Planning for Play – how governments should respond to the General Comment on Article 31 of the UNCRC

4 Sep
From 29 September – 1 October, the Danish city of Odense will host the 7th biennial Child in the City conference. To promote the event, the organisers have been interviewing some of the speakers about what they will be presenting. This is a copy of mine.


Adrian, please tell us what your presentation is about?

Planning for Play was the title of two different and distinct publications from two very different eras. The first, from 1968, was by Lady Allen of Hurtwood, an immensely important figure in the British play movement of the 50s and 60s who, probably more than any other single person, defined adventure playgrounds and how to create, not just the physical but also the cultural space necessary for their creation. I used to work for an organisation that she founded, and this work was a big influence on me.

The second, from 2006, which I helped to produce, was a joint publication by the Children’s Play Council, when I was its director, and the Big Lottery Fund, a large national distributor of charitable grants set up by the British government.  This Planning for Play aimed to place the responsibility for creating the right environments for children’s play with local authorities. It set out a recommended process for developing an area-wide play strategy so that adventure playgrounds and other play environments could be prioritised according to need; and built and maintained as part of a long-term plan that also included improvements to the wider public realm; for children’s mobility, access and safety, for example.

This presentation will consider where responsibility for making space for children’s play lies in 2014.

And where does it lie?

I think the General Comment on Article 31 of the UNCRC in 2013 spells out very clearly that all tiers of government have this responsibility. National governments must take the lead and establish the right policy frameworks, including legislation where necessary, for resources to be made available locally; and that these resources – which should include but not be restricted to financial resources – should be allocated strategically and with a full appreciation of the play needs of child populations.

Isn’t this a bit idealistic? Are national governments really going to take play that seriously? 

Well, in the UK, governments, including national governments, have indeed been taking play this seriously, albeit not consistently so. My presentation will consider the way that the London Mayor, who has overall planning responsibility for the capital, in 2005-6 established a planning framework specifically for children’s play. I will also look at how the UK government produced a 12-year play strategy for England – what it contained, what it achieved, and why it was abandoned after only two years – and at the legal duty on local authorities to make provision for play, enacted by the Welsh government (covered in more detail by Ben Tawil, earlier in the same session).

Isn’t the failure of the Play Strategy for England just more evidence that children’s right to play will never be taken seriously by governments for long enough to make a difference? 

I don’t think so, no. It didn’t fail. It was scrapped by a new government with different priorities, the first of which was to cut back public expenditure on a scale not seen before. I think the Play Strategy would have had cross-party support but was the victim of very bad timing, having been launched in 2007-8, just precisely when the scale and the implications of the financial crisis were becoming clear.

The Play Strategy achieved most of what it was intended to achieve in those two years – investing more than £200m in new provision – but its real ambition was in the long-term embedding of play within local funding and decision-making cycles for the policy areas that impact most on children’s freedom: traffic, planning, policing, housing, parks and leisure. It also aimed to elevate understandings about play within education and childcare services and, over time, could have been expected to greatly increase children’s opportunities for free play within all settings.

I will argue that the collective UK experience – the London play policy, the national lottery programme, the English Play Strategy, the Welsh play sufficiency duty, and developments in Scotland and Northern Ireland too – with the benefit of some reflection and analysis, represents a model for how countries everywhere, certainly in the West, can adopt Article 31 as policy and truly recognize, protect and provide for children’s right to play.

Adrian Voce

More ‘speed interviews’  from Child in the City 2014 can be read here.


Play Wales has led the way in championing play – now it needs your help

15 Jul

Originally posted on Rethinking Childhood:

Play Wales logo and question markThis post invites you to help one of the leading play agencies in the UK and around the world. Play Wales was recently told that the Welsh Government would not continue funding the organisation. Last week Play Wales asked supporters to sign a petition calling on this decision to be reversed.

View original 297 more words

National children’s sector awards calls for play nominees

5 Jun

Once upon a time (with apologies to Richard Dawkins), before the coalition government set about trying to create a Big Society by trashing many of the structures and initiatives that were already working for a better and fairer one, and before the consequent scramble for ever-decreasing pots of public funding saw ‘parent’ bodies eating their young – in other words when it used to have any money – Play England occasionally sponsored the play category of the national  Children and Young People Now Awards.

Rumour has it that this year the play category is under-subscribed (no surprise there really) and so if you want to seek a bit of recognition for the work of your project or service, or know a worthy candidate, do take a look.

The Play Award this year is for “the initiative that has done the most to offer children and young people the opportunities to play freely. The judges will in particular look for work that has improved the use of public spaces, such as housing estates, parks or town centres, for children and young people”.

Entries close on 4 July, and the Awards ceremony (with entertainment on a par with our own Eastbourne conference, I promise you…) will be in London on 20 November 2014.

Do it. If your funding gets cut, at least you’ll have a nice gong to put on your mantelpiece …

Adrian Voce



Farewell to a ludic hero

3 Jun
Perry Else, 1959 - 2014 Photo: Sheffield Hallam University

Perry Else, 1959 – 2014
Photo: Sheffield Hallam University

A personal tribute to Professor Perry Else, who died on 1st June 2014

When my daughter, Anushka, died suddenly in 2012, it was a long time before I felt able to resume work properly. I certainly did not want a public profile and this blog lay dormant for many months.

When I picked it up again, it was with a short tribute to Nush. Somehow this felt right – but I hesitated, unsure how it would come across to talk about something so personal and painful on what is a professional site.

Among the warmest, most generous messages of support after I posted my memorial came from Perry Else, who has himself now passed away.

‘All too often in this world’, Perry said, ‘people have separated self, family and livelihood, and it results in odd behavior, where people compromise their values on a daily basis. I think being open and authentic about ourselves is a better way to be’.

It was typical of the man that Perry demonstrated his own authenticity not just in the eloquence of his words – in which he was second to none (just read the Value of Play, for example) – but also in reaching out to a colleague at a difficult time. It meant a lot to me, coming not long after I was forced by circumstance to forge a different and more lonely career path, where contact with my old networks was not something I could any longer take for granted.

The playwork field has lost one of its true pioneers: an original thinker, an innovative theorist, a clear and accessible writer, an inspiring teacher, and as my anecdote illustrates, a warm and generous colleague.

Perry was a passionate advocate for children’s play and the kind of leader that we need: inclusive, supportive and empowering. His work has helped to define playwork and made a big contribution to how we understand play itself.

I didn’t know Perry as well as I would have liked. Our paths, after similar beginnings in playwork and play service management, were different: mine into campaigning and development work, London-based; his into teaching, writing and academia, in the North, where he reached the dizzy heights of being awarded a Professorship of Play Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, a rare achievement in our field. We were never in the same place together long enough to see much of each other socially, but I valued our association as much as I admired his work over many years.

Engaging, supportive and collegiate by nature, Perry was the perfect colleague and peer.  Our sector, like many, can sometimes be riven by infighting, ego resentments and professional factions. Perry always seemed willing to work for unity, to bring people together and to celebrate what we have in common – without ever compromising on his hard-won principles.

During my time at Play England, when my role was largely about securing policy commitments from government, there were many times when mistrust seemed the overriding reaction to what we were doing, not least from some of the play movement’s theorists and academics.

Perry didn’t always agree with me, but he was always direct and honest enough to say so in a constructive way, whilst remaining personally supportive. He knew how important it was to create a more favourable policy context for play provision and playable space, but his experience in local authorities seemed to have left him also with a good understanding of the pressures of the public sector and the compromises that are inevitable in politics. Or perhaps he was just instinctively loyal. Whatever the reason, you always felt that Perry was in your corner.

There were times when I should probably have listened to him more. Early in the development of the national training and qualifications framework for playwork, I flounced out of a meeting where I was representing the London region, frustrated at what I saw as a lack of transparency and a dismissive attitude to dissenting voices. Perry followed me out and, whilst sharing my frustrations, urged me to reconsider, arguing that I could help to make the structures work better by staying.

I declined and never returned to those meetings, but had cause to regret this some years later when, with Perry now engaged as a Play England associate, the Playwork Possible Futures project that we worked on together did not make the progress it might have done towards building a new practitioner body. Rifts in the playwork sector had widened – and my lack of humility had probably not helped.

It was no accident that Perry, on each occasion, was the voice of reason and collective endeavor. He passionately believed in the power of dialogue, inclusive engagement and in working together as a field. So it was that, with Bob Hughes, he called a summit of playwork folk in Sheffield last year to attempt to rally a collective response to the devastation being wrought on play services by the cuts in government spending; to remake the Argument for Playwork, as the meeting was called.

Fittingly – with Perry, the playwork manager turned theorist, as our host – the meeting divided into two groups. One considered the latest research and evidence to support playwork theory and practice (or not!); the other, how the field might best reorganise itself to more effectively campaign for playwork and represent practitioners in the struggles ahead.

This was characteristic of the way Perry’s work straddled brilliant theory and inspiring education on the one hand; the practical realities of securing funds, managing resources and protecting space for kids on the other. I hope that the new vehicle for playwork that he inspired, not just through the Sheffield summit, but by the nature of his whole career, will come to be worthy of his legacy. It is currently still in the workshop awaiting a crew of sufficient size, commitment and talent to get it on the road – a task somehow more daunting with Perry gone.

There are better-qualified people than me to write Perry’s full obituary and to appraise his immense contribution to our field. He will be greatly missed by his many friends, colleagues and students, from whom there will, I am sure, be some warm and erudite tributes in the days ahead. I will read them all.

My deepest condolences go out to his family, who I never met, and to his closest friends.

Playwork has lost one its heroes. I would say that I have lost a comrade but, in his message to me about my daughter, he taught me that such ‘professional’ distinctions and boundaries are unnecessary. More than a comrade, he was a friend.

Thank you Perry. I never did make it to the Beauty of Play (another regret), but you embodied it for me anyway.

Adrian Voce


Play policy book scheduled for May 2015

6 May

Regular readers may have noticed the lack of activity here in recent weeks. This is because Policy Press at the University of Bristol have commissioned me to write a book about play policy.

The book will make particular reference to the British experience of the last few years but also offer pointers for any country wanting to take Article 31 of the UNCRC seriously. It will explore in detail the implications of last year’s General Comment about the child’s right to play, and what this means for play policy and its advocates.

We are aiming for a May 2015 publication and more information will appear here in due course.

In the meantime, I’ll be focusing my efforts on the manuscript and expect to post less material here, less often.

However, if you would like to receive information about the book when it’s ready, a good way would be to follow this site (see link to the right), which will be reinvigorated once my draft is with the publishers, sometime in Autumn 2014.

Thank you!


Evidence or not, play policy must be more than crumbs.

28 Mar
The dearth of evidence is a self-fulfilling result of government policy, but the case for play has already been made. Advocates must now target all the main parties – and be bold in what they ask for.

Tim Gill, on behalf of the Children’s Play Policy Forum (CPPF), has been calling for evidence of the efficacy of different forms of play provision to help make the case for a new play policy to the Coalition Government. We must all wish him well with this, but the skepticism he has apparently encountered in the task is to be expected.

This is the government, after all, that cancelled, within weeks of taking office, all its contracts for children’s play, including what would have been the most substantial evaluation of play provision ever undertaken. Its promise of a new, Big Society-friendly policy for play to replace the far-reaching 12 year strategy produced by Labour came to nothing.

This new policy was to be worked up by a high level ministerial task force announced by the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in June 2010. In the event, the task force never formally reported. In answering a question about its activities in the House of Commons, the (now former) Children’s Minister Sarah Teather made no mention whatsoever of children’s play.

There was, no doubt, a genuine desire in ministers like Teather and her Conservative colleague Tim Loughton (now also an ex-minister) to move the play agenda forward, in spite of Michael Gove quickly shedding (or shredding) the non-education parts of his portfolio. But like so much else, these designs were  squashed by Treasury hardliners; sacrificed on the mythical altar of deficit reduction. The abandonment of plans for a new play policy were was good as confirmed when 2010’s Comprehensive Spending Review scrapped almost all programmes for children and young people that didn’t go directly through schools.

The reality is that, whatever the Prime Minister’s earlier rhetoric about shrinking childhoods and children’s need for “everyday adventures”, a government committed to the long-term diminution in the role of state and a narrowly conservative agenda for education was never going to be receptive to the idea that it should do more for children out of school, and give them more space in it.

That Labour has been silent on the issue is more of a puzzle. It has an even chance of forming, or at least leading the next government. Play advocates must target their arguments to shadow ministers too. The Play Strategy was a cornerstone of Labour’s flagship Children’s Plan, with its aim to make England “the best place in the word to grow up” and an ambitious vision for both planning and children’s services that placed playing children at the heart of the public realm. It saw an almost 8 per cent increase in English children’s satisfaction with local play provision over the only year that the data was collected, 2009-10.

The play strategy was abandoned in the aftermath of the financial bubble bursting almost immediately after it was launched.

The Play Strategy was abandoned in the aftermath of the financial bubble bursting almost immediately after it was announced in 2007.

The contrast with the current prospect for public play provision could not be starker. Children & Young People Now reported in January 2014 that play services are being “decimated”, with nearly a third of local authorities in England having closed play facilities as a result of nation-wide spending cuts of 39 per cent between 2010/11 and 2013/14.

Yet, in spite of the rudely interrupted success of the Play Strategy and the disproportionate cuts now being born by play services as a result of coalition policies, play does not seem to feature in Labour’s current Policy Review, not even within the section on young people. Here, play services should be a perfect fit with the co-location agenda as well as having an integral role within a preventative approach, complementing early intervention, but there is no mention of them.

The child health section of the review also misses an opportunity to build on the success of the Play Strategy. Its exclusive focus on food misses the other part of the health equation: how to ensure children get the exercise and develop the active lifestyles to mitigate the sedentary behaviours that are an equally significant factor in the obesity epidemic.

That playing is the perfect, natural way for children to get all the exercise they need was highlighted by the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies’ report of October 2013. Indeed, it recognises the role of play in supporting children’s health and wellbeing on a range of fronts. “For children of primary school age” it says, “time spent in active, free play outside school … can contribute a significant amount of time to their physical activity rates … (and) may also bring a range of … emotional benefits … enabling children to build … self-esteem and self-confidence”.

Perhaps the current dialogue between the Cabinet Office and the CPPF will lead to the emergence of a serious response from the Government, but there will not be too many betting on it. For its part, Labour already has a solution – but does not show much willingness to retrieve it from the ashes of the Coalition’s bonfire.

Those currently advocating for play at the top table (“on whose behalf?” is a valid question) may think there is no mileage in rehashing policy from a previous era and that the Play Strategy should remain consigned to history. To that argument I simply ask why anything less than a cross-cutting, long-term plan, engaging all different tiers of government and the full mosaic of the public realm, will suffice for today’s children when it was so urgently needed a decade ago?

Lobbying is a hard game and there is a tendency to only ask for what seems to be on the table. The sector must resist the temptation to be overly grateful that the government is at least asking for evidence. This will convey the impression that throwing the sector some crumbs will be enough.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen what Tim will be able to produce in the way of hard evidence that specific interventions for play will produce long-term, measurable impacts – on children’s health or anything else. Play England’s economic analysis published in 2010 made some links between play provision and future life chance indicators (the cost-benefit stats beloved of Whitehall policy wonks), but even this fell on stony ground as far as the Coalition was concerned.

We are in a familiar catch-22. How do we collect data of sufficient scale, scope and reliability to unarguably demonstrate the benefits of providing for such a ubiquitous, instinctive human behaviour, when the programmes that would have provided the best opportunity to do so have been scrapped? And how do we get such programmes reinstated without the evidence that they work?

Phil Waters of the Eden Project has said in his recent piece for the playwork journal iP-D!P, that, given the evolutionary basis of play as a biological mechanism, essential for healthy development and the survival of the species, the challenge for play campaigners is to reframe the question from “why should society provide for play?” to “why would it not?”

The widespread adoption of this attitude must be our long-term objective. Until it is achieved, the search for an evidence-based case for a national play policy will continue. The fact that it was so recently made to and adopted by a party of government that now appears to have forgotten about it, shows how far we have to go.

This must not be allowed to undermine the unarguable case that children’s play is a fundamental human right, provision for which is a responsibility of government under international law.

Adrian Voce

Interest grows in a new vehicle for playwork

25 Mar
Following a successful stint at the Playwork Conference in Eastbourne earlier this month, the momentum towards establishing a new playwork body continues to grow.

Around 150 people have now broadly agreed on the purpose and nature of the kind of vehicle that the field wants to create.  A new playwork body could, for example:

  • Represent playworkers UK-wide, giving them a collective voice.
  • Be a focus for good practice: supporting research and other areas that develop playwork.
  • Promote playwork nationally and support local campaigns.
  • Lobby for policy change to create a legal and regulatory framework conducive to playwork services.
  • Provide support and benefits for playworkers, such as networking, information, skills sharing, events and resources.
  • Be outward looking, building links with other professions and sectors.

The discussions have also led to a broad consensus on what kind of vehicle the playwork community needs, with some general principles giving us a clear direction of travel: -

  1. Based on a cohesive narrative of playwork
    A new vehicle should be founded on clear and up-to-date knowledge, skills and understandings of playwork.
  2. Principled
    It should develop its aims and activities in a way that is fully consistent with playwork principles, regardless of market forces or policy trends.
  3. Pioneering
    It should be an agent for change, unafraid to challenge the status quo.
  4. Independent
    It should be independent of other agencies, owned by and accountable only to its members, however it may be funded and administered.
  5. Collaborative
    It should work with other organisations in the sector, aiming to complement existing activities that support playwork, rather than competing with them.
  6. Non-directive
    It should aim to mirror the values and ethos of the playwork approach: including, supporting and responding to the field rather than seeking to control or direct it.
  7. Inclusive
    It should work always to make playwork as available and as accessible as possible to the widest range of children, from the fullest diversity of their communities, whatever the barriers.
  8. Representative
    It should act only with a clear mandate from its members, through transparent, representative structures and processes.
  9. A champion for play
    It should be an advocate for playwork and the value of playing in general, working with and supporting play champions everywhere.
  10. Credible and united
    It should build unity and consensus within the playwork field, so as to speak with a credible and authoritative voice.
  11. Not-for-profit
    It must be non-commercial, securing only such funds as it needs to further its aims for playwork.

This is an organic process: nothing is carved in stone and these aspirations will, no doubt, continue to evolve as a new organisation starts to take shape.

Karen Benjamin and I are both very keen to stress that, whilst we have, up until now, led this process from a practical point of view, it has been a collective initiative from the start. We intend to continue to organise open meetings to involve as many people as possible in building this thing, and we have also proposed a steering group to share more of the tasks ahead.

In the meantime, we would like to see the numbers expressing an interest in the initiative, continue to grow. If you can broadly endorse the approach outlined here, would like to see a new body established on this basis, and might, in principle, be interested in joining it once it is formed, please e-mail with “playwork vehicle” as the subject. We will then add you to the mailing list.

Thank you!


Adrian Voce


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