was that this part of the policy was not expensive in Treasury terms. The plan after 2011 was to embed the concept of strategic partnerships for children’s play within the joint planning and commissioning process of local government – with the incentive of a new national indicator for play – and to provide high level training and facilitation to the cross-cutting professional groupings that would be necessary to make this happen. The decision to scrap this had less to do with finance and more to do with a different concept of the role of central government.

In his foreword to the book, Professor Roger Hart talks about playwork. Where does this fit with your approach to play policy?

Playwork is synonymous, for many people, with childcare for older children but, when practiced properly, it is a new approach to working with children, less wedded to the dominant discourse that informs more established practices and underpins so much child policy. Playwork resists the assumption made throughout the world of education and children’s services – and much of society – that adult responsibilities for children’s future ‘life chances’ override their own designs on their time and space: that ‘we know best’.

If our residential areas became, once again, daily places for children to play… a rapid reversal of childhood obesity would be just one of the benefits.

Playwork serves only children’s play and their opportunity and capacity to enjoy it to the full. In so doing, its theory and practice has assimilated a wide, trans-disciplinary perspective on children’s play, which makes playworkers some of the best – and best informed – advocates for an enlightened approach to play policy that you will find anywhere. If policymakers want to engender a healthy, active child population they really should engage with vocational playworkers, as they know what constitutes playable space. If our residential areas became, once again, daily places for children to play – outside in the common spaces of their streets and neighbourhoods – we would see a rapid reversal of childhood obesity, to mention just one of the benefits.

Isn’t there a contradiction in your recommendations to improve the playability of public space at the same time as expanding the number of staffed adventure playgrounds?

Yes, playwork has always been aware of the paradox of its approach. It’s a profession that aims ultimately to be unnecessary, at least in its direct provider role; but then you could probably say the same about social work and even medicine! Ideally we wouldn’t need playworkers or adventure playgrounds, but that utopia isn’t coming any time soon.

Playwork emerged on adventure playgrounds and one of the most exciting elements of the Play Strategy was the Pathfinder programme to expand their number and to develop playwork as a profession. Instead, we are seeing probably the steepest reduction in real (staffed) adventure playgrounds that we have ever had, and a corresponding decline in playwork.

What are the current prospects for play policy?

Well, the book relates how play provision – let alone strategic planning for more playable public space – has been a big casualty of austerity; but it also touches on the green shoots of new policy emerging, with an All Party Parliamentary Group, the new Children’s Commissioner, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and even the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, all calling for the Government to reinstate children’s play as a ministerial responsibility and to rethink its decision to abandon policy for play.

In more general terms, I think play will become a bigger issue as long as public space is perceived as unsafe and unwelcoming to children. Whether it is out of concern about the consequences of sedentary lifestyles, or out of a realisation that the futures we anxiously anticipate for them are maybe less important than the quality of their lives now – no society (to paraphrase Lloyd George) can neglect the need of its children to play.

Policy for play finalPolicy for Play – responding to children’s forgotten right
by Adrian Voce
with a foreword by Roger Hart

published today by Policy Press

Come on, it’s not so bad – the APPG report on play

22 Oct


While critical of its main recommendation, Bernard Spiegal finds many positive things to say about the recent APPG report on play.

Originally posted on Bernard Spiegal:

It’s true, the recent report on play by the All-Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood would have benefited from some judicious editing and organising in terms of structure and length. True, too, that there are points where it veers off in directions that some might feel are not entirely consistent with other points it seeks to make.

But if you’re of a mind that repetition of one’s cardinal beliefs is evidence of their veracity, this may be the report for you. For not a page goes by where one is not reminded that, truly, play is a wondrous thing – as activity; as state of mind; as scourge of obesity epidemics; as generator of formal educational achievement – capable of generating every kind of benefit. No slouch, either, this report, for it takes care to reference the basis of its analysis and conclusions.

Nevertheless, disappointment has been expressed…

View original 1,325 more words

‘To follow their own playful nature’

21 Oct
Although containing some suggestions that policymakers should take a serious look at, last week’s ‘Play’ report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, struggled to find a cohesive narrative or a clear set of policy aims within the myriad demands of its various stakeholders. With its calls to improve diets, extend school sports and make greater use of technology in early learning, the report was an example of what can happen when children’s play is seconded to other agendas.
In Policy for Play – responding to children’s forgotten right, published next week by Policy Press, author Adrian Voce argues that children’s need to play is so important, and yet so constrained by the modern world, that a bold strategic policy for play in its own right is the only logical response.
In this edited extract from the book, he sets out some focused recommendations for a coherent national play policy.

A public realm – space, services and culture – that supports the basic needs of all its people must treat the innate and expressed desire of all children to play with at least as much seriousness as it does their anticipated future needs as employable adults.

Indeed, the evidence strongly indicates that these needs are complementary. How, indeed, could they not be? If playing stimulates brain growth, adaptability and emotional intelligence; engenders resilience and creative initiative, develops the child’s sense of self and relationship and enables him or her to practice assessing and navigating risk, how could it not be a fundamentally important aspect of the growth and development that will equip him or her to do well in life and be a valuable member of society?

To ask whether children play because of the deferred benefits they seem to derive from it, or simply because it’s the best fun they can have, is the wrong question. The ‘play for its own sake’ versus ‘play for positive outcomes’ argument is a false dichotomy. No child has ever played to improve their future life chances, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, in playing, they do just that. From a policy perspective, however, the distinction is crucial.

Policy must aim to create a playable public realm

Policy must aim to create a playable public realm

We know that the optimum conditions for playing are those which support and respond to children’s own initiative, provide them with resources and space to manipulate and explore, and give them permission to be spontaneous and expressive. The real question to ask is to what extent our expenditure on services and spaces for children – and on housing, streets, parks and public spaces for their communities – affords them such opportunities.

A policy for children’s play must aim to address the barriers and cultivate the opportunities for them to be free to follow their own playful nature within the bounds of our need for them to be also safe from serious harm (and there, often, is the rub [1]). Creating and allowing children’s space must be a fundamental component of any meaningful policy and strategy for their health, development and wellbeing, and part of any long-term vision for the public realm.

So what are the specific policy measures needed to bring about this change?

A cabinet minister for children
A prerequisite for the kind of changes that are needed, implicit in the UN’s General Comment (2013), is a recognition at the top level of government that children’s right to play is of equal significance to their wellbeing and future life chances as their other rights under the CRC. This needs a secretary of state not just for education, but for children.

A cross-departmental plan for play
Planning; architecture and landscape architecture; traffic; police; housing; parks; leisure and cultural services; schools and children’s services, early years’ and childcare provision, as well as play services themselves, each have a significant role in either inhibiting or enabling children’s play. Logically, then, the national government should produce and implement a long-term, cross-departmental national strategy to identify and effect the necessary changes to policy and practice within each of these areas, according to a common set of understandings about the nature of play and playable space.

Planning policy
National policy and guidance should place a duty on planning authorities to ensure minimum qualitative and quantitative standards for children’s play space in new developments, supported by good practice guidance for the creation of child-friendly public space within spatial development strategies, local development frameworks and relevant master plans (such as the Mayor of London, 2006).

Traffic management
Departments for transport and highways should collaborate with planning policy to calm traffic flow in residential areas and around children’s transit routes, introducing ‘shared space’ streetscapes, ‘Home Zones’, pedestrian areas and play streets wherever possible, with lower (15 or 20mph) speed limits as the norm for residential streets in general.

Playwork and playwork services
A national play strategy should review and evaluate the adventure playground network and introduce a long-term sustainable development plan for this valuable and unique form of provision. Professional playwork should be fully supported by government policies for workforce development, and playwork services should be fully recognised by the relevant registration and inspection regimes, whose criteria should be based on good playwork practice.

Childcare and extended services
Children should be able to play freely after school in whatever environment they find themselves. School-aged childcare, afterschool clubs and ‘extended services’ should contain: a basic offer of playwork provision, appropriately staffed by qualified practitioners; enriched play environments, including a requirement for outdoor space, as identified by good playwork practice; greater parity between the status, terms and conditions of teachers, playworkers and childcare staff; and inspection against criteria that is consistent with playwork theory and practice.

Cross-professional training
A key to an effective local play strategy will be the proactive cultivation of a better, evidence-based understanding of children’s play within the professional sectors that conceive, design, develop and manage public space, particularly in residential areas and the transit routes between homes and schools, sports and leisure centre, parks and other open spaces.

Statutory play duty on local authorities
The impact of the play sufficiency duty in Wales has yet to be authoritatively evaluated but, as an interviewee in Lester and Russell’s (2013) early analysis found, there is ‘a sense of excitement’ around the process and a ‘collective wisdom’ emerging through ‘supportive and collaborative networks … within a community of practice of adults looking to support children’s play’. The UK government should monitor this work and explore its potential for replication in England.

[1] Excessive risk aversion on the part local authorities and other public play providers (and, more controversially, many parents too) has been long cited as an inhibiting factor on children’s freedom to play. A more enlightened approach to risk management, championed by Play England and its partners on the Play Safety Forum, was an important element of the Play Strategy for England (DCSF, 2008).


Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 2013, Article 31: General comment no. 17 on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts, adopted 17 April 2013, available from:

Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) /Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), 2008, The play strategy, London: Crown Copyright

Lester, S and Russell, W, 2013, Leopard skin wellies, a top hat and a vacuum cleaner hose: An analysis of Wales’s play sufficiency assessment duty, Cardiff: Play Wales / University of Gloucestershire

Mayor of London, 2008, Supplementary planning guidance: Providing for children and young people’s play and informal recreation, London: Greater London Authority.

Policy for play finalThis blog is an edited extract from Policy for Play – responding to children’s forgotten right, by Adrian Voce (with a foreword by Roger Hart).
published by Policy Press on 28 October 2015.

Parliamentary report on play is a mixed bag – but advocates must seize the moment

15 Oct
After yesterday’s Parliamentary launch of a new all-party report on play, Adrian Voce, a contributor to the document, casts a critical eye over it as he argues for a more focused campaign for national play policy

Let’s be honest. This week’s report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood is not, in fact, ‘the most comprehensive recent study of play in all its forms’ that the group’s co-chair, Baroness Benjamin, yesterday claimed at its launch. Rather, it is an eye-wateringly long list of recommendations – not all of them consistent – within a somewhat idiosyncratic and partial survey of evidence found elsewhere. The report’s author, former MP, Helen Clark is rightly praised for pulling together a very diverse range of perspectives, but the report suffers from not establishing some defining principles, drawing out common themes or reconciling its contradictions.

Critics might also say that in calling for a somewhat nebulous ‘whole child strategy’ rather than the new national play strategy that the group had previously called for, it has reigned back from the proposal for a clear and coherent play policy that many of us hoped this document would consolidate. It has done so, according to the report, in order to avoid ‘the misconception that its overriding purpose is to improve and increase the number of fixed equipment play areas’; a risk surely best averted by simply not calling for such a programme.

Confusingly, the report states that the Play Strategy building programmes of 2008-10, which set out to build 3500 play areas and 30 staffed adventure playgrounds, was ‘not delivered’. In fact, these programmes were the only parts of the Play Strategy that were substantially completed before the Coalition abandoned it in 2010. It is true that some funding was clawed back from local authorities in 2010-11, but by that time the majority of new build had already been procured, if not actually installed. Play England’s best estimate at the time (our monitoring role having been withdrawn) was that between 85-90 per cent of the Playbuilder programme was finished before the plug was pulled.

Children love being by cliffs and water - but should policy be telling parents when to let them explore such places alone?

Children love being by cliffs and water – but should policy be telling parents when to let them explore such places alone?

It is not playgrounds, however, but the rather crude representation of the need to provide children with more freedom and self-responsibility that has attracted what media exposure the report seems to have received. Produced not by an authoritative academic or other play professional, but by the public affairs company that runs the group, the report, in places, betrays a lack of understanding of the nuances of the risk-benefit approach that has been so successfully progressed by the sector in recent years (even while referring extensively to the key works in this area). Seeming to advocate for children ‘playing near potentially dangerous elements such as water and cliffs’,  and ‘exploring alone with the possibility of getting lost’ invites incredulity and will do little to further the cause of free-range childhoods; as the metaphorically raised eyebrow of some of the coverage suggests (although the Baroness seems to have done a good job of talking down some of the more excitable journalists).

Set against these criticisms, the report contains some welcome and extensive proposals to rescue playwork from its threatened extinction (or annexation by the learning continuum). It calls for national planning policy to be used as a tool to help shape child-friendly, playable environments, and points to the pioneering work in Wales, were the play sufficiency duty on local authorities is taking effect, begging the question why the rest of the UK should not follow suit.

Nevertheless, while it is always encouraging when Parliamentarians take a serious interest in play – and there is much else that is good in the report – there is a sense here of an opportunity missed. This is frustrating for some of us who have contributed to it but had little influence in its drafting. However, perhaps we should not be surprised. Without government funding, APPGs are dependent on the voluntary contributions of external contributors, the expertise of their secretariats and the funding of whatever sponsors can be found for their publications.  It will not have escaped those who are sceptical about the report’s positive take on the role of technology in children’s play, that it was sponsored by Leapfrog, a manufacturer of children’s tablets and other electronic ‘learning toys’; or that the Association of Play Industries, representing fixed equipment manufacturers – the report’s other sponsor – shared the speaking platform with Leapfrog at the launch in Parliament, while playwork was nowhere to be seen. It was a crushing reminder of how far back the play agenda has fallen since 2010 – and of what a short memory the body politic has – that Fraser Brown, the world’s first and only professor of playwork, the profession largely behind the groundbreaking Play Strategy of 2008, was in attendance at yesterday’s event, but not invited to speak.

This is politics, however. Reservations aside, we must use this moment to enrol allies within Parliament – and among those who influence it – to build again the case for a bold, coherent and strategic government policy for play. In the big picture, the fact of the report will come to be more important than its detailed content. Play advocates must capitalise on its best elements to cultivate a resurgence of interest in play among policymakers, while at the same time being much clearer and more focused about what it is we are asking for. This could be summarised as

  • putting play on a par with the rest of child policy when considering legislation and funding decisions by reinstating a secretary of state for children, not just education;
  • co-ordinating a long-term, cross-cutting strategy – supported by non-commercial play sector specialists – to promote a child-friendly, playable public realm, supported by planning policy and engaging the relevant departments and sectors;
  • supporting the professional development of playwork and regulating for its recognition as required practice for all out-of-school care, extended services and other staffed provision.

This is the national strategy that children need from the government, which spends billions every year on their formal education and next to nothing on providing them with space to enjoy their childhoods beyond the school gates.

It is the play policy implied by the UN’s General Comment of 2013 and, if we get it right, a reversal in the obesity epidemic will be the least of its rewards.

Adrian Voce

Policy for play final

Policy for Play – responding to children’s forgotten right by Adrian Voce is published by Policy Press on 28 October 2015 and can be ordered here.

An exclusive extract from Policy in Play, elaborating on the essential elements of national play policy, will appear on this website next week.

All party group calls for play to be at the heart of ‘whole child’ health strategy

13 Oct
A Parliamentary report on children’s play, published today, calls for play to be at the centre of a ‘whole child’ approach to health and wellbeing.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, co-chaired by Baroness Floella Benjamin and Jim Fitzpatrick MP, today launches its long-awaited report on children’s play.

Announcing the report, the group says that ‘whilst there is broad consensus about the importance of physical activity in the battle against obesity, play (policy) has lost political momentum in recent years and the report calls for a fresh approach’.

In a statement released alongside the report today, Baroness Benjamin says that the group’s proposals on play ‘are integral to a “whole child” strategy for health and wellbeing and should not be regarded as an “add on”. Of course encouraging children to participate in sport is important, but in practice, not all children are “sporty”. Play benefits children of all ages in many different settings and should be at the heart of government initiatives to promote their health and wellbeing, overseen by a Cabinet Minister for Children with the power of cross-departmental audit’.

The group added that the report emphasises ‘play as an essential part of the learning process both inside and outside the classroom and home’ and that it also looks at ‘the role of the planning process in making streets and outdoor space playable for children’.

The report calls on ‘the play industry, advertising, the media and national and local government to recognise the contribution that play can make to children’s lives’.

“(promoting) play as part of a whole child strategy should be a key priority for policy-makers at all levels”.

– Helen Clark, lead author of ‘Play’, a report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood

The report’s lead author, former MP, Helen Clark said that it was time for a re-evaluation of play (policy) including new guidance for parents and training for health and education professionals. She also stressed the need for play not to be regarded as an expendable part of childhood:

‘The All Party Group sees play as central to a child’s learning and healthy development. Research has shown that integrating time for play into the school day is essential to develop creativity, promote emotional intelligence and improve academic achievement … There is a worrying trend towards cutting down on break times at school and parents being reluctant to let their children stray away from the garden. It’s time to see play in all its infinite variety as an essential component of child health of mind and body – and also key to combating the scourge of obesity. (Promoting) play as part of a whole child strategy should be a key priority for policy-makers at all levels.’

The full report ‘Play’ by the All Party Parliamentary Group for a Fit and Healthy Childhood can be downloaded here



Playwork steering group calls for halt in standards review

9 Oct
New playwork body steering group asks sector skills council to rethink its position on Playwork Principles.

The steering group for the initiative to develop a new vehicle for playwork has written to SkillsActive urging the sector skills council to pause the current review of the national occupational standards to address widespread concerns in the field, including that the cornerstone Playwork Principles are to be dropped or replaced.

A statement by the Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group, has warned that ‘the revised national occupational standards should not be informed by any statement other than the Playwork Principles. To do otherwise would represent a breach of trust between SkillsActive and the playwork profession’.

The steering group wants a fuller debate to engage the playwork community; and to ensure employers, awarding bodies and the government agencies they are answering to, respond to its deep concerns.

Many practitioners are concerned that National Occupational Standards are missing the point of playwork.

Practitioners are concerned that National Occupational Standards are missing the point of playwork. Photo: A.Voce

These have been further highlighted in a recent article by Shelley Newstead, the managing editor of the Journal of Playwork Practice. In a detailed and scholarly critique of the review, Newstead decries the failure of the NOS to reflect the essence of playwork practice and warns that playwork, as being developed within this framework, is in danger of ‘turning into another form of the institutionalisation of children’.

While acknowledging, in its letter to SkillsActive, that the sector skills council has ‘worked closely with an expert working group made up of playworkers in order to ensure the new NOS is as representative of and faithful to playwork as possible’, the new vehicle steering group asserts that the abandonment of the Playwork Principles in full, as a cohesive statement, is unacceptable. It argues ‘that good playwork practice must fully inform this review process rather than have to follow it. The cornerstone statements of good practice surely cannot be changed without the consensus of the practitioner community’.

SkillsActive has assured the group that its ‘concern will be included in the (NOS) consultation report’.

The letter to Skillsactive from the steering group for a new vehicle for playwork can be read here.
White City Play Project

Supporting playfulness in Wormholt and White City, London

Everyday Playwork

Stories and reflections from a London adventure playground

Play and Other Things...

Play and all that surrounds it...


Thinking about children's play

Love Outdoor Play

Because it's good to play outdoors.

Lily Holloway

play it, make it, love it.

Julia Voce

Theatre Maker. Facilitator. Clown.

The Policy Press Blog

Publishing with a purpose

eddie nuttall

Stories and reflections on play and playworking


thoughts from a playworker

Lyrics and Chocolate

Life, art, bad cooking and all things boring or not

Scope's Blog

Scope exists to make this country a place where disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else. Until then, we'll be here.


Thoughts from VCSchange

PlayGroundology emerging social science

Rethinking Childhood

Website for Tim Gill: researcher, writer, consultant


musings|scraplog: complexity| community|play|management managerialism| biology|art ~ helpful concepts & provocations


please share information here about play facilities, playgrounds, et cetera in peril (mainly England in the UK)

Eran's Books

Smile! You’re at the best site ever

Together, we all can support child-directed play - one cardboard box at a time.

Pop-Up Play Shop

From Empty Shopfronts to Community-led Play Spaces

Play Everything

Morgan Leichter-Saxby

Policy for Play

Responding to children's forgotten right News

The latest news on and the WordPress community.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,303 other followers

%d bloggers like this: