Politicians should look closer to home for solutions to play-deprived childhoods

5 Jan

According to London’s Evening Standard, the shadow public health minister Diane Abbott has called for parents to be less protective of their children and allow them more freedom to play out in their local streets.

Leaving aside that the obesity crisis which has given rise to this edict is far from the most distressing consequence of children’s reduced opportunities to play, there is something slightly depressing in a front bench Labour MP finding nothing more to say about the issue than to give parents yet another finger-wagging about the “chips and Playstation culture”.

Ms Abbott should be encouraged to develop her theme, but to challenge not parents but the government – and her colleagues in the opposition – to put children’s play back on the policy agenda. The last Government had a ten-year plan to make all the streets and neighbourhoods where children grow up fit for them to play in. Until such a plan – or an alternative, coalition version of it – is implemented, it is no use lecturing parents, as many Standard readers have pointed out.

Very simply, if the outdoor world is perceived to be unsafe the vast majority of parents will not allow their children out unsupervised – and increasingly, in the modern world, that means they are not allowed out much at all. Sure, there is an unwarranted level of anxiety about some of the supposed threats to children from the big bad world, but  many of the dangers are all too real; traffic being the main offender.

The Coalition Government’s abandonment of the Play Strategy was misguided, to say the least. It would have put children’s play and independent mobility in focus for local planners, as well as pushing children’s play provision much more into the frame for children’s services commissioners. We really were making progress towards a more child-friendly public realm and the irony of the strategy being scrapped after little more than two years is that the remaining commitments did not involve large-scale costs. There were some planning levers, some education for local decision-makers and a network of play champions so that local authorities as a whole, not just education and social services, would begin to see things from children’s perspective. Children were on their way to being recognised as real stakeholders in public space, rather than its potential victims or villains. Community providers would have had the right support to make space for play according to local needs and the pathfinder programme would have established some benchmarks and derived some learning about how to do it best.

As things stand play provision is being seen as a no brainer for cuts; and children’s needs from the built environment are likely to be even more routinely overlooked by the presumption in favour of sustainable (read ‘economic’) development that is the essence of the proposed new slim-line National Planning Policy Framework. The obesity epidemic is just the tip of the iceberg of problems that are mounting up from the complete trashing of national play policy.

Diane Abbott should take a look at the Play Strategy (if she can find a copy) and use it as the starting point for a new agenda to engage her opposite number Anne Milton – who has also called for more play in the streets without proposing to do anything very much about it.

It’s a well worn quote but “the right to play” really is “the child’s first claim on the community” as Lloyd George famously said in 1926. Today’s politicians need to remember that they, not just parents, have a leading role in how communities respond to it.

Adrian Voce

5 Responses to “Politicians should look closer to home for solutions to play-deprived childhoods”

  1. Tim Gill 7 January 2012 at 10:16 am #

    I agree that politicians should stop blaming parents. And we need to join the fight against this government’s frightening proposals for reform of the planning system. However, I am doubtful about the value of resurrecting the national play strategy. In its time, it made a huge difference, as I have argued. But play advocates now need a new approach, if we are to be heard by those who need to listen.
    I’m still trying to figure out what that approach might look like. Given this government’s hostility to strategies of any kind, it will have to link more closely to local community concerns. Alongside campaigning to curb the worst of the coalition government’s actions, I believe we also have get to grips with some of its positive policies, for all their faults: ideas like localism and the big society. You and I are both fans, I think, of one superb case study of this: the Playing Out project. If we do not do this, we risk spending the next three years (at least) on the sidelines.


    • adrianvoce 7 January 2012 at 9:30 pm #

      Tim, my point isn’t that the government should resurrect the Play Strategy (it should have its own, but won’t ever, we know that), but that Labour shouldn’t be so supine about the Coalition’s abandonment of it, or the absence of an alternative policy for play.

      Insofar as they have given it a second thought Labour seems to have swallowed whole the simplistic and shallow line from the Treasury that spending government money on playgrounds is an extravagance, especially in this climate. As far as it goes we have to accept that: we were never going to win an argument for more capital funding, even from a returned Labour administration.

      But scrapping the rest of the play strategy is very crude politics and makes no sense either economically or in policy terms. Play Shaper, Engaging Communities in Play, guidance for planners, training for playworkers and support for local play partnerships were all measures that cost negligible amounts in deficit reduction terms but have been thrown on the bonfire of the quangos in a show, as Polly Toynbee puts it, of callousness and ineptitude that is quite staggering. Callous because it is unnecessary; inept because these are the very programmes that would have given the Big Society some substance and made Cameron’s big idea less of an embarrassment. (I rather suspect Playing Out owes nothing to his Big Society and everything to local people’s initiative and determination).

      I’d suggest the reason you’re struggling for an approach to this government is found elsewhere in your comment. You say they are hostile to strategies of any kind. Well a strategy is just a plan that has some degree of length, breadth and complexity. It’s what governments are for, surely? To marshal and coordinate resources – to develop plans and strategies – to deal with complex problems that affect their constituents.

      A government that hates strategies hates government and will certainly have nothing to do with something so redolent of the ‘nanny state’ as play. They cultivated that term for many years just so that they could make a virtue of axing things like play as part of their mission to rein in the state. Big Society is just a more benign way to describe this, the real agenda: a smaller state, where things like play, and a lot more besides, can sort themselves out.

      This may sound pessimistic, but they have already heard and agreed with our arguments for more and better play provision and more child-friendly public space. The reason we can’t figure out how to approach them about it now is that they don’t think it has anything to do with them.


  2. Meynell 7 January 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    The last line from Adrian is the key one.

    I have been tryong to engage with Sarah Teather and have had an exchange of correspondence and been invited to the Department to meet with an official!!

    This was all documented in iP-D!P. She says that playworkers are doing a vulable job – can we/ how do we capitalise on that?



    • adrianvoce 8 January 2012 at 11:34 am #

      Meynell, I’d suggest liaising with Play England before your meeting. Their funding for the Free Time Consortium gives them a foot (or a couple of toes anyway) back in the door and it always helps to progress things with officials if we are joined up in our approach – and help them to be in theirs.

      Personally, I wouldn’t hold out much hope of anything more than a feigned sympathy from DfE (although if it’s Tom Gibb that you meet with – last remaining member of the old play team – this will be more genuine on his part).

      Both Sarah Teather and Tim Loughton were more than sympathetic in the early days of this government; and it was no coincidence that Nick Clegg made his speech about the (now mythical) childhood taskforce on the day that we were awarded our new contract for Engaging Communities in Play. By the time of the CSR they had been comprehensively squashed as far as play was concerned: by the Treasury’s deficit reduction demands on one side and Michael Gove’s back-to-basics reframing of DfE on the other.

      I think rather than lobbying DfE, in the short-term at least, it may be a more effective strategy to try and engage with some of the big primary and secondary education providers on the one hand, and – as Play England is doing – the more traditional schools sector (teaching unions etc) on the other.

      More broadly, if I was going to seek a meeting with a minister now, it would be with Anne Milton. I think the public health agenda holds out whatever promise there is of something more than tea and sympathy.


  3. Mark Sainsbury 25 February 2012 at 7:48 am #

    I’m not sure what form of engagement with The Welsh Government exists currently, and I’m know we can rely on Play Wales to maximise any opportunities.
    While we have the gloriously ‘callous and inept’ approach to slash and burn any budget our lords and servants have control of, advancing the cause of children’s play (and as a consequence of their needs, the cause of playwork and all the strategising, the training, quality standardisation etc) is going to be as difficult as it ever has been, or even more difficult.
    I agree that Playing Out is one really effective approach to helping to make play happen right where it should be happening, and the cynics in me also says ‘Big Society? my left foot…

    The very least we can do is remember the whole of Lloyd George’s statement…

    “The right to play is a child’s first claim on the community. Play is nature’s training for life. No community can infringe that right without doing deep and enduring harm to the minds and bodies of it’s citizens.’

    …and do what we can locally, regionally, and if really cursed*, nationally to help kids “just get out there and play” and reduce that deep and enduring harm.

    *sorry, of course i meant ‘blessed’, as in those three very mixed ‘blessings’:
    May you live in interesting times
    Be careful what you wish for
    May you come to the attention of the authorities


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