Archive | 11:32 am

Despite current appearances, play policy straddles the political divide

3 Jul

The Conservatives don’t get play, right? Think again.

“We know that outdoor play is critical for physical health. Studies have shown … how it (also) de-stresses the mind. Play makes children more sociable, developing their communication and language skills and basic social skills such as sharing and negotiation. Play and recreation are critical in the development of children’s cognitive and emotional skills – potent tools in raising happy, healthy and productive members of the British economy.

“The creative and social skills that children develop through play help them to develop lateral thinking and emotional intelligence that are becoming increasingly important in a globalised, non-hierarchical economy. Play … leads to higher self-esteem, better inter-personal competence, higher aspirations, and a heightened motivation for learning and self-efficiency.

“We must allow our children to be seen and heard. In particular, children playing outdoors…are a very good way to do this. But it is not just children who benefit from outdoor play. When parents take their children to the playground … they meet other parents and friendships are forged, communities are created. We have to find the means of re-establishing the cycle of responsibility, recreating the neighbourly society… safe for children to play in the shared spaces [where] parents may gather round. This is the start of community. The more opportunities children have to play, the more different people meet and the safer a neighbourhood becomes.

“However, the outside environment for children is much worse than it was even a generation ago. There is more traffic and it is faster. Streets are … felt to be more dangerous. Today, just one in five children regularly play outside in their neighbourhood. The rest are denied the chance to get out of the house and have the everyday adventures that – to people of my generation – are what childhood is all about. 

“Every parent understands the importance of a secure environment for their children…spaces where they can play, where they can feel completely free, where they can safely push at the boundaries, learning and experimenting. Places where different generations can meet, binding the community together … So we have to be innovative, we have to find new solutions … developed in the context of the upcoming Spending Review”.

At the recent play conference at Leeds Metropolitan University, I was struck by the evident consensus that, as far as play was concerned, the coalition parties were interested only in how much could be saved from cutting provision for it.

This is understandable. I have used these pages many times to decry the dearth of play policy from this government and have even suggested that more right-wing Conservative trends are innately hostile, certainly to the rights-based approach such as that now advocated by the UN.

a strand of Conservative thinking at a senior level has in fact embraced the play agenda

This is not the whole story though. There is a strand of Conservative thinking, at a senior level, over the last 15 years that has in fact embraced the play agenda. Key policy makers in the party during its long years in opposition recognised the profound importance of free play for children, saw the deep seated problems of play deprivation and pointed out the terrible long-term consequences of “battery reared children”, not just for them, but for their communities.

Certainly, there has been precious little to cheer about since they took office with their Lib Dem partners, but it is self-defeating as well as inaccurate to take this as an indication that the Conservatives “don’t get” play.

After so many years of striving in a policy desert to define a different kind of practice and get recognition and resources for a better kind of provision for children, the play profession is perhaps a little too ready to revert to the siege mentality that this bred. “No one likes us and we don’t care” may be an attitude to engender comradeship – and this is certainly a strength of the play community – but it does little to engage those we should be seeking to influence.

play policy simply fell foul of the unstoppable force that has been austerity, austerity, austerity

While it is true that the education policy of Michael Gove – stripping much of the former Department of Children, Schools and Families away to focus on his radical agenda for schools – has not helped the play cause, the more pertinent fact is that, like much else that wasn’t deemed absolutely essential, the emergent play policy, of the Conservatives in particular, simply fell foul of the unstoppable force that has been the government’s deficit reduction strategy: austerity, austerity, austerity.

The Conservatives – and the Lib Dems by default – did not go cool on play, per se. Rather, they have relentlessly driven through an agenda that massively reduces the role – and the size – of the state across almost every area of public life. This was never particular to the play sector, and we both over-estimate and underestimate our significance if we don’t understand that.

In a different economic context,  the coalition government of David Cameron may be more receptive to play policy.

In a different economic context, the coalition government of David Cameron may be more receptive to play policy.

The passage in quotation marks at the head of this piece? It’s a composite of policy comments made between 2002 and 2010, by Oliver Letwin, Cabinet Office Minister and Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Review, David Willets, Universities and Science Minister, David Cameron, Prime Minister and Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister. That none of this, bar the modest advance of a high level statement on risk-benefit in play from the Health and Safety Executive, has materialised as government policy has been disappointing, but hardly surprising given the extraordinary economic circumstances. The Chancellor’s policy for dealing with these has trumped almost everything else.

There is a much bigger argument than what role should public policy have in providing for children’s play. It is one of the oldest political arguments of all: what should be the role of the state in economic activity and public life?  In difficult economic times this debate is louder than ever and tends to drown out lesser ones, not least because we all tend to know which side of it we take.

But our role is to make the case for play to both sides of the argument, so that when it is settled (as much as it ever is), our voice is one of those that can still be heard.

Adrian Voce

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