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 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.