According to London’s Evening Standard, the shadow public health minister Diane Abbott has called for parents to be less protective of their children and allow them more freedom to play out in their local streets.
Leaving aside that the obesity crisis which has given rise to this edict is far from the most distressing consequence of children’s reduced opportunities to play, there is something slightly depressing in a front bench Labour MP finding nothing more to say about the issue than to give parents yet another finger-wagging about the “chips and Playstation culture”.
Ms Abbott should be encouraged to develop her theme, but to challenge not parents but the government – and her colleagues in the opposition – to put children’s play back on the policy agenda. The last Government had a ten-year plan to make all the streets and neighbourhoods where children grow up fit for them to play in. Until such a plan – or an alternative, coalition version of it – is implemented, it is no use lecturing parents, as many Standard readers have pointed out.
Very simply, if the outdoor world is perceived to be unsafe the vast majority of parents will not allow their children out unsupervised – and increasingly, in the modern world, that means they are not allowed out much at all. Sure, there is an unwarranted level of anxiety about some of the supposed threats to children from the big bad world, but many of the dangers are all too real; traffic being the main offender.
The Coalition Government’s abandonment of the Play Strategy was misguided, to say the least. It would have put children’s play and independent mobility in focus for local planners, as well as pushing children’s play provision much more into the frame for children’s services commissioners. We really were making progress towards a more child-friendly public realm and the irony of the strategy being scrapped after little more than two years is that the remaining commitments did not involve large-scale costs. There were some planning levers, some education for local decision-makers and a network of play champions so that local authorities as a whole, not just education and social services, would begin to see things from children’s perspective. Children were on their way to being recognised as real stakeholders in public space, rather than its potential victims or villains. Community providers would have had the right support to make space for play according to local needs and the pathfinder programme would have established some benchmarks and derived some learning about how to do it best.
As things stand play provision is being seen as a no brainer for cuts; and children’s needs from the built environment are likely to be even more routinely overlooked by the presumption in favour of sustainable (read ‘economic’) development that is the essence of the proposed new slim-line National Planning Policy Framework. The obesity epidemic is just the tip of the iceberg of problems that are mounting up from the complete trashing of national play policy.
Diane Abbott should take a look at the Play Strategy (if she can find a copy) and use it as the starting point for a new agenda to engage her opposite number Anne Milton – who has also called for more play in the streets without proposing to do anything very much about it.
It’s a well worn quote but “the right to play” really is “the child’s first claim on the community” as Lloyd George famously said in 1926. Today’s politicians need to remember that they, not just parents, have a leading role in how communities respond to it.