The Flourish Summit, organised by the Save Childhood Movement in London last weekend, presented an impressive array of writers, academics, researchers and practitioners, all talking about what the latest research tells us of the state of modern childhood, and how we should aim to improve it. Adrian Voce noticed a common theme…
There were psychologists and neurologists, psychiatrists and teachers, philosophers and kings (I made the last one up, but I did spot a Baroness!) With such a diverse collection of eminent thinkers at last weekend’s Flourish Summit, one might expect a wide range of different analyses and solutions. Yet there was a surprising degree of convergence around one major issue. And the word that came up over and over again was play. “Children aren’t getting enough of it and this is a serious problem”, was the almost universal theme throughout the two-day event.
The causes were slightly more controversial. The ubiquitous presence of electronic screens in children’s lives came in for serious condemnation from some, less from others. Poor planning, unfettered traffic, inequality, paranoid parenting and rapacious marketing all came in for their share of blame for the range of poor outcomes for Britain’s children. But over and over again the solutions were the same. After basic loving care and boundaries, what children from the earliest age need most is play, play and more (outdoor) play.
Support for street play
In spite of this, there were, sadly, no play academics as such on the programme. Tim Gill, once of the Children’s Play Council, spoke of the recent gains in rolling back an oppressively risk averse culture, especially in playground design, while Cath Prisk of Play England had some good news about government funding to support street play. But against these modest advances the repeated, often heartfelt calls from educationists and others for children to be given more time and more space for free, outdoor play – in and out of school and nursery – was the most striking thing about the event.
Many speakers roundly criticised education policy – not just the current government’s but longer-term trends in general, especially for the early years. This was perhaps unsurprising given the links that this movement has with the Open Eye campaign. Dr. Richard House, of the University of Winchester, an Open Eye founder, only half-jokingly called for a campaign of ‘principled non-compliance’ in the face of a government that has dismissed the importance of free play, saying ‘there is revolution in the air’. Others echoed the cry.
Even Baroness Greenfield, the Oxford Professor who has controversially linked excessive screen-time to ADHD and even autism, effectively called for a national play strategy saying, “it is not enough to try and restrict access to screens: we must create a more attractive alternative”. Now where have I heard that before?
The Flourish Summit was like 2007 revisited. It was then that a similar list of the great and good from academia, politics and literature wrote to the Daily Telegraph demanding the government to act to protect shrinking childhoods and ‘let our children play’. The wave of support for action on play that swelled up around that time enabled us to amplify our case for a serious national play policy in England and for those campaigning for it to extend beyond the play movement. This gave us the extra momentum that took us all the way to the Play Strategy we had been campaigning for for nearly a decade and which, if it hadn’t been for the change of government, would now be into its sixth year.
The Play Strategy set out over twelve years to transform our public realm, making all neighbourhoods into child-friendly places, perceived to be safe by parents, seen as fit for play by children; and building a new generation of play areas and adventure playgrounds designed for children rather than the maintenance budget or the health and safety officer. These are just the kinds of response now being called for with even greater urgency by those best qualified to know the consequences of not acting.
Many other, non-governmental agencies have taken up the challenge since the plug was pulled. We heard yesterday from the National Trust, for example, whose Wild Network and Project Wild Thing are turning the flair of streetwise marketing ‘creatives’ to the task of selling the outdoors to children. Playing Out, conversely, is a grass roots parents’ movement aiming to help others to arrange regular play days in their own streets by the simple means of closing them off to traffic, which is not as easy as it sounds. Play England’s new Health funding will deservedly see resources going into helping this inspiring project to grow.
Making the case – again
There are many more examples. Providing for children’s play is a self-evident need for any community and the resourceful ones will always find a way to do it, whilst intelligent organisations like the NT will see their responsibility for it too. But the need for space – accessible, everyday, ideally natural space – for all children to play is so universal and so acute that only the government can really command the resources and marshal the sectors that need to respond sufficiently to have the impact that is needed. This government may not be interested in a play strategy, even of a different hue – certainly not one led by what used to be the Department for Children and is now very much the Department for Education – but the case for one is stronger than ever; and we are only two years away from an election.
The play movement, especially the playwork sector, which is facing decimation as the impact of austerity cuts swathes through local play services, is asking itself at the moment, “where do we go next, what do we need to do to protect play provision, to fight for playwork?”
The answer, if we believe space for play is a societal responsibility, must always be in policy. It’s way past time for the case to be made for a new Play Strategy.
The Save Childhood Movement is launching the first National Children’s Day on 15th May