Archive | March, 2013

An ethical framework means we need not fear the political fray

28 Mar
A controversy over “child-friendly” planning in Europe is an opportunity to review our ethical framework for play advocacy, argues Adrian Voce

A recent on-line debate around the child-friendly city movement reminded me of a, partly but not entirely, rhetorical question a colleague of mine recently posed: “to be a play advocate, do you also have to be a socialist?”

My immediate answer was “no, but…”

If advocacy for children’s play provision is accompanied by a broader set of political aims, there is a danger that the primary purpose is diluted or that an important part of the intended audience may stop listening[1]. Practically, too, single-issue pressure groups attract supporters and staff from a broad political spectrum. Overt political bias may alienate or discriminate against those who hold different views or allegiances. And, of course, if the legal structure for the advocacy work is a charitable one, then overt political campaigning is not allowed.

Savage cuts

But…these are tactical or practical reasons that don’t really answer the fundamental question (which arose, of course, in the face of the savage cuts being faced by many play services as the Coalition government rolls back whole swathes of the public sector in the name of deficit reduction). Although posed in simple terms, the question is a complex one: when does the professional become political? Can an ethical basis for our movement stand separately from the big political choices? Can we campaign for greater investment in a type of public provision without also coming out for the kind of economy and the kind of government we want?

As individuals, these questions are not hard. We answer them at least every time we vote. But in the professional arena they are not so easy. Many of us work for – or with – the arms of whichever government or local government happens to be in power. Overt political positions for the roles we play here are simply not on. And yet, as we try to develop strategies to cope with the effects of policy decisions that are damaging to so much of what we have worked for, the questions are nevertheless unavoidable.

A consideration of the Rotterdam controversy provides a different context for these questions and, being further removed from our own challenges, may allow the objectivity we need to find some answers.

Is Rotterdam's child-friendly city policy ethical?

Is Rotterdam’s child-friendly city policy ethical?

People familiar with the child-friendly city movement will know that Holland’s second city, host of the 2008 international Child in the City conference, is celebrated for its approach and its achievements in establishing a planning and urban renewal strategy that has (apparently) produced some genuinely playable, child-friendly spaces, integrated within the public realm rather than fenced off in a corner of the park like so many European playgrounds.

Tim Gill, along with many others, has spoken glowingly about Rotterdam, highlighting these developments as examples of what is possible, even in big, crowded cities, when children’s needs and perspectives are properly considered in spatial development and planning policies at a strategic level.

Yet Tim recently featured the city in a different light. A circular about his latest Rethinking Childhood blog asked, rhetorically, if we weren’t in fact now seeing, “the dark side of Rotterdam’s child-friendly city programme?”. The cause for him rethinking, not childhood on this occasion, but child-friendly cities, was a paper by Marguerite van den Berg of the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, which appeared in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

Trojan Horse?

Entitled City Children and Genderfied Neighbourhoods: The New Generation as Urban Regeneration Strategy, the paper looks at Rotterdam’s urban renewal process and suggests that one of Holland’s poorest cities has essentially used the child-friendly city approach as a Trojan Horse for a gentrification programme that is driving out poor families from traditional working class areas.

A feminist critique is central to Van den Berg’s thesis (as the paper’s title indicates). Women’s voices, with their natural empathy for children’s rights, she suggests, have been appropriated to the programme in order to make it seem more benign. In fact, she argues, a policy of replacing existing urban dwellings with new, larger and more expensive ‘family-friendly homes’ is central to the project and this is a deliberate attempt to introduce more middle class families into the inner city residential areas at the expense of poorer families who cannot afford the new dwellings. Her analysis is that that the municipality “appears to be deliberately and actively marginalising poor families, in the pursuit of an image and ambience that will appeal to more affluent and desirable residents” (Part of this marginalization is the framing of children and young people from “troubled”, working class families as villains of the peace, a source of anti-social behavior and criminality. Sound familiar?)

Presenting the gentrification programme as a policy to create a more child-friendly city, is thus, in Van den Berg’s view, a disingenuous cover for a more cynical political objective: stimulating economic growth on the back of displacing the very children and young people who most need to benefit from it – and destroying traditional working class communities in the process.

Citing a lack of local knowledge, Tim Gill has remained on the fence in the debate that this paper has provoked (“given my distance…it would be foolish for me to pass final judgment here”) although he is keen to hear what others think, challenging, as it does, some of the assumptions we may have made about “playable public space”. I have considerably less experience of urban renewal in the Dutch inner cities than Tim and so also claim ignorance as to the merits or otherwise of the Rotterdam policy. But it does cause me to think about the political dimensions of play advocacy. Two different presentations at the recent Playwork conference in Eastbourne are useful here.

Playwork ethics

In “the only way is Ethics” Wendy Russell suggested that a proper code of practice – one essential element in the establishment of playwork as a mature profession – would require a clear and robust ethical framework. This begged the question for me: where does one turn to find the moral basis for an ethical code? Morals are not absolute. Different faiths and cultures may take a different moral and therefore ethical standpoint on a range of the same issues. How then to create a framework that respects individual ethics and yet commands the universal recognition throughout the profession that would be fundamental to its workability? These are questions which have no doubt been debated and to a great extent resolved within more established professions. Wendy brings her own unique – ludocentric as well as academic – rigour to the issue (it is the subject of her PhD) in a way that should serve the profession well for years to come.

Much of the emerging ethical framework will deal with the playworker’s response to individual or groups of children. Questions of integrity, confidentiality, regulatory against personal responsibility, when to intervene and when not to, honouring the play process whilst safeguarding appropriate boundaries: these are issues where the playworker may find an ethical code helpful in addressing daily dilemmas in the play space.

But the playwork principles apply beyond the play space. Indeed, “the prime focus and essence of playwork is to support and facilitate the play process, and this should inform the development of play policy, strategy, training and education”. The practitioner’s role is not limited to face-to-face work, or even its planning, but is also to “advocate for play when engaging with adult led agendas”. Thus, our ethical framework must inform not just our playwork but how we engage with the policy, planning and funding arenas that will determine or effect the provision and opportunities that children are to be afforded.

This brings us back, slightly circuitously, to the politics question. Play policy cannot be developed in a vacuum, but will, wherever it takes hold, be part of a broader agenda that is inevitably determined by a political ideology or programme. What is the ethical framework that will allow us to most effectively engage, as play advocates, with this political process? We can be less equivocal now, I hope, that the answer cannot be Socialism (whose prime focus and purpose is certainly not the play process!) any more than it can be Capitalism, nep-Liberalism, Marxism or any other political ideology. This does not mean to say that we may not find more common ground – and therefore more opportunity for play policy development – within some parts of the political spectrum than others. But we must start from a different place.

Here, another presentation at the Playwork conference provided a timely reminder of not just the right ethical framework for play advocacy, but one that has the status of International Law. I refer, of course, to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

The right of all children to play

Gerison Lansdowne gave Eastbourne delegates a preview of the General Comment on Article 31 of the UNCRC, which explicates in more detail than ever before what steps member states should be taking to ensure children’s right to play under the Convention. It is clear that governments should promote and educate their adult populations in the value and importance of play; legislate and fund sufficient play provision and playable space; and protect the access and inclusivity of this provision and this space for all their children with particular attention to those for whom economic, physical or cultural barriers are greatest. Also underlined by the general comment is the important principle that all articles within the Convention must be mutually enabling. (My fuller look at the new general comment can be found here).

So it is that questions about Rotterdam’s possible hidden agenda in creating a child-friendly city can be addressed with a clear eye. Play advocacy, taking its ethical lead from the UNCRC, would not endorse an approach that saw the creation of beautiful play areas and child-friendly streetscapes if the policy that enabled them also made them exclusive to middle class children, or caused hardship to poorer families.

It is worth repeating that the Rotterdam controversy is one that I have no particular perspective on, but the principle is clear. And closer to home article 31 of the UNCRC, as now expanded upon, should allow us to say, without fear or favour, that cutting play services, with no evidence that they are more than sufficient, is an abuse of children’s rights and a breach of international law.

That’s not socialism. It’s ethical playwork.

Adrian Voce

[1] Many of us recall how difficult it was to gain the serious attention of the Labour children’s minister in the late 90s, Margaret Hodge, after she had been barricaded into her own town hall, as leader of Islington Council some years earlier by a demonstration against play cuts in which the local Socialist Workers Party had a prominent profile.

Let this moment lead to manifesto commitments on play

14 Mar

The imminent publication of a General Comment on Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child may not impress a government blinkered in its vision of a smaller state, but for the play movement it should inform a longer term campaign, argues Adrian Voce.

As we await publication of the General Comment on Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose adoption was announced by the UN on 1 February (and which was previewed at the National Playwork Conference earlier this month) there is a temptation to think that the delay is indicative of the low priority afforded to children’s right to play even by the very organisation which, we are given to understand, is now promoting its importance. The play movement is accustomed to fine platitudes preceding only lightweight or negligible policy announcements.

However, in this case, such suspicions are probably unjustified. Three other General Comments were adopted by the same session of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and we must assume, therefore, that the slow move to reveal what has actually been agreed is a result of bureaucratic inertia rather than anything more cynical. Anyone who has tried to even navigate the UN’s various websites, let alone steer a detailed policy statement through its byzantine committee structure, will be aware how opaque this “government of governments” can be.


In this light, the delay in publication only serves to highlight the achievement of the international play movement represented by IPA in reaching this point. But the interregnum also provides us with an opportunity to say how we might expect our own governments to respond to what will, after all, be an authoritative interpretation of how member states should be recognising, fulfilling and protecting the child’s right to play according to international law.

Of course, what governments should do and what we can realistically expect them to do are very different. The right to play was widely overlooked  – or at best arrived at very late – even when we had an expansive policy framework that looked beyond statutory services to universal outcomes for children. In England, certainly, an administration committed to a smaller role for the state and with an economic argument for reducing it in unprecedentedly large swathes, will not be swayed in the least by what it will regard as an over-prescriptive, theoretical wish-list. Indeed, it will be surprising if the coalition government responds at all.

One reason for this is that, since Secretary of State, Michael Gove literally tore up Every Child Matters (removing the symbolic rainbow logo on his first day in office) and cut the former Department for Children, Schools and Families back to what he sees as its core purpose of reforming schools, there has been no one in this government with play in their portfolio. Quite simply, they have nothing to say about it because they don’t believe it is their responsibility.

Not government’s responsibility?

Prime Minister, David Cameron said as much when, as leader of the opposition, he launched his party’s child policy review, More Ball Games, in 2008, and, in spite of his fine words about children needing “everyday adventures”, let slip that this was a challenge for local, not central government. The subsequent financial crash and towering national debt it produced, only consolidated the Conservatives’ view that a national Play Strategy is the last thing the country can afford. In spite of Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg’s fine speech  in 2010 about a ministerial task force to look at the issue, it was duly one of the first to follow the rainbow into the shredder labeled “deficit reduction”.


Will the UN’s General Comment about children’s right to play help to put the play campaign in England back on track?

But just because the government of the day has turned a deaf ear, doesn’t mean the policy case for play isn’t worth making. Once the general comment is published we must seize upon it. The barrenness of the current landscape and its growing impact on local provision heightens the need for strong, clear advocacy for an alternative approach, based on international law. If this seems unrealistic, we need look no further than Wales to see that it is not.

The sufficiency duty

Whilst  local councils in Wales grapple with the practical implications of their new statutory duty to provide a “sufficiency of play opportunities“,  services in England are being decimated, play spaces closed down, iconic playgrounds demolished. The relegation of play from being flavour of the month to being most obvious candidate for cuts has been savage and has affected all levels of the sector. At times like this resistance is difficult. Many people have been made redundant, others are keeping their heads down, but the movement must regroup, restate its arguments and once again set out the policy case for children’s play provision to be an essential part of public services and the public realm.

The current  UK government may not be interested, but, for play advocates, the General Comment on article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights should be exactly what we need to give our arguments substance and authority – making the case for play’s inclusion in the manifesto of the next one.

Adrian Voce

A timely reminder from the UN that play policy is not an option, but a duty.

8 Mar

The National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne this week heard from Gerison Lansdown, the person commissioned to draft the General Comment on Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Adrian Voce was all ears.


The General Comment on Article 31 (about the child’s right to play) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was expected to be published this week by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It will probably not cause many ripples in Whitehall. Nor is it likely to fire up a headline debate, even in child policy circles. Referred to by the UN itself as children’s “forgotten right”, playing is such a natural, commonplace thing, and so out of the sight and mind of the adult world, that society at large scarcely notices when it is being denied or abused. A slightly obscure, quasi-legal analysis of an international convention with no binding measures or means of accountability will not change that.

And yet, if the inclusion of the right to play within the UNCRC itself was a game-changer for the children’s play movement, leading eventually – as it surely did – to serious policy commitments by the governments of England, Wales and many more, then this General Comment must be seized upon by play advocates as a vital new basis for applying pressure on our elected representatives to take this responsibility seriously and to look again at where play provision sits within their plans for children.

Earlier this week, Gerison Lansdown, the children’s rights advocate who drafted the General Comment with the support of the International Association for the Child’s Right to Play (IPA), gave the national Playwork Conference in Eastbourne a sneak preview.

Gerison began by emphasizing that the purpose of General Comments (there have been 13 to date), is to set out what governments are required to do to implement the different parts of the convention they have signed, or, in her words, “to provide guidance on the measures necessary to ensure its implementation for all children without discrimination and on the basis of equality of opportunity”.

Government action on play

Assuming Gerrison’s text makes it through the committee structure of the UN, the General Comment will therefore set out a policy template – the international equivalent of statutory guidance if you like – for concerted and strategic government action on play.

The first thing it will say is that policy makers have seriously under-estimated the importance of play in children’s lives and its role in their future life-chances. It will acknowledge the potential tensions between planned, organised play provision, and the need for children’s freedom to play without structure, throughout their environment.

Bravely (and possibly controversially for a treatise on a human right), it will also tackle the perennial debate about striking the balance between pragmatism and principle. Gerison spoke of the need to make policy that recognises and responds to play’s intrinsic value at the same time as positioning such policy to address society’s abiding concern’s for children’s health, safety, development and education. Or, in her words “to enhance understanding of the importance of Article 31 for children’s development and well-being, and for the realisation of other rights in the Convention” – as well as play’s importance within its own right.

Necessarily, the General Comment will seek to define what the UN means by play: an “essential component of child development” embodying “fun, uncertainty, challenge, flexibility”. Importantly it will reiterate that play is “behaviour, activity, or processes initiated, controlled and structured by children themselves …”, “non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation … undertaken for its own sake”.

Crucially for the playwork sector the General Comment will talk about “the necessary level of adult oversight and engagement”, the need for “opportunities for risk-taking and challenge” as well as the obligation on states to make “access to reasonable opportunities to inhabit public spaces without harassment”.

Some will be disappointed that the General Comment, will not, it seems, more fully embrace the proposition put forward in IPA’s working paper on Children’s Right to Play – part of the international play community’s attempt to stimulate a re-examination, not just of how states parties should implement the article, but where the article and therefore play itself should sit within the concept of universal rights for children. This concluded that the right to play should be seen as “an integral component, under­pinning the four principles of the CRC (non-discrimination, survival and development, the best interests of the child, and participation)”, rather than, as is too commonly the case now, a lesser adjunct to the right to be educated.

Supporting the conditions where play can take place

Children’s play, this argument goes, tends to be viewed through the policy prism of what services or interventions children should be entitled to, equating it with adult culture or leisure, or something that is only worthwhile to the extent that it enhances children’s education. Many play advocates rail against this. Lester and Russell’s paper posits that a proper appreciation of play’s central role in children’s lives “does not necessarily mean providing specific services; it means avoiding the temptation to dismiss play as frivolous, restrict it through fear for and of children, or control and appropriate it for more instrumental purposes. The principle is to uphold article 31 … through support­ing the conditions where play can take place”.

It was perhaps hoping for too much to expect something that might imply a redrafting of the Charter itself, but it does seem that the General Comment will at least draw clear links between the right to play and the right to participate. Some play campaigners have long proposed that the right to play is much more akin to the wider human right to freedom of movement, association and expression than to any specific type of service, education or otherwise, and the General Comment may well further that argument.

Most usefully, it will set out some unambiguous types of action for national governments, grouped under three broad obligations: to respect the right to play; to fulfill the right to play; and to protect the right to play.

Governments, according to the UN, are bound by the Convention on the Rights of the Child to educate parents and more generally raise awareness and promote respect for children’s freedom to play.

Legislation and funding

But perhaps the most important part of the document will say that Governments should enact appropriate legislation, undertake the necessary planning and allocate adequate budgets to provide for play for all children. In this latter regard it will highlight the disproportionate use of public funding for adult culture, sport and leisure compared to children’s play and call for this to change. Legislation and funding should be underpinned, the General Comment will say, with relevant data collection and research to inform the planning process that should be driven by cross-departmental collaboration and partnerships, populated by a properly skilled workforce.


Under the duty to protect the right to play, some advocates will feel that the General Comment strays too far into safeguarding territory, arguing that protecting the right to play should be about securing land, defending services and protecting children’s freedoms more than children’s safety per se; not because this isn’t important but because safeguarding has its own champions and because children’s safety has already been a major theme of at least three previous General Comments.

Achieving a wider consensus on the need to not overprotect children at the expense of their need to take risks and have adventures has been one of the successes of the UK play movement in recent years, but in a world where children are still commonly prey to abuse (however much moral panics may distort the reality), it is inevitable that any major treatise will draw attention to children’s vulnerability and society’s first duty to keep them free from harm. This should not detract from what, in the round, should be seen as a reprimand to governments everywhere that have treated play provision and playable space as a dispensable luxury, if they have thought much about it at all.

The United Nations, we can now feel sure, will make no bones about its position that this is simply not good enough: that children’s right to play is as important as any other; that governments have a legal duty to provide for it; and that this provision should be universal, substantial and long-term.

Tsunami of cuts

The tsunami of cuts to public services that followed the political earthquake of 2010 and is still gathering force has perhaps made us a little bit compliant with the new realities. Some of us have been browbeaten into accepting that the austere economic climate we are in means it is only reasonable that play policy and play provision is sacrificed. But it is one thing to do what we need to survive; and quite another to supplicate ourselves to the wrong-headed, ill-informed assumption that play cannot be a priority when times are hard.

Elsewhere at the Playwork conference this week, Wendy Russell spoke about an ethical framework for playwork. This is a fascinating topic, touching as it does on philosophy and human values and how these inform practice. It is impossible to engage in this area without considering morality: ethics is about finding or identifying a moral framework for decisions and actions. Yet morals are largely relative. People of different faiths, for example, may hold very different moral perspectives on the same issue because of the different values of their traditions.

Humans Rights are not subject to this relativism. They are universally declared and universally agreed. Children’s Rights are human rights – perhaps the most important category of human rights in the sense that all children are dependent on adult society; our duty to them is absolute.

Respecting, fulfilling and protecting the right of all children to play are profound responsibilities, willingly taken on by the community of nations. This General Comment of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child demands that we, and our governments in particular, take a serious look at how well we are discharging them; and calls for us to do better.

Adrian Voce

Remembering a playful spirit

7 Mar


The first person to read a new post on this site was invariably my daughter, Anushka, who has tragically died, aged 24.

A keen blogger herself, Nush was inordinately proud of my small achievements and always sent a message of encouragement or an insightful comment when I had anything new to say. Although this is a professional, rather than a personal platform (and most of my readers did not know my daughter) I have felt unable to resume this activity without remembering her.

Nush was a passionate, thoughtful young woman with a fierce social conscience and a life-long commitment to environmental and political justice. A creative and intelligent student, she planned to enter teaching but was ultimately overwhelmed by a world that often seems to value standardised attainment and conformity over people’s innate value and individuality.

She had struggled for years with the kind of learning difficulties that are still under-recognised: attention deficit disorder, dyslexia and dyspraxia, and since her mid-teens had suffered from debilitating episodes of the poor mental health that would mercilessly ravage her self-confidence and undermine her plans.

In spite of her struggles, Nush, a natural extrovert, was a truly generous and loyal friend to an extraordinary number of her peers; and a dedicated daughter, sister and cousin. She was a playful spirit, most at home in the world of summer music and arts festivals; or travelling around India with her best friends.

She took a keen interest in my work, profoundly understanding the importance of protecting space to play and honouring children’s self expression over whatever the adult world thinks is best for them. She would have been a wonderful teacher.

Nush is terribly missed, and this site is dedicated to her memory.

Adrian Voce


Anushka Natalia van Staden-Voce
24 November 1987 – 8 August 2012


%d bloggers like this: