In this final part of an adaptation of his farewell lecture to Play England members, Adrian Voce considers the legacy of the Play Strategy and suggests that the real play revolution is still alive and well.
Whilst chiming rhetorically with much of the Labour government’s emerging plans for play, the Conservatives’ policy review document of 2007, More Ball Games, had only one material proposal. This was to review health and safety law as it applied to play provision and other contentious areas, such as school trips.
Here, there is no question about the influence of Play England (and the Children’s Play Council before it) and our colleagues on the Play Safety Forum. CPC’s former director, Tim Gill (who has made the question of risk in childhood something of a specialism of his post-CPC career) was a formal advisor to the Conservatives’ review and I had the slightly surreal experience of addressing the party’s rank and file about the subject when David Willets, who led the process, asked me to speak at their conference in October 2007.
The Conservatives were true to their word and the Young Report, Common Sense, Common Safety (2010) specifically recommended that “we should shift from a system of risk assessment to (the) system of risk–benefit assessment”, which had of course been an important part of our Playbuilder guidance. This was accepted in full by Downing Street, although how it is to be achieved is less clear.
In spite of the success of the risk-benefit approach, I believe the preoccupation with risk management is something of a red herring in the pursuit of meaningful play policy. It plays well to the Conservative heartlands to point to excessive bureaucracy as a barrier to traditional children’s play, even more so if European standards can be blamed. But when “health and safety madness” is lumped together with “political correctness gone mad” as a whipping boy for the tabloids, we should be wary when play is part of the debate.
All our surveys, as well as the research of Mayer Hillman, Natural England and others suggest that the real barriers to children playing out are neither the dangers of ‘risky-play’ (playgrounds are relatively very safe places) nor the sterile, over-safe playgrounds that had become the norm (if kids are bored with the equipment on offer, they will either subvert or ignore it and still play). Traffic, bad planning, parental anxiety about the outdoor world in general and children’s own fear (largely of other children) are the obstacles to children having the freedom to play out. It is true that this is exacerbated by there being too few good quality play spaces; but improving and increasing these alone will not solve the problem.
Cutting red-tape…or just cutting?
The solution must include a long-term strategy to transform public space as well as to invest in more staffed adventure playgrounds and other playwork services to compensate wherever this is can’t be achieved. Whereas the Play Strategy set out to do this, there is always a suspicion that Conservative (and now Coalition) plans to change an unhelpful health and safety culture is actually part of a wider policy of deregulation which is of a piece with withdrawing the role of government from the area altogether.
It is not just red tape that the Government wants to cut, but public funding streams for the provision itself. Other than the adoption of risk-benefit, the current policy scene is a desert for play, as deficit reduction continues to narrow the government’s horizons. The Deputy Prime Minister’s announcement in June 2010 of a ministerial taskforce to look at “new ways” of providing places for children to play never amounted to more than Play England’s Engaging Communities in Play project, which was always going to need a longer term commitment than the six months we were given, if it was to have real national impact.
And so here we are again, a movement and a sector promoting and delivering a vital public service without a proper policy framework or dedicated funding stream. Plus ca change!
So what did it we really achieve? What is the legacy of the last six years?
The most obvious answer is about 3000 new play areas and 30 or so staffed adventure playgrounds. How effective these sites are is difficult to gauge with any real authority. In an act that can only be described as political vandalism, the evaluation of the Playbuilder and Pathfinder programmes was terminated when the funding was cut and the ring-fence removed in 2010. Neither is Play England in a position to carry out even a light touch evaluation, having had all of its contracts terminated, and so there is not a complete picture from which to make objective assessments.
Anecdotally, many would agree, I think, that there are still too many play areas fenced-off and full of manufactured play equipment. The level of investment, and the short time scales for its delivery meant that although there are some very good examples, as I have already discussed, a lot of playbuilder sites fall some way short of the aspirations of Design for Play.
People make play
The Pathfinder adventure playgrounds are not to everyone’s liking either. There was never going to be a way of replicating the random, organic, ramshackle nature of the original adventure playgrounds via a centrally funded capital build programme. But the excessive architecture here bothers me less than on the Playbuilder sites. This is because I think the nature of a good adventure playground is found less in the physical structures and more in the spaces in between and in the culture that prevails. The key is not the type or extent of the structures, or the building, but the quality of the people who work there and the environment that evolves with the play community they cultivate. Good playworkers make good adventure playgrounds and the Pathfinder playgrounds that can survive the cuts – and which employ qualified playworkers in the right ratios – have as good a chance as any of being fantastic places to play for many years to come.
Children like it
Whatever we may say, children themselves have seemed to approve of their new places to play, revolutionary or not. According to the Government’s Tell Us survey, in the only year that it was measured as a National Indicator (2009-10), there was an almost 8 per cent increase in the numbers of children in England either satisfied or very satisfied with their local play offer. This may seem like a modest increase, but these indicators are notoriously hard to shift at all in the right direction. An 8 per cent improvement in just one year (across the entire population of the relevant age group, let’s be clear) surpassed all expectations. As value for money, to put it in perspective, the investment for this improvement across the whole country in five years amounted to the annual education budget of just a couple of local authorities.
We had doggedly pursued the introduction of a national indicator for children’s play for many years simply because departmental budgets follow them and we saw this as a key to unlocking funding. The success of NI199 along with a positive evaluation would have almost guaranteed further investment had it not been for the financial crash and the political earthquake that followed.
The Play Strategy, preceded by the Children’s Play initiative, was a breakthrough. The funding was unprecedented and, for a short period before the crash of 2008, there was the real prospect of a Pathfinder programme for new adventure playgrounds, staffed by qualified playworkers delivering such positive outcomes that all local authorities in England would have been expected to build at least one over the subsequent seven years of the strategy. There was also the prospect of every local authority in England bringing together its departments for planning, police, parks, and highways with public health, leisure and children’s services to learn about the value of play and the way their coordinated roles can enable rather than inhibit it. Guidance to Children’s Trust had already set out a process for ensuring that free play provision was part of the joint planning and commissioning cycle for pooled budgets.
The evaluation of the capital programme would have helped us to make the case for further investment from central government as well as within local commissioning. It would also of course have offered lessons for how to improve the end result.
Prospects and dust
There really was the prospect, over ten years, of more adventure playgrounds, more and better unsupervised play spaces and the increased adoption of play-friendly planning policies leading to more Home Zones, playable estates, street play and play ranger schemes. But these hopes were short-lived. Play provision had the mixed fortunes of being the last big national strategy of the New Labour years, and one of the first to bite the dust under the new regime.
So: a breakthrough, and a good legacy of new provision, better standards of design and risk management, more public awareness and some important new allies. But this was no revolution.
Public funding programmes will, by definition, tend not to be. We have levered about £350m of treasury and lottery cash into providing for free play. Because it was public money, it was spent via public institutions, and we have pushed these institutions (some more than others) in the direction of better designs, better practice, more intelligent risk management, and more strategic planning for play.
But it needed a mighty push and one that was sustained over time. We could see it as a tragedy that we had only just begun when the plug was pulled, or a miracle of timing that we got to the summit just in time to achieve what we did. Either way, the landscape has changed utterly and we now find ourselves needing to regroup.
There is a spirit within the play movement that is infused with a profound, instinctive and increasingly sophisticated knowledge about the importance of what we are trying to do. This is the knowledge that making space to play – the right space: physically, culturally and emotionally – is an essential part of our society and our humanity.
A political spirit
This spirit has a strong political dimension, because it is about power. Children will always play but the space for that cannot be taken for granted. Adults command it. Children need their permission and their assistance to make it playable.
Pat Petrie and Peter Moss have said that if you want to work with children, or be in the business of designing or delivering services for them, you have to ask yourself a political question: “do I want to oppress or empower them”. No one would answer ‘oppress’ and yet not even asking the question, they suggest, results in oppression. If the answer is ‘empower’, then that should inform every aspect of the work.
The play movement as I have experienced it – in playwork and play advocacy –unequivocally answers this question both instinctively and scientifically. Petrie and Moss describe an adventure playground to illustrate their vision of a space where children’s own agency is truly central; where adults aren’t the providers of services and interventions, but enablers or co-creators, responding to cues rather than setting agendas, negotiating rather than imposing boundaries; being responsible by allowing children to take responsibility for themselves.
Children’s right to play, far from being subsidiary to their rights to culture and recreation (which tend to be seen through the educational prism) should be seen as a primary right; like the rights to freedom of movement, speech and association. Real revolutions are fought for these adult rights, and the play movement has something of a revolutionary spirit that has nothing to do with new designs for play equipment.
The real play revolution
The real play revolution is the assertion of children’s right to be agents in their own lives, to explore the world in their own way and by their own ludic nature. It is the revolution of random, spontaneous, joyful humanity against the conformity and oppression of the world that we have mistakenly put first.
Governments don’t lead revolutions, but can be made to allow them a little bit of space to breathe. For a few short years this is what Play England did. CPC established a foothold and Play England used that to create a policy framework and a delivery chain with the national government so as to channel significant public funding to making space for children to play.
The foothold may have been lost and the policy torn up – for now. But we did make some space, and the revolution continues.
 Petrie and Moss advocate borrowing from the European model of social pedagogy but that is another debate.