Archive | May, 2012

Will the Welsh experiment succeed in unlocking space for play?

17 May

In the first of two reflections on this year’s Spirit of Adventure Play conference in Cardiff, Adrian Voce hears (again) about how children are (still) routinely denied their right to enjoy space to play, but takes heart from the Welsh Assembly Government’s unprecedented legislative response to the problem.

At the Spirit of Adventure Play conference on 16 May, Roger Hart, the New York-based academic and children’s rights advocate, addressed a now familiar dilemma. “What will it take” he posed, “to persuade parents and other gatekeepers of the importance of children’s access to public space, and to create places that they trust”.

Roger was here to tell us, that far from being a uniquely British problem, children’s proscription from the public realm is occurring to some degree throughout the developed world. He illustrated his point with some impressive maps showing the geography of different ages of children in an American suburb. The ‘free-range space’ of today’s 9-12 year olds was equivalent to that of the 5-8 year olds of the previous generation. And the freedom to roam of today’s 5-8s? Gone completely.

The need for evidence

The causes he cited for this creeping imprisonment of children in their homes were as familiar as the problem itself: traffic, fear of predators, poor planning. He also lamented the dearth of good evidence. The odd home zone case study, he said, is no substitute for robust comparative evaluation. Indeed, their is such a lack of data in this field, he confided, that he has himself presented fictitious charts to show the relative merits and otherwise of different types of community space for children – just to be able to make his point (as a respected academic, he hastened to add, he admitted his deception on each occasion)!

The second keynote speaker, landscape architect, lecturer and author, Helen Wooley continued the theme of children and public space, presenting a study of how this is negatively controlled by policy and practice. Looking at the experience of skateboarders – a community, she reminded us, that is highly social and self-regulating – Helen drew a convincing, if depressingly familiar picture of a world in which the physical space that young people would use is routinely proscribed from them by economic and even legal mechanisms that reflect a socio-cultural rejection of youth, based on nothing more than blind prejudice.

Kit, fence and carpet

Helen also challenged the idea that many of the spaces that are prescribed for children – public playgrounds – are really places for them at all. Uniquely among the hierarchy of public spaces, the traditional playground, she asserts, generally has no design concept but is a simple receptacle for the ‘kit, fence and carpet (KFC)’ whose play value is often negligible. Careful to acknowledge that there are honorable exceptions among equipment manufacturers, Helen was nonetheless damning of the industry, not least in the way she says it too readily ducks the charge that it has reduced play to a series of gross motor tests – blaming, instead, the commissioning authorities.

Both speakers congratulated Wales on its latest response to these issues: the Welsh Assembly Government’s Consultation on Statutory Guidance on Play Opportunities, launched on 13 April. This follows on from the Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010, which set out a legal duty on Local Authorities to assess the sufficiency of play opportunities in their area and confirms Wales as the country most committed to creating a legal policy framework for a child-friendly, playable public realm.

Roger Hart, in particular, praised the consultation document (“a great bedtime read!”), but also sounded a note of caution. To generate the demand for real changes to public space, he says, we have to persuade parents and other gatekeepers of the full range of benefits that free play brings. To then turn this demand into reality needs to involve engaging children in truly participatory local planning and design processes for their own neighbourhoods. He was critical of some participation practice as tokenistic (“attending committee meetings twice a year, or answering a load of questions”), and called for more hands-on, three-dimensional activities that really allow children to contribute.

This, he suggests will lead to a self-fulfilling virtuous cycle resulting in genuinely child-friendly public spaces in our towns and cities. Involving children at a very local level, he says, will not only mitigate against poor planning decisions, but engender the kind of civic culture that makes for more livable communities in general: people will come to trust places that they have helped to create, feel more affinity with their neighbours and, over time, be more inclined to let their own children play out as a result.

Unprecedented

Whether the unprecedented legislative measures taken by the Welsh will indeed have the effect that Roger and Helen and so many others hope for, remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: these developments (for which Play Wales should be given huge credit), give the lie to the notion that play policy is only viable in times of economic prosperity.

Two years after scrapping the national play strategy for England and replacing it, so far, with absolutely nothing, ministers in Westminster should reflect on what Wales is doing for its children, and hang their heads in shame.

Adrian Voce

Sendak’s legacy calls for wild play

10 May

After the death of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, Adrian Voce suggests that the modern world should heed his view of children

Anyone looking to understand children better could do worse than to study the most popular children’s authors.

Books by Julia Donaldson, Michael Rosen, Tony Ross and others beautifully illustrate how children confront their fears, express their uniqueness and resolve problems through play. The most classic story arc involves a child protagonist – or surrogate – embarking on a dangerous or uncertain odyssey and then returning to the safety of home (often, literally, to bed) after overcoming challenges. They usually do this by resorting to the more obvious gifts of childhood such as innocence, ingenuity or unconditional love. Less commonly, they find gifts within the ‘darker side’ of their playfulness. For slightly older children, Roald Dahl was of course the master storyteller who understood very well the joy and power of ‘being naughty’.

And so, to Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are. Rightly regarded as a children’s classic, selling 17 million copies worldwide since its publication in 1963, this short picture book has had a profound influence on the genre, as recognised by the many tributes from the literary world and beyond that have greeted Sendak’s death at 83.

The book and its popularity tell us something important about children. The story’s protagonist is a small boy, Max, who dresses as a wolf to make ‘mischief of one kind and another’. When his mother admonishes him, Max threatens to eat her. Banished to his room, he is transported to ‘where the wild things are’. There, rather than having to curb his temper, he finds it gives him a magical power over the monsters and beasts he finds there. He summons them to join him in an almighty ‘wild rumpus’ and is accordingly made king of the place before returning to ‘where someone loves him best of all’, and his dinner ‘was still hot’.

Max and friends enjoy a ‘wild rumpus’.

No playworker needs telling that Sendak’s book captures something elemental that the modern world tends to deny or suppress: that children have extraordinary power. In celebrating this in all its glory, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ challenges the view of children as victims and innocents. The best play environments give children the space and afford them the opportunities to fully explore and express this side of their nature.

This is why many play practitioners rail against the way formal education is so often delivered. In requiring so much conformity to rules of behaviour, they are concerned that it denies the child’s true potential.

There is another point here for play advocates, and those we seek to influence. ‘Wild play’ is not a reference to natural or ‘wild’ places so much as to the types of playing that they engender and support. Thus, whilst making common cause with the environmental movement wherever this helps to progress our aims, we must nevertheless be always mindful that play is the thing.

The outdoor learning and the children and nature movements may be natural allies (no pun intended), but the play movement is about creating space for children. For, as the wild things themselves have to concede, the boy, Max is ‘the most wild thing of all’.

Adrian Voce

To impact on policy, we need both skylarks and canaries.

2 May

It may be more congruent with a rights-based approach, writes Adrian Voce, but promoting ‘free-range childhoods’ alone will be less effective without also highlighting their absence – and ‘nature deficit disorder’ is as good a way as any.

The recent debate about the relative merits of the terms ‘nature deficit disorder’ and ‘free-range childhood’ as part of the play movement’s campaigning lexicon reminded me of another metaphor which might help to place the debate in a wider policy context and show that they each have their benefits and limitations.

If you haven’t followed this debate, it was initiated – in the current instance at least – when Wendy Russell took up a challenge laid down by Catherine Prisk, Play England’s director, to identify a ‘rallying cry’ that was as effective as nature deficit disorder in getting our message across. Wendy had criticised Cath’s use of the term in a tweet from Play England’s Play and Health seminar in March. Wendy’s subsequent guest blog on Love Outdoor Play explained why. The term tends to medicalise the problem, she argued, framing children as deficient and passive. This “over-protective, child-centred construct of need”, she says “creates dependent children” and is therefore a self-defeating approach.

Wendy advocated rather the use of a different metaphor, ‘free-range childhood’ because, she said, it “acknowledges children’s own ability to take time and space for play if the conditions are right. It constructs the problem as being with the way things are set up, not with children themselves”.

Tim Gill joined the debate on his ‘Rethinking Childhood’ site, suggesting that, while he shares some of Wendy’s reservations, there is much to commend the ‘nature deficit disorder’ banner and the Children and Nature Movement it represents. “Far from medicalising children” he argued,  “(it) is bringing into sharp focus the role of the environment, institutions, culture and wider society in shaping their lives”.

I too have some problems with the nature deficit disorder metaphor. One is simply that it might not be widely understood to be a metaphor. When terms pass into common usage they can give rise to myths not intended by their creator. The medical language here could be misconstrued in the popular media as having a literal meaning. This could damage the credibility of the movement and lead to accusations of moral panic making. Another reservation is that the use of medical language as a metaphor can sometimes cause offence to those dealing with real medical conditions. Appropriating medical terms to describe what is really an aggregated set of social phenomena with projected public health consequences – even metaphorically – could be seen to belittle these problems, which have not always been, and are still sometimes not taken as seriously as they deserve to be.

But free-range childhood is a slightly uncomfortable metaphor too, conjuring up the image of children as a species of livestock that we need to husband correctly (before rounding them up for slaughter?!).

Metaphors have their limitations, but my friend and colleague Arthur Battram has coined one that is highly relevant to this debate.

Arthur likes to talk (possibly with his tongue in his cheek, where it spends a good deal of time) about the Pink Bicycle Indicator (PBI), which would see the presence of pink children’s bikes lying around the neighbourhood as a proxy indicator of children having a good amount of freedom to play out. The bikes and the fact that they are left unattended around the place is evidence, in this scenario, of both outdoor play and a safe, trustworthy playable community.

The PBI arises within Arthur’s discourse about the ‘Skylark and Canary’ approaches to policy-making. Societies – and the governments acting for them – tend to come to important decisions by two quite different routes, he argues. In the Skylark approach, the prevalence of skylarks – known by scientists to thrive only when a certain number of environmental criteria are met – is taken as a proxy indicator for bio-diversity. A healthy skylark population would therefore be seen as evidence of a more generally thriving wildlife. Measures that increase the skylark population would be good for the environment in general.

This form of policy-making is less common, says Arthur’s thesis, than the ‘Canary’ approach. Until as recently as 1986, canaries were used in coalmines to detect poisonous gases which might be otherwise undetectable until too late. Quite simply, a dead canary in the cage was an indication of danger and the need to change course – or retreat altogether.

Working with or for children, we should be mindful of Wendy’s caution about the deficit model. The disability rights movement has progressed hugely since it found a framework and a model for debate that clarified the meaning of the language of disability in terms that are more empowering. The social model of disability is a powerful concept that has relevance beyond how we see and respond to disabled people. I think Wendy makes the point well that children too can be – often are – disempowered by being framed as deficient in the language that we use even as we seek to liberate and empower them. Her support for a ‘free-range childhood’ campaign is consistent with her long-held advocacy for a social model of childhood which places play at the heart of a re-evaluation of our concept of children’s rights and children’s agency. It is important work and has much to offer this movement.

However, we live in a world were policy is made most often, not according to a vision for an empowered populace, but in reaction to the problems which are receiving the most headlines – or producing the most dead canaries. The childhood obesity epidemic, for example, is a symptom, surely, of a wide range of restrictions, constraints and infringements of children’s rights. A Skylark approach to policy for children’s health would simply envisage environments that science (and common sense) tells us provide optimum opportunity for healthful activity and wholesome diets (which we have already agreed under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) and set about providing them as widely as possible. An indicator of how well we were doing? Well, counting pink bicycles wouldn’t  be far off the mark. Instead, we have waited until you couldn’t move for dead canaries. Except of course that in this case, the ‘canaries’ are not expendable. Obese children are not just a proxy indicator.

Given the reactive nature of policy-making (which, after all, must reflect the culture within which it happens), perhaps then we do need our own negative rallying cries. People rally to causes when they can identify a problem that needs addressing. Amplifying a message to reach the widest audience has risks. The media can be voracious and unscrupulous, with truth and accuracy often seeming to be less important than sensation and impact. But this is the campaigning game. The trick is to use the media to convey the more nuanced messages once we have the opportunity. But we do have to attract its attention first.

Nature Deficit Disorder, for all its limitations, has encapsulated a particular set of problems that people can identify with and recognise. It may oversimplify some complex issues but “children aren’t getting outside enough and it’s bad for them” is not the worst kind of dead canary that we could use. And to have the opportunity to fully make the policy case, we also need to encapsulate the solution – without compromising our vision for it – in a way that is equally suited to the sound-biting, twittering age we live in.

Here, Free-Range Childhoods, I think, makes for a rather good skylark.

Adrian Voce

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