Outcomes or rights? Parliamentarians’ call for play policy suggests we need both

4 Nov

Recent reports by the Children’s Play Policy Forum and an All Party Parliamentary Group on children’s health have adopted very different approaches to making the argument for play policy. The most effective one, says Adrian Voce, may be a combination of them both.

It may have been as part of a wide-ranging approach to tackling the childhood obesity epidemic, but the call last month by an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for a new national play strategy indicated that the advances in play policy before the change of government in 2010 may not have been so much lost as interrupted (click here to read the full APPG report).

Following on from the publication in August of the play sector’s own latest attempt to make the case for play policy – Tim Gill’s The Play Return, commissioned by the Children’s Play Policy Forum – it also highlights a debate that is familiar to play campaigners. This is the perennial tension between the options of taking a principled stand on play opportunities as a human right for children, and pragmatically recognising that public policy tends to respond not to rights, but to perceived threats – and the evidence of how to best deal with them. Tim’s report frames this debate as being ‘about whether policy and practice should be based on outcome-oriented frameworks, or whether they should be based on other rationales (such as) … the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’, but declines to engage in it.

The APPG report, as well as the recent history of UK play policy, suggests that this tension can be successfully reconciled, but also that it is something of a false dichotomy.

In this case, what is exercising policy-makers is not so much the threat that obesity poses to children’s wellbeing per se, as the impact of the epidemic on the economy. With the Department of Health now estimating the cost to the NHS of being obese or overweight at more than £5 billion per annum, Healthy Patterns For Healthy Families: Removing The Hurdles To A Healthy Family is an urgent call to action by MPs and peers alarmed at what is now widely regarded not just as a public health emergency, but a looming crisis for public finances.

To some advocates, children’s play does not belong in public health policy, and there are undoubtedly risks if we go down this route. Nobody wants to see play provision or playable space only valued for the level of ‘calorifically-efficient’ physical activity it promotes. Such an approach reduces play provision to the junior version of outdoor gyms, which is already a fair description of too many public playgrounds.

Photo: Charlie Russell, Timberplay.

A calorifically efficient playground? Photo: Charlie Russell, Timberplay.

Nevertheless, the APPG report represents an opportunity to press the case once again for the kind of expansive, multi-faceted play policy that many thought we had seen the last of with the short-lived Play Strategy. Among an ambitious range of measures, it calls for: ‘a new legal duty on public health bodies to work with schools and local government to ensure that all children have access to suitable play opportunities, within close proximity to their home and at school; guidance on including play within Local Development Plans; and training and guidance in the enablement of free play for all professionals with responsibility for children, including Ofsted’. Most significantly, the APPG is calling for a statutory duty on local authorities to provide for play – emulating the initiative of the Welsh Government.

These policy asks – not from play advocates, but from Parliamentarians – go way beyond what might be anticipated as a logical response to The Play Return, which was delivered to the Cabinet office in May, 2014, and which, at least as far as public pronouncements are concerned, has been met with a familiar silence.

Tim’s brief was not to develop policy proposals but to ‘look at quantitative evidence of the wider outcomes and impact of play interventions and initiatives’. He found evidence of the benefits of playwork services and a playable public realm to be ‘patchy and fragmented’, citing the ‘comparative lack of studies and evaluations’. Leaving aside the irony that probably the most thorough pilot and evaluation of such interventions ever commissioned – the Play Pathfinder programme of 2008-11 – was scrapped by the same Government now asking for such evidence, Tim’s report illustrates the flaw in following the strictly evidence-based approach.

Whilst asserting that ‘the improvement of opportunities for outdoor play can and should be seen as a valid, worthwhile outcome in its own right’, the report qualifies this by admitting that ‘there may be a need for more quantitative research on the detailed relationship between various benefits and children’s experiences of play’. It concludes that the most convincing evidence is of the promotion of children’s physical activity during school break-times, where these support free play – with only ‘modest evidence’ of other benefits and from other settings.

To give Tim and the CPPF their due, they suggest that play in schools ‘can be seen as a “field trial” of theoretical claims about the impact of improving play opportunities more generally … extrapolating the benefits found in school play to other contexts’. Nevertheless, one can only imagine ministers who have made a virtue of reducing the role of government – deeply cutting public expenditure even on some of the barest essentials of a welfare state – giving such arguments short shrift.

2013’s General Comment on Article 31 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) is clear that the kind of wide-ranging, long-term approach to play policy now advocated by the APPG is an obligation of national government. Those wedded to the evidence-based approach, meanwhile, argue that the CRC has little traction with policy-makers and that we should aim to demonstrate play provision’s efficacy in helping to meet existing policy goals, as The Play Return does.

The experience in Wales, where a national play policy broadly based on CRC principles has led to probably the world’s first statutory duty on local authorities to provide for play out of school, has demonstrated that the rights approach can, in fact, be persuasive. In England too, it was the Charter for Children’s Play, based squarely on Article 31, which set the framework for the scope of play policy ambitions that led eventually to our big breakthrough with the last Government.

Making the case for each of these expansive national play policies included much in the way of evidence. Play for a Change thoroughly surveyed the science of play from the perspective of a number of disciplines; annual Playday surveys demonstrated the popularity of measures to promote play and highlighted the various ways in which play opportunities were diminishing; Play Naturally drew important links between play, ecology and environmental sustainability that were further developed by Tim’s own Sowing the Seeds. There were many other examples, including hundreds of case studies, throughout the 2000s, of research pointing to the vital importance of space and time for children’s play; and of the insidious diminution of both.

Playing, naturally.

Playing, naturally.

What we were not able to produce was robust evidence of the direct outcomes of specific types of ‘intervention’ on a wide enough scale to make a persuasive policy case. The most thorough investigation of publicly funded play provision over that period was the original Making the Case for Play, whose evidence boiled down to simply proving a negative: that play was mainly an ad hoc public service, mainly lacking in serious policy drivers, strategic thinking or significant investment. Play England’s later attempt at commissioning a cost-benefit analysis made for some useful headlines, but a closer reading revealed the hard evidence of links between play provision and improved life chances – the real currency of evidence-based policy making – to be tenuous in the extreme, simply because the research has not been done.

And there’s the rub. Only being able to justify investment in play provision or play-friendly approaches to public space by way of robust evidence of the outcomes of the proposed intervention, is a classic catch-22. The only way to produce such evidence of a kind that satisfies the policy test is through a serious pilot, with an evaluation to match … and this needs investment; such as that in the Play Pathfinder programme, for example.

But Play Pathfinder was far from a stand-alone pilot programme with the rest of the possible policy options on hold pending its evaluation. On the contrary, it was accompanied by the widest-ranging play policy and the most substantial national investment in play provision yet seen. The point is that whilst the New Labour government needed evidence of the impact of its interventions to inform its policy as it developed – and to enable it and local authorities to assess the case for further investment in subsequent phases of the Play Strategy – it had already been persuaded of the need to do something.

Once that tipping point had been reached (and it took the best part of a decade to reach it, not to mention the many years of other campaigns with earlier governments) it was surprisingly easy to convince the government to adopt a broad, strategic approach. In areas where there is not much precedent, governments don’t so much make policy as adopt it.

Ever since Lady Allen argued in Planning for Play (1968) for adventure playgrounds on the one hand, and for ‘close co-operation (between) town planner … and landscape architect (with) all the departments … concerned with children, young people and community development’, on the other, the UK play movement had been developing a model for play policy that came to fruition in the first decade of the new millennium. First the London Mayor in 2005, then the Big Lottery Fund in 2006 and finally the UK government in 2008 each adopted the crosscutting, area-wide approach to play policy that Lady Allen had first espoused in the sixties. That the APPG has now added a statutory duty to the mix shows the extent to which the movement in Wales sustained the momentum – and illustrates the value of policy precedents.

It is reasonable to argue that the London play policy and the lottery initiative served as pilots in England for the national policy that followed. The point here, however, is that in neither case was the persuasive piece of evidence a longitudinal study of the measurable outcomes of a specific intervention.

While most policy makers are concerned with problems more immediate, in their worldview, than play deprivation and how to combat it, the evidence of our own experience is that there are other persuasive arguments for play policy to be taken seriously. And when it comes to the shape of such policy, the CRC, though it may not have been the decisive part of winning the argument, is the recognised framework. This is especially true since the UN’s General Comment on Article 31 clarified that governments have an obligation to ‘promote, protect and fulfil’ children’s right to play by means of appropriate ‘legislation, planning and budgets’.

One disappointing aspect of these two recent developments is that the APPG report makes no reference to the CPPF review. This is perhaps hardly surprising: four years of attrition after such a steep ascent has left the play sector  – and many others – more fragmented than it has ever been. But one thing the campaign for the Play Strategy taught us is that whatever the evidence, it weighs infinitely more with ministers when cited by others. To an austerity government, the play sector arguing for play policy is easy to ignore; MPs making the same case, much less so.

The Play Return makes a valiant attempt to suggest that ‘there is enough empirical evidence for policy makers to be confident that initiatives that lead to improved play opportunities will also reliably lead to (health and other) … benefits’. The play section of the APPG report, taking the CRC and the General Comment on Article 31 as its starting point, looks beyond individual initiatives to a renewed version of the strategic approach that was in place before 2010.

Taken together, they resolve the debate – to make a persuasive case for an approach to play policy that can do justice to its importance.

Adrian Voce


MPs call for new play strategy for England, including statutory duty

17 Oct

An influential group of MPs and Members of the House of Lords has today called for a new national play strategy for England.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on A Fit and Healthy Childhood, chaired by Baroness (Floella) Benjamin, has issued the proposal to Ministers as part of its report of a review of public health issues for children, Healthy Patterns for Healthy Families: Removing the Hurdles to a Healthy Family.

The headline recommendation of the report is for the return of a Cabinet Minister for Children, ‘to drive the policy and co-ordinate a strategy to promote child health and fitness across all Departments’.

In the section of the report on proposed new policy for play, the APPG asks the Government ‘to follow the lead of the Welsh Government by introducing a “play duty” as part of a new national Play Strategy … that should also include ‘guidance to Local Authorities to include strategies for safer, child-friendly streets in residential areas, including new housing developments, within their Local Development plans … training and guidance in the enablement of free play for all professionals with responsibility for children, including Ofsted … and a new legal duty on public health bodies to work with schools and local government to ensure that all children have access to suitable play opportunities within close proximity to their home and at school’.

Commenting on the report, Baroness Benjamin said “it is now widely acknowledged that the nation is in the grip of a child obesity epidemic. This report will help families and the professionals who support them to turn the tide and establish new and healthy patterns of living for all our children”.

The former Labour MP Helen Clark, Chair of the Working Group and author of ‘Healthy Patterns for Healthy Families’ added: “Some of our findings are extremely disappointing, but families are trying to do their best in a climate that is not properly supportive of their needs”.

The full report of the APPG will be published next week.

Playwork Conference 2015 under threat

26 Sep

The organiser of the annual national Playwork Conference, Meynell Games, has issued a call for commitments from those intending to attend in March 2015, in order to save the event from cancellation.

A minimum 300 delegates are needed for the conference to break even. Meynell has warned that if this number is not achieved by the end of September, the conference can not go ahead. Meynell Games has previously subsidised the event to underwrite any shortfall but is no longer able to do so.

So, if you value this unique opportunity for the playwork community to come together and share developments in our field – whether in policy, research, practice or skills – and want to join it in Eastbourne on 3-4 March, 2015*, please email the address here before 1 October to say you will be there.


And if you have never been before but have thought about it … it may be now or never! 300 playworkers by the sea for 2 days? Are you really going to have a better time anywhere else next year?

Just do it!

You can read about the event – and the challenge of staging it – directly from Meynell Games, by clicking on the link below.

playwork conference flyer

*please note that an earlier version of this blog contained incorrect dates for the conference


Planning for Play – how governments should respond to the General Comment on Article 31 of the UNCRC

4 Sep
From 29 September – 1 October, the Danish city of Odense will host the 7th biennial Child in the City conference. To promote the event, the organisers have been interviewing some of the speakers about what they will be presenting. This is a copy of mine.


Adrian, please tell us what your presentation is about?

Planning for Play was the title of two different and distinct publications from two very different eras. The first, from 1968, was by Lady Allen of Hurtwood, an immensely important figure in the British play movement of the 50s and 60s who, probably more than any other single person, defined adventure playgrounds and how to create, not just the physical but also the cultural space necessary for their creation. I used to work for an organisation that she founded, and this work was a big influence on me.

The second, from 2006, which I helped to produce, was a joint publication by the Children’s Play Council, when I was its director, and the Big Lottery Fund, a large national distributor of charitable grants set up by the British government.  This Planning for Play aimed to place the responsibility for creating the right environments for children’s play with local authorities. It set out a recommended process for developing an area-wide play strategy so that adventure playgrounds and other play environments could be prioritised according to need; and built and maintained as part of a long-term plan that also included improvements to the wider public realm; for children’s mobility, access and safety, for example.

This presentation will consider where responsibility for making space for children’s play lies in 2014.

And where does it lie?

I think the General Comment on Article 31 of the UNCRC in 2013 spells out very clearly that all tiers of government have this responsibility. National governments must take the lead and establish the right policy frameworks, including legislation where necessary, for resources to be made available locally; and that these resources – which should include but not be restricted to financial resources – should be allocated strategically and with a full appreciation of the play needs of child populations.

Isn’t this a bit idealistic? Are national governments really going to take play that seriously? 

Well, in the UK, governments, including national governments, have indeed been taking play this seriously, albeit not consistently so. My presentation will consider the way that the London Mayor, who has overall planning responsibility for the capital, in 2005-6 established a planning framework specifically for children’s play. I will also look at how the UK government produced a 12-year play strategy for England – what it contained, what it achieved, and why it was abandoned after only two years – and at the legal duty on local authorities to make provision for play, enacted by the Welsh government (covered in more detail by Ben Tawil, earlier in the same session).

Isn’t the failure of the Play Strategy for England just more evidence that children’s right to play will never be taken seriously by governments for long enough to make a difference? 

I don’t think so, no. It didn’t fail. It was scrapped by a new government with different priorities, the first of which was to cut back public expenditure on a scale not seen before. I think the Play Strategy would have had cross-party support but was the victim of very bad timing, having been launched in 2007-8, just precisely when the scale and the implications of the financial crisis were becoming clear.

The Play Strategy achieved most of what it was intended to achieve in those two years – investing more than £200m in new provision – but its real ambition was in the long-term embedding of play within local funding and decision-making cycles for the policy areas that impact most on children’s freedom: traffic, planning, policing, housing, parks and leisure. It also aimed to elevate understandings about play within education and childcare services and, over time, could have been expected to greatly increase children’s opportunities for free play within all settings.

I will argue that the collective UK experience – the London play policy, the national lottery programme, the English Play Strategy, the Welsh play sufficiency duty, and developments in Scotland and Northern Ireland too – with the benefit of some reflection and analysis, represents a model for how countries everywhere, certainly in the West, can adopt Article 31 as policy and truly recognize, protect and provide for children’s right to play.

Adrian Voce

More ‘speed interviews’  from Child in the City 2014 can be read here.


Play Wales has led the way in championing play – now it needs your help

15 Jul

Originally posted on Rethinking Childhood:

Play Wales logo and question markThis post invites you to help one of the leading play agencies in the UK and around the world. Play Wales was recently told that the Welsh Government would not continue funding the organisation. Last week Play Wales asked supporters to sign a petition calling on this decision to be reversed.

View original 297 more words

National children’s sector awards calls for play nominees

5 Jun

Once upon a time (with apologies to Richard Dawkins), before the coalition government set about trying to create a Big Society by trashing many of the structures and initiatives that were already working for a better and fairer one, and before the consequent scramble for ever-decreasing pots of public funding saw ‘parent’ bodies eating their young – in other words when it used to have any money – Play England occasionally sponsored the play category of the national  Children and Young People Now Awards.

Rumour has it that this year the play category is under-subscribed (no surprise there really) and so if you want to seek a bit of recognition for the work of your project or service, or know a worthy candidate, do take a look.

The Play Award this year is for “the initiative that has done the most to offer children and young people the opportunities to play freely. The judges will in particular look for work that has improved the use of public spaces, such as housing estates, parks or town centres, for children and young people”.

Entries close on 4 July, and the Awards ceremony (with entertainment on a par with our own Eastbourne conference, I promise you…) will be in London on 20 November 2014.

Do it. If your funding gets cut, at least you’ll have a nice gong to put on your mantelpiece …

Adrian Voce



Farewell to a ludic hero

3 Jun
Perry Else, 1959 - 2014 Photo: Sheffield Hallam University

Perry Else, 1959 – 2014
Photo: Sheffield Hallam University

A personal tribute to Professor Perry Else, who died on 1st June 2014

When my daughter, Anushka, died suddenly in 2012, it was a long time before I felt able to resume work properly. I certainly did not want a public profile and this blog lay dormant for many months.

When I picked it up again, it was with a short tribute to Nush. Somehow this felt right – but I hesitated, unsure how it would come across to talk about something so personal and painful on what is a professional site.

Among the warmest, most generous messages of support after I posted my memorial came from Perry Else, who has himself now passed away.

‘All too often in this world’, Perry said, ‘people have separated self, family and livelihood, and it results in odd behavior, where people compromise their values on a daily basis. I think being open and authentic about ourselves is a better way to be’.

It was typical of the man that Perry demonstrated his own authenticity not just in the eloquence of his words – in which he was second to none (just read the Value of Play, for example) – but also in reaching out to a colleague at a difficult time. It meant a lot to me, coming not long after I was forced by circumstance to forge a different and more lonely career path, where contact with my old networks was not something I could any longer take for granted.

The playwork field has lost one of its true pioneers: an original thinker, an innovative theorist, a clear and accessible writer, an inspiring teacher, and as my anecdote illustrates, a warm and generous colleague.

Perry was a passionate advocate for children’s play and the kind of leader that we need: inclusive, supportive and empowering. His work has helped to define playwork and made a big contribution to how we understand play itself.

I didn’t know Perry as well as I would have liked. Our paths, after similar beginnings in playwork and play service management, were different: mine into campaigning and development work, London-based; his into teaching, writing and academia, in the North, where he reached the dizzy heights of being awarded a Professorship of Play Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, a rare achievement in our field. We were never in the same place together long enough to see much of each other socially, but I valued our association as much as I admired his work over many years.

Engaging, supportive and collegiate by nature, Perry was the perfect colleague and peer.  Our sector, like many, can sometimes be riven by infighting, ego resentments and professional factions. Perry always seemed willing to work for unity, to bring people together and to celebrate what we have in common – without ever compromising on his hard-won principles.

During my time at Play England, when my role was largely about securing policy commitments from government, there were many times when mistrust seemed the overriding reaction to what we were doing, not least from some of the play movement’s theorists and academics.

Perry didn’t always agree with me, but he was always direct and honest enough to say so in a constructive way, whilst remaining personally supportive. He knew how important it was to create a more favourable policy context for play provision and playable space, but his experience in local authorities seemed to have left him also with a good understanding of the pressures of the public sector and the compromises that are inevitable in politics. Or perhaps he was just instinctively loyal. Whatever the reason, you always felt that Perry was in your corner.

There were times when I should probably have listened to him more. Early in the development of the national training and qualifications framework for playwork, I flounced out of a meeting where I was representing the London region, frustrated at what I saw as a lack of transparency and a dismissive attitude to dissenting voices. Perry followed me out and, whilst sharing my frustrations, urged me to reconsider, arguing that I could help to make the structures work better by staying.

I declined and never returned to those meetings, but had cause to regret this some years later when, with Perry now engaged as a Play England associate, the Playwork Possible Futures project that we worked on together did not make the progress it might have done towards building a new practitioner body. Rifts in the playwork sector had widened – and my lack of humility had probably not helped.

It was no accident that Perry, on each occasion, was the voice of reason and collective endeavor. He passionately believed in the power of dialogue, inclusive engagement and in working together as a field. So it was that, with Bob Hughes, he called a summit of playwork folk in Sheffield last year to attempt to rally a collective response to the devastation being wrought on play services by the cuts in government spending; to remake the Argument for Playwork, as the meeting was called.

Fittingly – with Perry, the playwork manager turned theorist, as our host – the meeting divided into two groups. One considered the latest research and evidence to support playwork theory and practice (or not!); the other, how the field might best reorganise itself to more effectively campaign for playwork and represent practitioners in the struggles ahead.

This was characteristic of the way Perry’s work straddled brilliant theory and inspiring education on the one hand; the practical realities of securing funds, managing resources and protecting space for kids on the other. I hope that the new vehicle for playwork that he inspired, not just through the Sheffield summit, but by the nature of his whole career, will come to be worthy of his legacy. It is currently still in the workshop awaiting a crew of sufficient size, commitment and talent to get it on the road – a task somehow more daunting with Perry gone.

There are better-qualified people than me to write Perry’s full obituary and to appraise his immense contribution to our field. He will be greatly missed by his many friends, colleagues and students, from whom there will, I am sure, be some warm and erudite tributes in the days ahead. I will read them all.

My deepest condolences go out to his family, who I never met, and to his closest friends.

Playwork has lost one its heroes. I would say that I have lost a comrade but, in his message to me about my daughter, he taught me that such ‘professional’ distinctions and boundaries are unnecessary. More than a comrade, he was a friend.

Thank you Perry. I never did make it to the Beauty of Play (another regret), but you embodied it for me anyway.

Adrian Voce


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