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Will the Welsh experiment succeed in unlocking space for play?

17 May

In the first of two reflections on this year’s Spirit of Adventure Play conference in Cardiff, Adrian Voce hears (again) about how children are (still) routinely denied their right to enjoy space to play, but takes heart from the Welsh Assembly Government’s unprecedented legislative response to the problem.

At the Spirit of Adventure Play conference on 16 May, Roger Hart, the New York-based academic and children’s rights advocate, addressed a now familiar dilemma. “What will it take” he posed, “to persuade parents and other gatekeepers of the importance of children’s access to public space, and to create places that they trust”.

Roger was here to tell us, that far from being a uniquely British problem, children’s proscription from the public realm is occurring to some degree throughout the developed world. He illustrated his point with some impressive maps showing the geography of different ages of children in an American suburb. The ‘free-range space’ of today’s 9-12 year olds was equivalent to that of the 5-8 year olds of the previous generation. And the freedom to roam of today’s 5-8s? Gone completely.

The need for evidence

The causes he cited for this creeping imprisonment of children in their homes were as familiar as the problem itself: traffic, fear of predators, poor planning. He also lamented the dearth of good evidence. The odd home zone case study, he said, is no substitute for robust comparative evaluation. Indeed, their is such a lack of data in this field, he confided, that he has himself presented fictitious charts to show the relative merits and otherwise of different types of community space for children – just to be able to make his point (as a respected academic, he hastened to add, he admitted his deception on each occasion)!

The second keynote speaker, landscape architect, lecturer and author, Helen Wooley continued the theme of children and public space, presenting a study of how this is negatively controlled by policy and practice. Looking at the experience of skateboarders – a community, she reminded us, that is highly social and self-regulating – Helen drew a convincing, if depressingly familiar picture of a world in which the physical space that young people would use is routinely proscribed from them by economic and even legal mechanisms that reflect a socio-cultural rejection of youth, based on nothing more than blind prejudice.

Kit, fence and carpet

Helen also challenged the idea that many of the spaces that are prescribed for children – public playgrounds – are really places for them at all. Uniquely among the hierarchy of public spaces, the traditional playground, she asserts, generally has no design concept but is a simple receptacle for the ‘kit, fence and carpet (KFC)’ whose play value is often negligible. Careful to acknowledge that there are honorable exceptions among equipment manufacturers, Helen was nonetheless damning of the industry, not least in the way she says it too readily ducks the charge that it has reduced play to a series of gross motor tests – blaming, instead, the commissioning authorities.

Both speakers congratulated Wales on its latest response to these issues: the Welsh Assembly Government’s Consultation on Statutory Guidance on Play Opportunities, launched on 13 April. This follows on from the Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010, which set out a legal duty on Local Authorities to assess the sufficiency of play opportunities in their area and confirms Wales as the country most committed to creating a legal policy framework for a child-friendly, playable public realm.

Roger Hart, in particular, praised the consultation document (“a great bedtime read!”), but also sounded a note of caution. To generate the demand for real changes to public space, he says, we have to persuade parents and other gatekeepers of the full range of benefits that free play brings. To then turn this demand into reality needs to involve engaging children in truly participatory local planning and design processes for their own neighbourhoods. He was critical of some participation practice as tokenistic (“attending committee meetings twice a year, or answering a load of questions”), and called for more hands-on, three-dimensional activities that really allow children to contribute.

This, he suggests will lead to a self-fulfilling virtuous cycle resulting in genuinely child-friendly public spaces in our towns and cities. Involving children at a very local level, he says, will not only mitigate against poor planning decisions, but engender the kind of civic culture that makes for more livable communities in general: people will come to trust places that they have helped to create, feel more affinity with their neighbours and, over time, be more inclined to let their own children play out as a result.

Unprecedented

Whether the unprecedented legislative measures taken by the Welsh will indeed have the effect that Roger and Helen and so many others hope for, remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: these developments (for which Play Wales should be given huge credit), give the lie to the notion that play policy is only viable in times of economic prosperity.

Two years after scrapping the national play strategy for England and replacing it, so far, with absolutely nothing, ministers in Westminster should reflect on what Wales is doing for its children, and hang their heads in shame.

Adrian Voce

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