Archive | November, 2011

East London Calling

21 Nov

The East London Play conference, organized by the play associations of Tower Hamlets and Hackney, was an inspiring mixture of the old and the new – with some pertinent messages for play policy. Adrian Voce was there.

The more regular occupants of Amnesty International’s UK Centre for Human Rights may not often think about children’s play, but once a year in recent times it has hosted an event that highlights the fact that oppression can take many forms. The majority of delegates to the seventh East London Play Conference, held there on Friday, were in no doubt that the current government’s lack of a play policy in the face of ever-increasing pressures on children’s time and space, constitutes a dereliction of one of its key responsibilities under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Retrospective Theme

There was something of a retrospective theme to this year’s event, or at least a sober reflection that whatever progress there may have been in the last few years, far too many children are still denied real opportunities to play. But there was also a clear-eyed conviction that this movement is strong and getting stronger, whatever the prevailing winds of economic austerity and political disregard.

Bob Hughes

Keynote speaker Bob Hughes kicked off the proceedings by asking the fundamental questions: what is play, what is playwork and does it work? In particular Bob wants the field to honestly challenge itself to consider whether good practice can replicate for children the “wild” spaces and opportunities of natural environments, which research suggests are vital to the full play experience and therefore to individual children’s fulfillment and the successful evolution of our species.

Bob Hughes: the right environment is the key for wild play.

Retrospection here came in the form of the younger, decidedly more hirsute Hughes speaking silently in a video film from the 70s, as the more gnarled present-day version made his case in person. The contrast was striking. His earlier air of almost zealous enthusiasm and conviction has been replaced by a quieter, more sober presence. Bob told us that his message hasn’t changed and, for all that his wit and sparkle are never far away, it was hard to avoid the impression – just occasionally – of disappointment, sadness even, that we are still so far from embedding the playwork ethos within mainstream approaches to designing services and spaces for children. “This is a vocation” he implored us, “you can’t compromise on these things just to pay the mortgage”.  The message wasn’t lost to an audience comprising many who face redundancy or redeployment to non-playwork roles.

On the upside, Bob concluded that playworkers can indeed give children the wild play experiences they need if we get the environments right.

His model for translating what the research tells us into principles of good practice is his most comprehensive and elegant yet. The challenge for the rest of us is to promote them to policymakers, embed them within training and professional development – not just across children’s services, but within planning, landscaping and architectural disciplines too – and to realise them on the ground.

Playing Out

Elsewhere, the conference heard from the inspiring Playing Out campaign, in which some parents in Bristol, led by the modest Alice Ferguson, and the power of the internet seem to have kick-started a new grass-roots movement to simply close residential streets to traffic on a regular basis in order to bring children outside to play with their neighbours. The effects, demonstrated in a lovely film of the children’s own experience, are as magical as you might expect. “My street is beautiful” said one little girl. It hadn’t changed; except that she was now able to transform it into whatever her imagination wanted it to be.

PATH (Play Association, Tower Hamlets)’s current big focus is on play in estates. The ‘then and now’ came from Penny Wilson speaking movingly of PATH’s work on the Boundary Estate, which was built at the turn of the century as the world’s first council housing settlement. The problems of poverty and space would seem to be still there and the project is bringing playwork to children’s immediate environments in order to, almost literally, liberate them from the battery-reared lives that bad planning and urban decay have consigned them to. Play champions from communities here and all over the borough are being enrolled to ensure this liberation is not over-dependent on playworkers, who are of course thin on the ground – and not likely to get thicker any time soon.

There are both contrasts and convergences between the Playing Out project’s transformation of Victorian terraced suburban streets in Bristol, and PATH’s work at the sharp end of social housing in the East End. Alice and her friends have responded to something in their middle class children’s lives that was evident to Bob Hughes and the other original playworkers in the deprived neighbourhoods of our towns and cities. Playing Out is a positive local response to the fact that play deprivation is no longer a threat just to poorer children, but a blight on modern childhood in general.

Despite the gloom of budget cuts affecting job security, Hackney Play Association’s Nicola Butler and a beaming Bridget Handscombe – happily returned to the voluntary sector after a few years with local authorities – spoke optimistically of their training programme for level three playworkers and HPA’s mission to bring play pods into the the school the borough’s schools.

How the German’s do it

A film from Germany showcased the thriving adventure playground and city farm movement there. Of all the European countries, according to social pedagogue, Melanie Kinghan, Germany alone would seem to have resisted the steady decline in numbers of adventure playgrounds since the 70s peak. Discussion raised the question of whether this may be partly because of the higher status of her profession compared with that of playwork in the UK. Whilst envying this, there were some in the audience who saw the green and red card reward and punishment system described there as being “very un-playwork”. “Are pedagogues really like playworkers, or just teachers in boots and overalls”, was the sentiment. For many of us, though, doubts were calmed when the film moved to a wonderful scene of children taking baths outside in mid-winter; their water heated from open fires lit under the baths themselves. The water gets too hot? Time to jump out and enjoy a glorious, naked snowball fight! Ofsted wouldn’t know where to start…


The buzzword of the day was upcycling. Reusing unwanted items by converting them into something better is a practice more necessary than ever in the present climate, but one that has always been close to the heart of the resourceful playworker. An afternoon workshop in the ancient art of blacksmithing was a reminder of how adventure playgrounds, though based on children’s vital freedom to play randomly and wildly, also offer kids the tools and the opportunities to shape and fashion their own environment. This can involve learning skills that require great concentration and discipline. An understanding of what we really mean by play makes sense of the seeming paradox as children and staff together demonstrate, in Brian Sutton-Smith’s words that “play isn’t the opposite of work, it’s the opposite of depression”.

Blacksmiths on adventure playgrounds? The play sector must forge new tools from the fires of austerity.

The blacksmith’s forge at Spitalfields City Farm in the heart of the East End of London – where Joseph Rowntree first decried the terrible cost to city children of the ravages of the industrial age – also offered a potent metaphor for the new age of austerity we are in. The play movement has a strong lineage with the social reformers and community activists of previous eras but must now forge tools from a very modern kind of fire, and create vehicles fit to navigate a rocky new terrain without losing sight of the imperative to make space for children to play, free and wild. For all the progress since Rowntree’s time, the world, not just the East End, has never been more in need of it.

Adrian Voce

If ‘play’s the thing’ we must start with a radical rethink of child policy

17 Nov

Adrian Voce suggests that the new ‘Play Ethic’ should get first things first and challenge the government’s wellbeing agenda to start with children’s play.

There is an interesting two-day conference in London next week, which seems to be aimed at taking on and progressing the wellbeing agenda from the perspective of a new ‘play ethic’ – to inform and progress a new way of working that fosters creativity and innovation and perhaps, therefore, leads to a new and more sustainable economics. It is called Play’s the Thing. But don’t get too excited – children’s play doesn’t seem to feature.

One of the organisers, Pat Kane (the Play Ethic) wrote about the conference themes in the Guardian this week and  asserts the importance of fostering cooperation, innovation and creativity, not as touchy-feely ideals, but necessary components of more sustainable, people-centred business and economic models.  But Although Kane is right to reject the knee-jerk dismissal of the wellbeing agenda, and for all his welcome exposition of a play ethic, he and the other conference organisers appear to be missing one obvious and primary point.

This government has quietly torn up a ten-year plan to create more space for play in the lives of our citizens who need it most: children. Kane makes no reference to the abandoned Play Strategy, nor indeed to children’s play at all. Neither do there appear to be any  contributors to the conference from the fields of playwork, play therapy or children’s geographies.

This looks like an opportunity lost. Without a rebalancing of priorities in child policy, which is now dominated more than ever by narrowly defined notions of old school education and how it is delivered, the play ethic risks remaining a talking point, or at best a more enjoyable way to work for a cultural and intellectual elite. The true value of play for our culture and our society will only begin to be realised with the reinstatement of opportunities to play at the centre of all children’s lives, including the way they are educated and cared for.

The Play Strategy began to do this, and so a robust dialogue with this Government’s wellbeing agenda should start with the simple question: what, David Cameron, is your government doing about the steady erosion of children’s freedom to play?

Adrian Voce

Did we get too close, not to Labour, but to the Coalition?

15 Nov

Adrian Voce responds to Jan Cosgrove’s comment on the Policy in Play media statement of 8 November.

Jan Cosgrove’s very thorough comment – and Fair Play’s dogged research that informs it – deserves, I think, a full reply from me in turn and so here goes.

I think we have to be careful not to take the current government policy (or lack of it, as far as play is concerned) personally, as it were. My view is that we have fallen victim to a general trend towards decentralization, coupled, of course, with the overriding imperative, as the government sees it, to reduce public spending at a rate never seen before. The early deficit reduction measures announced in June last year included many other cuts. However, it is also true that, in their media briefings at the time, ministerial aides did single out the play strategy for particular scorn as an example of New Labour’s (and Ed Balls’ in particular) ‘nanny-state’ excesses (it’s funny, isn’t it, how the political party whose members would have most enjoyed the benefits of having a nanny now use the role as a metaphor for a negatively over-weaning approach to government, but I digress…)

The Conservatives are confused about play. Their policy review in 2008, More Ball Games – to which both Tim Gill and Play England were advisors – majored on it and Cameron himself has cited Play England surveys to bemoan the lack of ‘everyday adventures’ for today’s children. But the report was noticeably short on policy substance, other than a proposed revision of Health and Safety legislation (addressed since the election by the Young Review). Even at the time Cameron was clear that he did not see much of a role for central government. Cameron’s big idea, let’s not forget, was launched with the slogan “Small Government: Big Society”.

This brings me to an observation on the response Jan Cosgrove received to his Freedom of Information request. It is not strictly accurate to say that Play England’s “two contracts were renegotiated into a single, merged contract with a reduced budget to reflect the reduced monitoring role of the organisation”.

Firstly, the contracts weren’t renegotiated, they were terminated (with no adherence, I might add, to the Voluntary Sector Compact that is supposed to guide government agencies in such circumstances). We then negotiated a new one at a much-reduced level. This is perhaps to split hairs, but the more pertinent point is that the new contract was not merely for a reduced version of our role under the Labour government. It was an entirely new contract with a new set of aims and outputs: essentially to support a small number of areas to adjust to the new era and develop ‘Big Society’ forms of sustaining provision so that these could be disseminated and learned from. (This was all done through the Engaging Communities in Play programme, which had its own website of resources for “Playful Communities” and was written up by Paul Greatorex in the report, Creating Playful Communities)

This is an important point for two reasons.

Firstly, Play England has been accused, not least by the Big Lottery Fund, who backed away from their earlier promise of ‘a green light’ for further funding for play once there was a change of government (ironic, given the Coalition’s pledge to make it completely independent of government…), of not being nimble enough to respond to the new policy agenda and thereby secure a role with the new government beyond 2011. The Engaging Communities in Play work shows this to be untrue. Play England was to my knowledge the first, and still one of the very few third sector organisations to have jointly published a policy document – certainly one about a non-school issue – with Michael Gove’s ‘back to basics’ Department for Education.

Following on from our influencing activity with the Tories over a number of years (I spoke at their main party conference in 2007, we had substantial input to More Ball Games, and Tim Loughton spoke very promisingly at the launch of People Make Play in March 2010) I think the way that we reframed our support and development role under this new contract gives the lie to the view that Play England was too close to Labour and paid the price.

However, the second, more important point about Play England’s work for the Coalition Government from July 2010 to March 2011 is that it raises the difficult question of how close we should get to government in general; and on what terms.

Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, knowing now that the Engaging Communities in Play contract led not to an ongoing, albeit smaller and differently focused version of the play strategy, as we had hoped, but to a sudden halt to more than 30 years of national play policy, we may have thought twice before signing.

The aim of working with government is of course to influence its policy or, having successfully done so, to help deliver policy objectives. Now that this has evidently been in vain with the Coalition, at least in the short term, there is an uncomfortable feeling. Did we collude in what was actually the most damaging period of national government for children’s play in decades? Should we have demanded policy commitments before entering into this new partnership?

These are not easy questions to answer. Hindsight is a fine thing and others will have more objective views on all this than I. But as Play England repositions itself – as it surely must – to lead the long march to an unforeseeable policy summit once again, it as a question that we – and Play England in particular – must be willing to honestly consider.

Adrian Voce

15 November 2011

PS Jan’s sympathy for me personally, whilst appreciated, is really unnecessary. I was fortunate enough to occupy the crease while the sun was shining, the sky was blue and there was hay to be made. Whatever else I do in my career, I have the memory of hitting some glorious sixes and the knowledge that these untutored slogs, nevertheless made a difference.

Outgoing Play England director accuses coalition of “betraying a generation of children”.

8 Nov

Media Release, 8 November 2011

The outgoing director of Play England, Adrian Voce OBE, yesterday accused the coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg of betraying a generation of children for abandoning a ten-year strategy to make neighbourhoods, streets and green spaces safer and more suited for children’s healthy outdoor play. He warned that there would be long-term consequences for children’s health and wellbeing.

Speaking after Play England’s annual meeting at a special event to mark his stepping down from the organisation that he established in 2006 under the umbrella of children’s charity NCB, Voce said “the UK government has an obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that children’s right to play is respected and promoted. Yet this government’s policy on children’s play is that it has none.

“In spite of the Deputy Prime Minister’s promise of a task force to investigate new ways to support community play provision, and the statement before the election of the now Children’s Minister Tim Loughton, that ‘it would be a false economy to cut children’s play services’, every penny of government funding for play provision and play policy has been cut.

Voce was damning in his verdict on the coalition’s lack of response to the issue of children’s declining freedom to play out:

“This puts the UK government in breach of an important international treaty, but worse than that, the government is letting down a generation of children, their families and communities who were promised a ten-year plan to reverse the deeply damaging decline in children’s enjoyment of the outdoor world.

“The irony is that much could be done without much government expenditure. The Playbuilder capital programme (which saw 3000 new play areas from 2008-11) would have been completed this year anyway and the aims for the next phase of the Play Strategy were not to spend more money on playgrounds but to change the culture in planning, traffic, parks and policing so that the built environment and open spaces took greater account of children’s need to play and parents’ need to be confident to let them. The Conservatives’ childhood review in 2008 called for exactly such a change but it will not happen without a government lead. As a result, we must expect the trend towards ever-more sedentary indoor lifestyles for children to continue. The government will argue that the austerity measures to bring down the deficit mean sacrifices have to be made but a 100 per cent cut and the shredding of all national policy on play is not just an austerity measure, it is a betrayal, and one which future generations will pay for in the rising cost of obesity, mental health problems and anti-social behaviour”.

Voce congratulated Play England’s members for adopting his longstanding recommendation that it should become an independent charity. “There is huge pressure on charities at this time and going it alone will not be easy, but England’s children need an independent national champion for their right to play,” he said.

Voce, who was this year awarded an OBE for his services to children, announced at the event, in Islington, North London, the launch of his own new campaign to make the case for government action on play which he is taking on to the European stage as a member of the core group of the European Network of Child Friendly Cities.


Welcome to Policy for Play!

7 Nov

It’s a fairly dry old name for a site about children’s play isn’t it? What has play got to do with policy anyway? What business do policy makers have interfering with something as natural as children playing? Aren’t they bound to just make something beautiful and simple, complicated and boring?

Well, yes, if we let them anywhere near children’s playgrounds or other play spaces they probably would (unless they forgot their jobs for a while and joined in – then they might just remember how much fun it is to just play).

The point is that children’s play space is under threat. Increases in traffic volume, real and perceived levels of crime, badly designed housing, fear of bullying and violence and cuts in park and play service staff, have all conspired to make public space, in many areas, a no-go area for children, which means more and more of them are living unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles – stuck at home in front of the TV or computer screen – when they badly want and need to be out playing with their friends.

Policy for Play is a site for anyone interested in changing this. We aim to debate, argue, present the evidence, make the case and generally make a noise for children’s right to play to be properly addressed by public policy. Because if children aren’t playing in public – where are they playing?

It is the responsibilty of all governments, under an international treaty – the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 – to ensure children’s right to play is respected and promoted. It is our responsibility – as professionals or simply as adult citizens and voters – to hold our governments to account for this: to insist on it, because children are generally not in a position to insist on it for themselves.

If you want to hold your government – or governments – to account for children’s right to play, please sign up and we will let you know whenever their is anything new on here to read or link to.

There will be a media release, later this afternoon, summarising the main points of a talk that I am giving after Play England’s annual members meeting and I will follow this up with a full blog of the talk itself.

Thanks for visiting and, as they say …

watch this space!


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