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and a relentless squeeze on local government budgets, has seen many adventure playgrounds close and playwork courses withdrawn, as job prospects diminish.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 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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London conference: Children’s Play in the Urban Environment, 6-7 November

16 Oct

Playground460x276

Adrian Voce will host this Child in the City international seminar at Goldsmiths University of London on 6-7 November 2017.

It has never been harder for children and young people in the modern city to find somewhere to play or meet with their friends, due to the following issues:

  • the seemingly ever-growing dominance of traffic and commerce
  • increasing urban populations
  • economic pressures on public space and
  • austerity policies leading to the closure of many playgrounds and youth clubs

On 6-7 November 2017 the Child in the City International Seminar will focus on these emerging issues by addressing the theme ‘Children’s Play in the Urban Environment’. The seminar will look at the latest research on children’s play and young people’s culture and its relationship to health and wellbeing trends.

Diverse programme and audience

Child in the City International Seminars is a rolling programme of focused events, each bringing together practitioners, children’s professionals, play workers, city planners, landscape architects, geographers and policymakers, along with researchers, academics and advocates, researchers and policymakers from different relevant fields around a specific theme of the child-friendly city agenda.

With the seemingly ever-growing dominance of traffic and commerce, increasing urban populations, economic pressures on public space, and austerity policies leading to the closure of many playgrounds and youth clubs, it has never been harder for children and young people in the modern city to find somewhere to play or meet with their friends.

Latest research

The outside world of the urban landscape is widely considered unsafe for younger children while teenagers themselves are often viewed as a threat to public order. Yet the freedom to enjoy their own play and recreation, to participate with their peers in the cultural and social life of their neighbourhoods, towns and cities is a human right for all children and young people, recognised in international law.

 This second Child in the City international seminar will look at some of the latest research on children’s play and young people’s culture in the modern city and its relationship to health and wellbeing trends.

The seminar will consider policy options and explore good practice examples –through presentations from around the world and field trips to projects in London – on how different cities are addressing this most quintessential of children’s rights: to grow up in a community that recognises and supports their need to play and be with their friends – without adult pressure or agendas, but within shared, intergenerational urban landscapes that allow the whole community to thrive.

For more information click on the image below

citclondonrectangle2

National survey marks 30 years of Playday

12 Jul

IMG_2861Playday will be 30 years old this August and the four national play organisations in the UK that coordinate the event have launched a survey to mark the anniversary. The survey canvasses opinions on how play has changed in the UK over the last thirty years. However, the response, particularly in England, has to date been below expectations.

In a recent circular the Playday group says that ‘although we already have over 1000 responses, the response rate is much lower in England than in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We are keen to try and boost responses (throughout the UK, but particularly in England) in advance of the 21st July deadline.

The survey invitation from the Playday group appears below.


Complete the Playday survey here

play-day-logo

What do you think about playing today and how have play opportunities changed for children, families and communities through time? We want to hear what you think. Playday, the national day to celebrate play, is 30 years old this year.

The national organisations that promote play in the UK want to find out how play opportunities have changed over these years and need your help. Could you spare some time to complete an online survey?

Please visit  ​to complete the survey here and share this link with your friends, family, neighbours and colleagues. Help us understand the nature of play in the UK today and how this has changed over the last 30 years.

The Playday survey will close on 21 July 2017.
Playday this year will be on 2 August. More information can be found here

Parties for play?

24 May

Bubbles LondonThe UN (2016) has been clear – and a range of evidence confirms – that the UK government needs to commit to doing more for children’s play. This should include: protecting play space through a more child-friendly planning system; supporting the country’s diminishing network of world-renowned adventure playgrounds; and adopting playwork standards for after-school and holiday care. Adrian Voce poses some questions for politicians seeking election in June.

The government has characterised its snap general election (revealing the fixed-term Parliament Act to be essentially meaningless) as the most important for decades, positioning it as an opportunity for the country to unite behind the ‘strong and stable leadership’ of Theresa May in order to give her the clear mandate she says she needs to strike the best deal with the EU in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Labour – still by a long way the main opposition party during the last Parliament – has attempted to broaden the debate, making it about the kind of government we want, and who it is primarily for: ‘the many’ or ‘the few’.

What are play advocates to make of the different approaches of these and the other parties fielding credible candidates? Who is likely to be the most sympathetic to the case for play policy? Children and their families have the right to a safe, playable, child-friendly public realm – something that was promised to them 10 years ago (DCSF, 2008) only to be abandoned in the wake of the financial crisis. Play advocates not willing to accept the current dearth of play policy as the status quo should be asking the parties vying for parents’ votes some questions about their intentions for play.

What is your party’s policy on children’s right to play?

Play Strategy cover2The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has issued a general comment (2013) on states’ obligations under Article 31 of its 1989 convention. This makes clear that children’s right to play must be ‘recognised, protected and fulfilled’ for them by government policy, which should include planning, finance and legislation as necessary. Yet, in 2016, the UNCRC reported its ‘concern about the withdrawal of a play policy in England and the under-funding of play’ across the UK. This followed The Children’s Rights Alliance for England reporting to the UNCRC that since 2010 the UK government had in fact ‘undermined children’s rights under Article 31 …’

The government should now, at the very least, be monitoring the effectiveness and the impact of the statutory play sufficiency duty in Wales to explore its potential for replication in England. A full commitment to article 31 would involve following the recommendation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood to reintroduce a cross-cutting national play strategy like the one for England that was abandoned in 2010.

What plans do you have to enable children to enjoy the freedom to play outside in the public spaces near their homes?

There has been an accumulation of evidence in recent years and decades, of the changing nature of modern childhoods, with many children no longer having the freedom to play outside that previous generations could take for granted. The reasons for this are varied and complex, with traffic, anxiety about ‘stranger-danger’, fear of crime and bullying, commercialisation of pubic space, overly structured out-of-school lives, poor planning, and the lure of electronic media each being cited as the cause of a generation of ‘battery-reared children’.

Whatever the combination of reasons, there is no doubt that, to reverse this trend – a profound change in the way that children grow up, with consequences that we cannot yet fully perceive – will take a concerted and cohesive effort, coordinated within a number of different public policy domains, and informed by a clear vision and strong commitment to a playable, liveable, child-friendly public realm.

What plans do you have to protect the UKs valuable network of staffed adventure playgrounds and other community play projects?

IMG_2314With play infrastructure bodies like Play England and the playwork unit at Skillsactive being among the first casualties of ‘deficit reduction’, it is difficult to gain a full picture of spending on play since the end of the Play Strategy (2008-10), but there is no question that children’s play services have been a major victim of austerity. Various surveys have showed cuts of up to 100 per cent in local authority play budgets, and an average reduction of more than 50 per cent from 2010-15. Play academic Wendy Russell estimates that there are now fewer than 150 adventure playgrounds remaining, with many of these still facing cuts.

What would your government do to maintain standards in after-school and holiday play schemes so that children are supported to enjoy their leisure time and not effectively forced to endure 8-10 hour school days?

Children should be able to play freely after school in whatever environment they find themselves. Playwork is the only profession dedicated to this, but the deregulation of extended services and out-of-school provision for children aged 8 and over means that it is no longer recognised, let alone required by inspectors, who therefore apply school performance criteria to a domain that should be for children’s play. School-aged childcare, after-school clubs and ‘extended services’ should contain a basic offer of playwork provision, appropriately staffed by qualified practitioners; and should also provide enriched play environments, including a requirement for outdoor space, as identified by good playwork practice.

Adrian Voce

Adrian Voce is the author of Policy for Play (Policy Press, 2015)


A synthesis of these questions has been addressed to each of the main parties in the election. We will publish any replies here; and also, over the remaining days of the campaign, examine each of the parties’ manifestos for any signs of an emergent play policy, as well as considering the wider question of their position on children’s rights in general.


References 

CRC, 2016, Committee on the Rights of the Child: Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Department for Schools and Families, 2008, The Play Strategy, London: Crown Copyright.


Main photo: Nate Edwards
Inset photo: Adrian Voce
Play Strategy image: HM Government

Scottish Parliament debates national play charter

16 Mar

Edinburgh children play

The Scottish Parliament has debated the country’s first Play Charter, developed and promoted by Play Scotland, the national play charity. Adrian Voce reports.

A motion to support Scotland’s first Play Charter, developed by Play Scotland, was debated in the Scottish Parliament on 14 March 2017. It was proposed by Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), Ruth Maguire of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

The motion (paraphrased) said that:

‘Parliament welcomes the promotion of Scotland’s first inclusive Play Charter by Play Scotland … understands that the charter describes a collective commitment to play for all babies, children and young people in Scotland, in line with the right of children to play as set in out in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

‘(Parliament) further understands that the charter builds on the Scottish Government’s National Play Strategy … notes the charter’s aims of highlighting that every child has the right to play … ensuring that a commitment to play is more strongly embedded within policies, strategies, key qualifications and … training, ensuring that children and young people are supported in their right to play and that play spaces are valued within communities…’

The motion also encouraged all SMPs to become ‘Play Champions’ by pledging their support to the charter.

‘Not built to sit still’

The debate included a contribution from Conservative SMP Brian Whittle, who said:

“Children are not built to sit still … that brings us to the importance of active play—especially in the early years. As I have said before, youngsters want to move about a lot with their peers. In doing so, they set patterns for life and learn interaction skills, confidence, resilience, self-awareness and awareness of others—all behaviours that are much more difficult to learn sitting still in a nursery or classroom …

“We have not got that right yet. We need to consider how we give every child the opportunity for outdoor and indoor play: climbing, jumping—in puddles, if necessary—falling down, getting back up, catching, throwing and all the other ways that they can invent to learn in their own ways. That is the blueprint for life. That is how we tackle preventable ill health and stack the cards in our favour.

“That all starts with access to active play, and with the premise that it is every child’s right to play with their friends, get dirty, be noisy and be sociable, irrespective of background or personal circumstances—all the things that we took for granted when we were kids. In my view, that is the basis of solving many of the problems that we see in our society today”.

‘Open schools during summer holiays’

Labour’s Daniel Johnson said that, although the play strategy is right:

“We also need to set out the challenges. One in six children in Scotland does not have access to outdoor space, 85 per cent of children in Scotland say that they do not spend enough time engaged in free play, and more than 1,000 Scottish schools have no access to outdoor facilities … we need talk about local services and the impact of local funding.

“We must have some innovation. Schemes such as playing out will come at little cost to local government. We should consider whether we should be opening our schools during summer holidays in order to enable play and to address issues of childcare in the holidays. We also need to talk about local services. If we are to have accessible and stimulating parks in which our children can play, that requires investment in local services”.

Speaking for the Scottish Government, Minister for Childcare and Early Years, Mark McDonald MSP, said:

“The Government continues to invest in play and, this year alone, we have invested more than £3 million in it. That includes funding of £700,000 for Play, Talk, Read, £1.6 million for the book-bug programme and £260,000 for Play Scotland, plus a host of other fantastic initiatives.

‘Giving parents peace of mind’

“Since 2012, we have invested more than £3 million in Inspiring Scotland’s go2play play ranger fund. The fund supports Scottish charities to develop play ranger provision for vulnerable children and disadvantaged groups and to engage them in active outdoor play. Play rangers provide a huge number of benefits not only for our children but for parents and communities, by enabling children to play in spaces that are familiar to them, such as their street or local park, while giving parents peace of mind and encouraging positive interaction between children and the wider community”.

The minister thanked Play Scotland and the play strategy implementation group for working with the government “to create and enhance the fundamental building blocks that will enable and inform a more playful Scotland in which children can realise their right to play every day” He welcomed the play charter, saying “it will help us to further embed the principles of the play strategy, and … encourage us to commit to play as an essential ingredient of children’s wellbeing”.

Adrian Voce

Photo: Dov Rob


Read Scotland’s Play Charter here
Read the full Scottish Parliament debate on the Play Charter here

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