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

5 Responses to “Despite current appearances, play policy straddles the political divide”

  1. Perry 4 July 2013 at 9:09 am #

    As one of the voices at Leeds Met last week here’s my view on things…

    ‘It’s not about the money’…

    The last government had a play strategy and supported it to the sum of around £250m, annualised to £50m a year. There were other sums involved but let’s stick with that as it was what most people remember.

    In 2010 the year that the Coalition Government cut the remaining funding left in the pot (peanuts in government terms, but then we did ‘fall foul’ of the austerity cuts), the annual spend on Education was £82.5bn (thousand million). If in one year, never mind five years, we had that level of funding the play sector could have built 990,000 adventure playgrounds, roughly one for each 12 children in England. 1% of the education annual budget would have funded the (English) National Play Strategy around three and a half times more – £825m; three times more resources or a real 15 year programme.

    But it’s not about money, it’s about attitudes…

    Manifesto statements from whatever party are only words unless put into policy. While the Young Report (2010) “Common Sense, Common Safety” has helped change attitudes towards health and safety, we still have to hear about the future of the National Play Strategy three years on.

    The last government had a 10-year strategy to improve play opportunities for children; this programme of spend was only the first stage of it. Play England is keen to hear what the coalition government’s plans are for the future of this strategy.
    Play England Wednesday 11 August 2010

    It’s about traffic – There is more traffic and it is faster. Streets are … felt to be more dangerous.

    Could the Government bring in a policy that helps save more lives and makes the home environment more playable? How about making the driver responsible for any accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists (other countries do it). How about extended the experiments such as Exhibition Road in London, where street marks are removed? How about having more truly pedestrianised areas in cities, such as in Norwich? We have a lovely playable space in the city centre in Sheffield yet traffic flashes past nearby, preventing play ranging by children and others. Costs would be minimal; the whole environment would be improved for everyone but especially playing children.

    It’s about spaces – Every parent understands the importance of a secure environment for their children…spaces where they can play, where they can feel completely free

    Could the Government bring in a policy that gets rid of Nimbyism? Why should four or five adults be able to prevent developments that affect hundreds of children, even in school settings? Having realised that childhood is a precious time, when are we going to take steps to help children make the most of it?

    It’s about health – We know that outdoor play is critical for physical health [and mental health and general wellbeing]

    Could the Government consider ‘upstream funding’?

    New research [A report by Matrix Evidence] finds that reducing investment in play will cost more in the long run… As new research finds cuts to play will cost taxpayers more, Play England calls for Playbuilder to be reinstated.
    Play England Tuesday 19 October 2010

    There is still money in the system even if the pressures to reduce it are ‘unstoppable’ – we know that money spent on play helps keep children more active, more aware, more socially integrated and therefore healthier. When are we going to take the money being spent on gastric bands, plastic surgery and body enhancements and put it to preventative use in work with children? When are we going to encourage playtime in schools across England, not just in pockets where wise heads see the benefits of it?

    It’s about listening to children – We must allow our children to be seen and heard

    Children make up around a fifth of the population, they as much a part of our community as others in it. Reports keep confirming what we know from our experience, UK children are unhappy. That feeling results in apathy, inaction and defensiveness. Perhaps just as we consider the impact of developments on those with disabilities, those from varied communities, perhaps we ought to consider the impact of developments on our children?

    If we need children who are engaged, creative, stimulated and stimulating; motivated to make the best of their lives and others in their world, we need to start thinking a little smarter and a little more fairly, whichever Government is in next time.

    Thanks for the provocation; more please!


    • adrianvoce 4 July 2013 at 11:08 am #

      Thanks for such a full comment Perry.

      As ever, you offer much good food for thought.

      I absolutely agree that, as much as we need to make the case clearer and more persuasively for policy that supports rather than inhibits children playing in the public realm, we need to make inroads into education / schools policy – and not just because that is where the money is.

      This surely means building alliances within that sector, but many in the play field are wary of our agenda getting lost, diluted or compromised in the process. What are your thoughts about that?



    • adrianvoce 4 July 2013 at 11:31 am #

      And just to add, on the question of the Play Strategy, I’m quite sure we will never hear a minister speak of it again.

      Shortly after taking office, Nick Clegg announced a ministerial task force to look at children and families policy, including specifically how the new government would respond to the play agenda.

      It disappeared without trace, scuppered, no doubt, by the double whammy of a Treasury that was intent on cutting things it didn’t understand, and a new Education Secretary with a puritan’s zeal for taking the education agenda back to basics (and out of local accountability).


  2. Perry 4 July 2013 at 11:40 am #

    The one significant thing that makes play people different to other adults in children’s lives is in our relationship to children; I think we tend to be curious about their behaviour rather than predictive of it. We take steps to help facilitate spaces and activities so that children can play more, trusting that children who engage in play will be making decisions and gaining satisfaction, and those actions may lead to potential benefits, but may just as well end when the child has exhausted all possibilities in the moment.

    We have more allies in the education sector than we did several years ago, but we also have a stronger, individualised market economy that is driven by perceived results. If we chose to play the game we need to play by the rules until we can change them; we are not strong enough to kick the board over. I think we need to collect evidence that supports our approach to working with children and the merits it brings; we need to report that consistently and long enough to identify our allies and then we need to push for step changes such as I outlined before.

    The recent proposal by head teachers to set up Instead feels like a possible move to the Finnish style of school inspection – see Guardian Monday 1 July 2013 and Pasi Sahlberg.

    We need to know what our agenda is before we worry about getting it lost; we have been distracted too often in the past, it’s time to get back to first principles:

    • Support and facilitate the play process, recognising that the impulse to play is innate within children
    • Respect the right of children to decide and control the content and intent of their play
    • Recognise that the play process is vital for the child and will take precedence over adult agendas

    and recognise that children are human beings too; not just part of a supply chain that results in more units able to borrow money from the banks.

    Got to go offline now; it’s going to be fun next week! Perry



  1. If the government really wants children out playing again, this initiative must be only the start | Policy for Play - 15 August 2013

    […] on the other. If its commitment to children’s play even partially matched some of it’s rhetoric over the years, this would not have been thrown on the bonfire with such indecent […]


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