In this second part of his valedictory lecture to the Play England annual meeting in November 2011, Adrian Voce reflects on how the strategic use of lottery funding paved the way for a breakthrough with the last government – and on how the adoption of the principle of free public play provision and an intelligent approach to risk management are two of Play England’s most important achievements.
The road to the Play Strategy
The Children’s Play Council (CPC) may have ‘made the case for play’ in 2001 but the promise of lottery funding from Culture Secretary Chris Smith was, for several years, the only material commitment from government. We knew that as well as the vitally needed new funding for provision, a lottery programme for play would need to serve as a catalyst for the crosscutting approach to the full range of playable spaces and a child-friendly public realm that all the research told us was necessary. For children to have the freedom to enjoy outdoor play, we argued for a concerted commitment to change the nature of public space. Policy for planning, traffic and the environment as well as education, childcare and leisure services would each need to consider children’s play needs, and be coordinated at a national as well as local (and regional) level.
The disappointingly small number of Home Zones, an initiative championed by CPC as a way to create genuinely playable streets and neighbourhoods, had taught us that the changes to the built environment we were advocating would take decades to realise on any significant scale, even if the opposite trends could be reversed. Thus, there would also need to be a much bigger commitment to staffed provision based on playwork principles and practice – replicating the environments for play that children were being denied by the ‘shrinking childhood’ phenomenon. Here, the National Childcare Strategy had been undermining the free-play movement by coming to dominate the out-of-school agenda to the degree that many open-access sites were converting to meet registered, fee-paying childcare targets. Registration requirements and Ofsted inspections of ‘wrap-around care’ for children as old as 14 were only accelerating the drift towards children’s free time being colonised by the demands of what was essentially a plank of economic policy (how to enable better access to work for parents).
The lottery funding, then, had to be a way of progressing an alternative policy agenda: for free play provision and for playable public space. When our director, Tim Gill was invited to work with the former Health Secretary (and longstanding chair of Coram’s Fields playground in London), Frank Dobson on a national play review that would make recommendations on how the money should be spent, we saw this as a golden opportunity to instill our own thinking into the policy-making process.
So it was that the report of this review, Getting Serious About Play – after a nationwide consultation with the play sectors and with children – recognised the complexity of the challenges and proposed a strategic approach. This was eventually adopted by BIG’s the Children’s Play Initiative (after some considerable doubts due to the abolition of the old New Opportunities Fund, from which the money had been pledged) in the form of a requirement for local authorities to form play partnerships and area wide play strategies, as set out in Planning for Play.
One of our goals for a national play strategy was that it should be founded on the principle that, as a human right, play provision should be an integral part of the public realm wherever children lived or traveled, and that charging for children to attend public playgrounds or play areas should be as unacceptable as installing turnstiles at the entrances to our parks and green spaces. It was vitally important therefore that the BIG programme should adopt this principle.
The argument was not easily won. The Government was keen to explore ways to make provision pay for itself and the government asked CPC to research sustainable business models for play projects. Concluding, as we did, that this could only be achieved with a long-term and mainstream commitment of public funding was not necessarily what ministers wanted to hear. David Lammy, a culture minister who was otherwise sympathetic to the play agenda, famously told an early Play England conference that a government play strategy was ‘not the direction of travel’.
Nevertheless, mainstream public funding was what we recommended. Perry Else of the University of Sheffield had coined the phrase “the three frees” to neatly define some tenets of public play provision: free of charge, offering freedom of choice and where children are free to come and go. Notwithstanding the finer points of applying these principles in practice (for children with particular needs for example), the Three Frees were adopted as a rule-of-thumb and the principle of free play provision was embedded in BIG’s main Children’s Play programme, helping to establish free provision as a cornerstone of the play policy agenda.
‘Bonkers for conkers’
Another big success for the play sector that Play England can take much credit for is the adoption of a more enlightened approach to risk management. Indeed, it was the sector’s common-sense approach to the health and safety issue – and the evidence of play’s role in building children’s resilience – that was as significant as any other single factor in persuading the Brown government to produce a play strategy.
The 2007 Safeguarding Strategy was primarily concerned with child protection and the new wellbeing agenda but, after our unprecedented access to the policy-making process, it included a whole section about the need for children to be allowed to build their own natural resilience through free play and better access to the outdoor world. There was even a full reference to our own Play Safety Forum’s position statement. This was exciting stuff, made more so when Ed Balls’ media statements about the policy referred more to this aspect than any other (‘bonkers for conkers’ was how the Guardian had me describing it!).
It seemed like we were getting somewhere – and, of course, we were. There followed an almost daily dialogue with the civil servants working out of the Cabinet Office on a fresh new Children’s Plan to be launched that December. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s fair to say that the space for more creativity and innovation in some of the Playbuilder projects was in part due to the influence of the risk-benefit model. Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide – written for Play England by Tim Gill, Bernard Spiegel and David Ball under the auspices of the Play Safety Forum and published by the government as a sister publication to Design for Play – encouraged better standards (with a small s) for play areas, by giving permission for a less slavish adherence to Standards (with a capital S). Endorsed, crucially, by the Health and Safety Executive, the guide put forward a process for following a less risk-averse, more common sense approach. It advocated putting risk-benefit, not just risk assessments in the hands of the provider rather than with Health and Safety ‘experts’.
Some of the results were what the Times’ journalist described as ‘revolutionary’. Children, he noted, were no longer being ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ but actively encouraged to challenge themselves more within environments where risks were no longer minimized (which defeats the purpose of much play-provision), but intelligently managed; where exciting and adventurous play provision was no longer routinely sacrificed on the altar of rigid (mis) interpretations of health and safety rules.
As well as liberating the creative powers of the sector to respond more imaginatively to children’s own aspirations for their outdoor play, the risk-benefit concept also showed the play movement to be ahead of the curve more generally on the health and safety debate; striking a very resonant chord with policymakers on both sides of the House of Commons.
Part 3 will ask how revolutionary the Play Strategy really was and consider the play movement’s place in a wider tide of change.