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Will 2014 see a play movement fight-back?

9 Jan

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

A personal message from Adrian Voce.

“The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 8,400 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it”.

Well, that is how Word Press have described the traffic on this site in 2013 in their annual report of my site stats. Without being an avid blog follower myself (so much to read, so little time…) I’m not quite sure what these stats represent in terms of the site’s true readership, but I suspect it is rather more modest than the host’s fireworks would have it. Nevertheless, it is gratifying to know that a few people are interested in my news and musings.

Time and space for children to play, in environments that afford them the fullness of that elemental experience, has arguably never been more difficult to come by in the modern era – in spite of the international community being clearer than ever that it is one of the most important human rights. To claim that public policy and government institutions – local, regional, national and pan-national – have nothing to do with this, is a folly of the highest order, or worse: a cynical lie.

The design and provision of children’s services; the management of traffic in residential areas; the policing of public order and neighbourhood disputes; the planning and design of the built environment; the design of the curriculum and the way that schools are managed and inspected; how we “educate” children in their early years; what passes for childcare; the design and maintenance of parks and open spaces – these are all areas of public life in which children have a huge stake, and where policy decisions shape their opportunities to play – for better or worse.

As things stand, if you were a child with sufficient insight into how public policy impacts on these areas, you would be forgiven for thinking that the needs of employers, car-owners, businesses, park-keepers, anyone irritated by the sound of you playing with your friends; even dogs were more important to society than your need to play – to be yourself. You might conclude that this was not, therefore, your right at all, but a childish whim, an aberration leading only to the naughty step.

I caricature for effect, as campaigners tend to, but there is a problem real enough for even pillars of the establishment as diverse as the Chief Medical Officer and the National Trust, to have highlighted over the past year. Children’s opportunities to play in space – social and cultural as well as physical – that is suited to the task, are continuing to diminish.

The toll of this atmosphere of what can only be described as cultural oppression, is untold. Obesity, rickets, self-harming, depression and eating disorders are all on the increase in young people, but very few politicians are willing to see the evidence that stares them in the face. Children have no vote, and so – play being the one area of their lives that is, or should be, entirely their own – England has no play policy.

Local decisions are increasingly reflecting this criminal omission, as Tim Gill’s recent blog about the decimation of local play services starkly describes. “Hard choices need to made” is the mantra, as ministers make a virtue of closing down or massively contracting whole areas of public life; except that, if the victims of these choices are children, it’s evidently not that hard at all.

2014 will be a crucial year for the play movement. In May 2015, if the Coalition Government remains intact until then, there will be a general election. Now is the time to seek manifesto pledges and other policy commitments from the political parties who will be campaigning for votes. The way to do that is simple, but not easy.

Will 2014 see the contraction of space to play become an election issue?

Will 2014 see the contraction of space to play become an election issue?

We need to promote awareness within the electorate of the value and importance of play and play provision; highlight the plight of the many children living with play deprivation; educate voters about how this has come about and its direct link to public policy; make a cohesive, evidence-based case – including the economic one – for the policies that would turn the tide; and we need to make allies in these policy asks from across the spectrum, without diluting or compromising our core aims.

How the play movement in England plans to do this is less clear. Playwork – that uniquely British approach which has so progressed our understanding of the nature of play, the role of the adult and the importance of the play space – is under the cosh. The revenue budgets necessary to sustain staffed provision are disappearing. Adventure playgrounds are being torn down or turned into something else. Playwork courses are being closed. Equally worrying in the longer-term (Skillsactive’s Register of Playwork Professionals notwithstanding) playwork does not seem well represented, if at all, in whatever policy fora remain open to us as a sector.

For my part, I plan, among other things, to increase the number of posts to this site. A modest contribution to the cause, perhaps, but we will all need to pump up the volume if we are to once again plant the child’s right to play in the minds of our would-be leaders as an issue worthy of their serious consideration.

If you share my concerns, and my ambitions for a play policy for England – or find any value at all in what you read here – you can help by sharing a link to the site through your own networks and social media.

Happy New Year – and thanks for reading.

Adrian

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