Policy for play needs an urgent rethink

19 Sep

Photo: M. Conway

Responding to a welcome report from the Children’s Commissioner on the need to do more to support children’s play, Adrian Voce says leadership – and a new long-term plan – must come from government.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has called for play to ‘make a comeback’ as a key to combatting the increasingly sedentary lifestyles that mean today’s children are ‘the least active ever’, with profound consequences for their health.

Of course play has never really gone away. Children will play in all but the most constrained or distressed circumstances; it is in their nature. A deeply instinctive impulse, integral to our developmental and evolutionary processes, children’s play will be a part of the human story for as long as our species exists.

What Longfield is rightly commenting on, in her report, Playing Out, is the radical diminution, over recent decades, of the space and opportunity for children to play as fully and with as much freedom as they need – and the absence, since 2010, of any meaningful policy response. She is right to be concerned, and advocates will welcome her call for play to be put back on the policy agenda, perhaps with just three caveats.

The first is that to conceive of children’s play as primarily a vehicle for their physical activity, runs the risk of designing interventions to favour certain types of play over others. This may be more damaging than it sounds.

Play is not simply about exercise

Although it is notoriously difficult to define, some things are broadly agreed across the wide range of play studies. One is that it is characterised by children being in control. Another is that there is a wide range of play types, not all of them involving vigorous physical activity, and that children derive most benefit from being able to move in and out these at will.

“Given space and permission, children will tend to exercise more in playing than almost any other activity, including most sports”

While it is true that, given enough space and permission, children will tend to exercise more in playing than in almost any other activity, including most sports (Mackett and Paskins, 2008), this is precisely because they are free to express themselves as they will, following their own often random and spontaneous agendas. As any parent or teacher knows, children are naturally energetic; left to their own devices, in the right environment, their innate ebullience is all the motivation they need to use their bodies to the full.

Yet seeing play as primarily a form of physical activity – and increased opportunities for it therefore as a way to raise exercise levels – can lead to programmes and services that inhibit the all-important element of choice. A study from Canada (Alexander et al, 2014) warns that such an approach can have the effect of narrowly defining play in a way that disregards much of its real nature, ‘reshaping meanings of play for children (with) unintended consequences for their wellbeing’, by privileging future the outcomes of play over the immediate benefits of playing for its own sake.

This is important, not least because, as Longfield points out, playing is vital not just for children’s ongoing and future health, but for their here and now mental and emotional wellbeing too  – not to mention its key role in their creativity and development. Any policy response must be careful not to make the ancient, instinctive impulse of children to play, purely instrumental to addressing the current obesity crisis. This will tend to lead to programmes that are more about sport than play – great for sporty children, but missing the essential point that if we simply allow children the time and space to play as they want, they will get all the exercise they need, as an incidental benefit to its true purpose: the simple enjoyment of being fully alive.

Workforce investment

The second caveat to the ‘Playing Out’ report is that although there is a strong call for greater investment in play services ­ – after-school centres, holiday play schemes, adventure playgrounds and play rangers – it does not mention the regulatory framework for such provision, which has in recent years seen the need for standards, including a trained and qualified workforce, virtually abandoned.

Supervising large groups of children and supporting their opportunities to play requires skills and underpinning knowledge quite different from those required in the classroom. Until the early part of this decade, such a role was increasingly the domain of trained and qualified playworkers – bringing the permissive, enabling and pastoral quality of care, and the in-depth understanding of play and play environments that is needed. Without the playwork approach, out-of-school provision for many children is more about day care – a convenience for parents and employers – than it is about their time and space to play. Any investment in extending provision must be accompanied by a new look at regulations, and an accompanying workforce strategy.

The contrary societal trends highlighted in the commissioner’s report – ‘busy lives, busy roads, fewer communal spaces’ – are not new. 10 years ago the phenomenon of ‘shrinking childhoods’ in the UK gave rise to the most serious attempt yet by national policymakers to address children’s need for space to play.

The Play Strategy for England (2008) was a bold plan, not just to increase the provision and raise the quality of dedicated play spaces, but to embed within long-term policies for planning, housing, traffic and open space, the need for children to live in safe, child-friendly neighbourhoods, where they would be attracted to play outside with their friends on a daily basis – and their parents would feel confident enough to let them. This 10-year strategy was abandoned after only two years, as part of the coalition government’s austerity measures; children’s play as a policy issue in England has been sidelined ever since.

“The most effective initiative in supporting children’s play over recent years has been a parent-led campaign”

The third note of caution in welcoming what is a generally strong report is therefore to do with leadership and drivers for change. The report recognises the complex, crosscutting nature of the issue when it recommends that ‘play provision should be strategically planned as part of each area’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment’, yet it does not acknowledge the reality that without either a national policy framework or a dedicated funding stream for children’s play, many local authorities, in these still straitened times for the public sector, will ignore such advice.

Finally, the commissioner’s report rightly points to the key role of parents but offers them little more than a reference to some ‘child-centred apps to help encourage children to do more’, and her own ‘Digital 5-a-Day Guide’. In fact, the most effective initiative in supporting children’s play over recent years has been a parent-led campaign that owes very little to digital media or official guidance

Playing Out, begun nearly ten years ago by two mothers in Bristol, has galvanised a new street play movement that is inspiring play advocates around the world and yet struggles for funding in the UK, in spite of its rapidly growing network of local street play activists.

It is not just the temporary street closure model that makes Playing Out so powerful. What makes it so potent (and the reason I agreed to become an associate board member of this not-for-profit) is that it is a parent-to-parent network. Having used the same name for her report – and highlighting in it the model they have pioneered – it would be good to see Anne Longfield’s report leading to some sustained support for this organisation and its work.

A need for leadership

The Children’s Commissioner has shone a much-needed light on a vitally important but sadly neglected area of public policy. For policymakers to continue to ignore it will be to the long-term detriment of generations of increasingly screen-bound children. But if this or any future government is serious about tackling the issue it will need to provide both leadership and sustained commitment to a long-term vision for a genuinely child-friendly world – a vision that engages parents and children themselves in its realisation.

An All Party Parliamentary Group reporting on children’s play has called for a cabinet minister for children, not just education, and for a new national strategy to address the play challenge. It has also called for the UK government to emulate that of Wales, which has placed a statutory duty on local government to plan for all children to have a ‘sufficiency’ of opportunities to play. Any fresh approach to policy should take a serious look these proposals.

‘Play on prescription’ may be an imaginative contribution to the obesity strategy, but the universal need for children to have time and space to play on a daily basis needs a strategy in its own right.

Adrian Voce

 Adrian Voce is an associate board member of Playing Out CiC and a board member of the Playwork Foundation. This opinion piece is written in his own right.

An edited version of this article first appeared on apolitical.co

 References

Alexander, S, Frohlich, K, & Fusco, C (2014), ‘Playing for health? Revisiting health promotion to examine the emerging public health position on children’s play’, Health Promotion International, 29, 1: 155

Mackett, R and Paskins, J, (2008), Children’s physical activity: The contribution of playing and walking, Children and Society, 22: 345-7

 

 

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A situated ethos of playwork

21 Jun

Turning the playwork story into a narrative for change.

In this new collaboration, Adrian Voce and Gordon Sturrock cast their collective eye over the recent history of playwork in the UK to draw out some lessons for the field on how it might regroup and take a leading role in making the case for a comprehensive national play policy: one consistent with its distinct ethos and approach. 

Abstract

Playwork is a distinct approach to working with children, and a particular set of perspectives on the nature of children’s play in a broader context. We concur with others (e.g. Brown, 2017) that its theory and practice – on play and development, constructs of childhood, the role of adults with children, the allocation and use of space, and children’s rights – are unique among the children’s professions.

This paper attempts to describe some of these perspectives, the practice tenets that arise from them, and the distinct ethos we suggest they comprise. We then propose a broad rationale for playwork advocacy, ­congruent with this ethos and its political dimension.

Vision

We also attempt to set out a long-term vision for the place of playwork practice within a renewed, reimagined public realm; and we suggest some specific shorter-term, more tangible objectives, towards the aim of formulating a sustained government policy framework that recognises and supports playwork without compromising it: achievable milestones on a roadmap to the longer-term vision.

Through a critical appraisal of the field’s recent history, the paper considers how organisational structures for playwork advocacy and professional development have, until now, with the odd exception, been ultimately run not by practitioners but by various branches of government, its agents, employer bodies or established children’s charities – generally more aligned with the current hegemony than with anything approximating to the playwork ethos. We argue that, in the absence of a cohesive and authoritative playwork representative body, this has led to near fatal compromises in the development and dissemination of the playwork approach.

Conundrum

The paper addresses the perennial conundrum of a community of practice that profoundly challenges the status quo; yet which, nevertheless, needs to find sufficient leverage in the mainstream policy discourse to secure the resources it needs to sustain its work. As the professional playwork fraternity attempts to regroup after eight years of austerity and UK government policy reversals, we suggest there is an urgent need for the field to coalesce around a binding narrative – accommodating the plurality of perspectives and approaches that have evolved – to explicitly articulate its ethos in a way that can both speak to a wide public audience and impact on the policymaking process.

The paper concludes that the framework for this narrative should be children’s rights, refracted through the prism of the playwork ethos, which is a bulwark against instrumentalist agendas. We suggest that the playwork field, though greatly incapacitated by the dismantling of its infrastructure and the closure of many of its services and courses, has a legitimate claim to be the practice community best qualified to interpret General Comment 17 of the UNCRC (CRC, 2013) for the UK context. We propose that fully engaging with the rights discourse is the logical strategy for playwork advocates; aligning our ethos to an authoritative, coherent policy case that also resonates with a wider political narrative of social and spatial justice, universal human rights and full citizenship for all.

Adrian Voce and Gordon Sturrock
June 2018

Download the full paper here

Adrian Voce is a founding trustee of the Playwork Foundation. His contribution to this paper is in his personal capacity and does not represent the collective view of the charity.

Photo: Adrian Voce (Tiverton adventure playground, Devon).

This paper was first published by the Playwork Foundation

 

 

 

 

 

European network ends partnership with Child in the City 

1 Mar

The European Network for Child Friendly Cities (ENCFC) has ended its partnership with the Child in the City Foundation, which is now fully owned by its commercial partner, the Promedia Group.

ENCFC has provided the scientific and programme committees behind the successful Child in the City conferences and seminars, hosted over two decades by, among others, London, Zagreb and Florence.

Adrian Voce, the network’s president, said today:

“We have enjoyed a long and successful relationship with the Child in the City foundation and are proud of the many excellent conferences and seminars we have curated.

“Our board has decided that independence is the best way to safeguard the integrity of our contribution to the child-friendly city agenda. We will therefore now establish our own not-for-profit platform, to be launched soon”.


The European Network for Child Friendly Cities is a not-for-profit association registered in Belgium.

If you would like to receive information about its future conferences, events and activities please leave your name and email address here:

An organisation that reflects who we are

25 Nov
6. tango swing

Photo: Meriden Adventure Playground

When Penny Wilson was asked to speak at the recent Playwork Foundation launch event, she took her brief seriously; consulting with colleagues and deeply reflecting, both on her practice and on the chequered history of playwork representation. The result was this impassioned entreaty for an organisation that can do justice to the extraordinary work that playworkers do, and live up to the principles by which they stand.


Read Penny’s speech at The Playwork Foundation.

A new beginning for playwork?

20 Nov

The world’s only professor of playwork, Fraser Brown of Leeds Beckett University, welcomed the launch of the new Playwork Foundation at a special event in London last week. Adrian Voce, who also spoke at the event, reports on the launch and its background.

Playwork, the practice growing out of the UK’s adventure playground movement, made significant strides through the 90s and 2000s, towards what might be called professionalisation. Higher education courses, vocational qualifications, national occupational standards and recognition within the regulatory framework for out-of-school provision, saw growing numbers of playworkers employed in a variety of settings. Since 2010, this progress has suffered some serious setbacks. The deregulation of after-school and holiday childcare, the abandonment of a national play strategy for England, and a relentless squeeze on local government budgets, has seen many adventure playgrounds close and playwork courses withdrawn, as job prospects diminish.

A crisis meeting to consider how the field should respond was called in 2013 by the playwork scholar Bob Hughes and his close colleague, the late Professor Perry Else of Sheffield Hallam University. The summit arrived at two main conclusions. Firstly, the ‘grand narrative’ of playwork and what it can do for children needed to be more persuasive and better articulated. Secondly, a fully independent playwork practitioner body needed to be created to develop and amplify the ‘argument for playwork’.

Independent

Some of those at the meeting in Sheffield believed that the second of these imperatives was the primary objective: that playwork needed to construct its own vehicle before the first objective could be achieved. Such a body should be independent; no longer reliant on the waxing and waning allegiances of larger ‘parent’ or ‘umbrella’ organisations, for whom children’s right to play was only an occasional priority.

Four years later, the Playwork Foundation opened for business last week at a special launch event in London, declaring itself to stand ‘for playwork, playworkers and play’. Fraser Brown, now playwork’s only professor, gave the keynote address and elucidated, with illustrative vignettes, what distinguishes playwork from other practises.

playwork actively resists dominant and subordinating narratives and practises with children
– Professor Fraser Brown, Leeds Beckett University

Defining it simply as ‘the process of creating spaces that enable children to play’ Professor Brown described playwork as a unique approach that privileges who children are now, over what they might become. He said it ‘actively resists dominant and subordinating narratives and practises’. He said playwork offers children flexible environments in which to afford them opportunities for the fullest possible range of play types, as evolutionary biology suggests they need; and practises ‘non-judgmental acceptance’ and ‘unconditional positive regard’ for children.

IMG_2214

Elsewhere at the launch event, board members Ali Wood and Karen Benjamin – each experienced playwork trainers, writers and consultants – introduced the new organisation with a review of the foundation’s development since the idea was first mooted in 2013. They said that an extensive consultation with the field had found overwhelming support for a new vehicle for playwork and had established some clear aims and principles.

We need an organisation that is play literate and promotes play literacy
– Penny Wilson, author of The Playwork Primer

Wood and Benjamin said that, although slow because of the lack of resources (the new body has no funding), the development work had been proceeding steadily to this point. The foundation has a charitable constitution, adopted by a board of trustees, and is awaiting charity commission registration. It has a website, a list of potential members and has developed a dialogue with national bodies in each of the four UK nations. The time was ripe, they said, to launch a membership scheme as the next significant milestone

Impassioned

Penny Wilson, the London-based playworker and author of The Playwork Primer greeted the launch of the new body with a lyrical and impassioned entreaty from the field, reflecting the discourse at a recent adventure playground conference in Bristol. Wilson said the field wants ‘an organisation that is tailor made – like playwork is  – a bespoke design with enough strength in its warp and weft to be responsive and resilient, to be able to meet and greet the unpredicted; an organisation that is play literate and promotes play literacy’.

Meynell Walter, who convenes the annual national playwork conference, spoke about the longer-term history of playwork development, and previous incarnations of the national movement. He hoped the new organisation would help to revive the field after the decline of the austerity years.


Adrian Voce comments

There has been a temptation to consider playwork’s decline during the austerity years as significant of a fundamental rejection of it – by policymakers and, by extension, the public at large. This would be a mistake. The depth and breadth of public sector cuts and deregulation in the wake off the financial crisis was a tsunami that took little account of what was in its path. The treasury and education ministers that cut the play budgets at a stroke, discarding a whole series of national contracts, were not targeting our field in particular. They were radically reducing the role of government – and government spending – in general. It wasn’t personal.

Cycles

The decline in playwork opportunities need not be long-term. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, which has held a poll lead over the governing Conservatives since the general election in June, has spoken passionately about children’s right to play. Corbyn represents an Islington constituency that has more adventure playgrounds than any in the country. He knows about playwork and what it offers children, especially in the deprived inner cities.

Economics and politics go in cycles. It was the English play movement’s misfortune that it reached its moment of greatest opportunity in public policy just as the global economy crashed to one its deepest ever troughs. But the consequent period of austerity has been an opportunity to re-group, stronger and hopefully wiser than before, ready to take the case for play and playwork into future campaigns without being dependent on other professional groupings or sectors.

Although modest in scale, many of those attending the launch event in London last week said the new body felt like something they could identify with and belong to. Others said it seemed like a significant moment in playwork’s history. Perhaps: time will tell.

Profound recognition

At a much bigger event last week in the same London venue – the two-day Child in the City international seminar – some of the best moments were when playwork practitioners and researchers conveyed the essence of what they do, and what their research reveals, to the wider audience of children’s rights advocates. There was then an unmistakeable, profound recognition that here was something important, something people have been looking for – an approach to working with children that respects their own agency and engages with them on their own terms. It is no accident that the play movement has its greatest traction within the discourse on children’s rights. Many advocates believe it is urgently needed wherever adults work with children, or create spaces for them.

Whether the Playwork Foundation proves to be a good vehicle for this task or not – and whether the next swing in the political cycle offers more opportunities for it or not – the case for playwork is much too compelling for it to be halted by the vicissitudes of economic ebb and flow. It is the practise of honouring children’s unfettered embrace and re-imagination of the world they both inhabit and create – and of doing our best to provide and protect the space for that ancient, vital process. Which is all any of us can do.

Adrian Voce

Main Photo: Children building a new play structure at Tiverton Adventure Playground in Devon (Adrian Voce).
Inset photo: Ali Wood (l) and Karen Benjamin (r) at the launch on 8 November (Adrian Voce).

Adrian Voce is a board member of the Playwork Foundation, and author of Policy for Play (Policy Press, 2015)


More details of the different presentations, including a full transcript of Penny Wilson’s speech, will be made available soon on the Playwork Foundation website.

With thanks to Goldsmiths University of London, who hosted the Playwork Foundation launch event free of charge.


JOIN THE PLAYWORK FOUNDATION HERE

Playwork Foundation Launch Event – 8 November

23 Oct

Jump

Wednesday, 8 November 2017
1.00 – 4.30 pm
Goldsmiths, University of London, SE14

Free, with refreshments

Room number RHB 300
Goldsmiths College
New Cross
London, SE14 6NW

 Speakers include

Professor Fraser Brown, Penny Wilson, Adrian Voce and Meynell

The Playwork Foundation is launching a membership scheme and to mark the occasion, this event is an opportunity to hear different perspectives on the playwork field and its challenges. There will be round-table discussions about the importance of the profession, its future and what is most needed from a new membership body.

The Playwork Foundation is being created as a membership body for the playwork community, offering playwork practitioners, trainers, students, researchers and others:

  • A collective voice to raise awareness about the value of play and playwork
  • A platform to promote and debate issues that affect playwork
  • A strong, credible representative vehicle to make the argument for playwork to policy-makers, the media and the world at large
  • A network for mutual support, dissemination of research, and sharing good practice.

Please join us! To reserve a place email kbenjamin@glos.ac.uk

Photo: Mick Conway

Playwork Foundaion Logo

 

Men in power

16 Oct

Adrian Voce comments:

We may feel that our field is too progressive and liberal to be implicated in the epidemic of misogynistic and predatory male behaviour that is so evidently plaguing others. The courageous Morgan Leichter-Saxby is here to tell us to think again. If women in our profession cannot feel safe, respected and valued as much as their male counterparts, shame on us. We have much work to do.

Play Everything

There’s been lots written lately about sexual abuse by men in positions of power. My Facebook feed is packed with women saying ‘me too’. It’s a start, breaking silence and raising hands, seeing the numbers. But it isn’t enough – I want more stories too, of shock and complacency, choked-down rage and whispered warnings. I don’t only want to know about the women who have left situations as they turned nasty, but also those who stayed and the terrible bargains they were asked to strike. I want to hear from women who watched and said nothing.

Because, me too.

For the past decade I’ve been in a majority-women field. It thinks of itself as progressive or radical, dedicated to subverting systems of oppression and with a whole vocabulary around reading cues and responding appropriately. But the stories of sexual abuse and coercion coming out of other industries are not aberrations…

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