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Outcomes or rights? Parliamentarians’ call for play policy suggests we need both

4 Nov

Recent reports by the Children’s Play Policy Forum and an All Party Parliamentary Group on children’s health have adopted very different approaches to making the argument for play policy. The most effective one, says Adrian Voce, may be a combination of them both.

It may have been as part of a wide-ranging approach to tackling the childhood obesity epidemic, but the call last month by an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for a new national play strategy indicated that the advances in play policy before the change of government in 2010 may not have been so much lost as interrupted (click here to read the full APPG report).

Following on from the publication in August of the play sector’s own latest attempt to make the case for play policy – Tim Gill’s The Play Return, commissioned by the Children’s Play Policy Forum – it also highlights a debate that is familiar to play campaigners. This is the perennial tension between the options of taking a principled stand on play opportunities as a human right for children, and pragmatically recognising that public policy tends to respond not to rights, but to perceived threats – and the evidence of how to best deal with them. Tim’s report frames this debate as being ‘about whether policy and practice should be based on outcome-oriented frameworks, or whether they should be based on other rationales (such as) … the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’, but declines to engage in it.

The APPG report, as well as the recent history of UK play policy, suggests that this tension can be successfully reconciled, but also that it is something of a false dichotomy.

In this case, what is exercising policy-makers is not so much the threat that obesity poses to children’s wellbeing per se, as the impact of the epidemic on the economy. With the Department of Health now estimating the cost to the NHS of being obese or overweight at more than £5 billion per annum, Healthy Patterns For Healthy Families: Removing The Hurdles To A Healthy Family is an urgent call to action by MPs and peers alarmed at what is now widely regarded not just as a public health emergency, but a looming crisis for public finances.

To some advocates, children’s play does not belong in public health policy, and there are undoubtedly risks if we go down this route. Nobody wants to see play provision or playable space only valued for the level of ‘calorifically-efficient’ physical activity it promotes. Such an approach reduces play provision to the junior version of outdoor gyms, which is already a fair description of too many public playgrounds.

Photo: Charlie Russell, Timberplay.

A calorifically efficient playground? Photo: Charlie Russell, Timberplay.

Nevertheless, the APPG report represents an opportunity to press the case once again for the kind of expansive, multi-faceted play policy that many thought we had seen the last of with the short-lived Play Strategy. Among an ambitious range of measures, it calls for: ‘a new legal duty on public health bodies to work with schools and local government to ensure that all children have access to suitable play opportunities, within close proximity to their home and at school; guidance on including play within Local Development Plans; and training and guidance in the enablement of free play for all professionals with responsibility for children, including Ofsted’. Most significantly, the APPG is calling for a statutory duty on local authorities to provide for play – emulating the initiative of the Welsh Government.

These policy asks – not from play advocates, but from Parliamentarians – go way beyond what might be anticipated as a logical response to The Play Return, which was delivered to the Cabinet office in May, 2014, and which, at least as far as public pronouncements are concerned, has been met with a familiar silence.

Tim’s brief was not to develop policy proposals but to ‘look at quantitative evidence of the wider outcomes and impact of play interventions and initiatives’. He found evidence of the benefits of playwork services and a playable public realm to be ‘patchy and fragmented’, citing the ‘comparative lack of studies and evaluations’. Leaving aside the irony that probably the most thorough pilot and evaluation of such interventions ever commissioned – the Play Pathfinder programme of 2008-11 – was scrapped by the same Government now asking for such evidence, Tim’s report illustrates the flaw in following the strictly evidence-based approach.

Whilst asserting that ‘the improvement of opportunities for outdoor play can and should be seen as a valid, worthwhile outcome in its own right’, the report qualifies this by admitting that ‘there may be a need for more quantitative research on the detailed relationship between various benefits and children’s experiences of play’. It concludes that the most convincing evidence is of the promotion of children’s physical activity during school break-times, where these support free play – with only ‘modest evidence’ of other benefits and from other settings.

To give Tim and the CPPF their due, they suggest that play in schools ‘can be seen as a “field trial” of theoretical claims about the impact of improving play opportunities more generally … extrapolating the benefits found in school play to other contexts’. Nevertheless, one can only imagine ministers who have made a virtue of reducing the role of government – deeply cutting public expenditure even on some of the barest essentials of a welfare state – giving such arguments short shrift.

2013’s General Comment on Article 31 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) is clear that the kind of wide-ranging, long-term approach to play policy now advocated by the APPG is an obligation of national government. Those wedded to the evidence-based approach, meanwhile, argue that the CRC has little traction with policy-makers and that we should aim to demonstrate play provision’s efficacy in helping to meet existing policy goals, as The Play Return does.

The experience in Wales, where a national play policy broadly based on CRC principles has led to probably the world’s first statutory duty on local authorities to provide for play out of school, has demonstrated that the rights approach can, in fact, be persuasive. In England too, it was the Charter for Children’s Play, based squarely on Article 31, which set the framework for the scope of play policy ambitions that led eventually to our big breakthrough with the last Government.

Making the case for each of these expansive national play policies included much in the way of evidence. Play for a Change thoroughly surveyed the science of play from the perspective of a number of disciplines; annual Playday surveys demonstrated the popularity of measures to promote play and highlighted the various ways in which play opportunities were diminishing; Play Naturally drew important links between play, ecology and environmental sustainability that were further developed by Tim’s own Sowing the Seeds. There were many other examples, including hundreds of case studies, throughout the 2000s, of research pointing to the vital importance of space and time for children’s play; and of the insidious diminution of both.

Playing, naturally.

Playing, naturally.

What we were not able to produce was robust evidence of the direct outcomes of specific types of ‘intervention’ on a wide enough scale to make a persuasive policy case. The most thorough investigation of publicly funded play provision over that period was the original Making the Case for Play, whose evidence boiled down to simply proving a negative: that play was mainly an ad hoc public service, mainly lacking in serious policy drivers, strategic thinking or significant investment. Play England’s later attempt at commissioning a cost-benefit analysis made for some useful headlines, but a closer reading revealed the hard evidence of links between play provision and improved life chances – the real currency of evidence-based policy making – to be tenuous in the extreme, simply because the research has not been done.

And there’s the rub. Only being able to justify investment in play provision or play-friendly approaches to public space by way of robust evidence of the outcomes of the proposed intervention, is a classic catch-22. The only way to produce such evidence of a kind that satisfies the policy test is through a serious pilot, with an evaluation to match … and this needs investment; such as that in the Play Pathfinder programme, for example.

But Play Pathfinder was far from a stand-alone pilot programme with the rest of the possible policy options on hold pending its evaluation. On the contrary, it was accompanied by the widest-ranging play policy and the most substantial national investment in play provision yet seen. The point is that whilst the New Labour government needed evidence of the impact of its interventions to inform its policy as it developed – and to enable it and local authorities to assess the case for further investment in subsequent phases of the Play Strategy – it had already been persuaded of the need to do something.

Once that tipping point had been reached (and it took the best part of a decade to reach it, not to mention the many years of other campaigns with earlier governments) it was surprisingly easy to convince the government to adopt a broad, strategic approach. In areas where there is not much precedent, governments don’t so much make policy as adopt it.

Ever since Lady Allen argued in Planning for Play (1968) for adventure playgrounds on the one hand, and for ‘close co-operation (between) town planner … and landscape architect (with) all the departments … concerned with children, young people and community development’, on the other, the UK play movement had been developing a model for play policy that came to fruition in the first decade of the new millennium. First the London Mayor in 2005, then the Big Lottery Fund in 2006 and finally the UK government in 2008 each adopted the crosscutting, area-wide approach to play policy that Lady Allen had first espoused in the sixties. That the APPG has now added a statutory duty to the mix shows the extent to which the movement in Wales sustained the momentum – and illustrates the value of policy precedents.

It is reasonable to argue that the London play policy and the lottery initiative served as pilots in England for the national policy that followed. The point here, however, is that in neither case was the persuasive piece of evidence a longitudinal study of the measurable outcomes of a specific intervention.

While most policy makers are concerned with problems more immediate, in their worldview, than play deprivation and how to combat it, the evidence of our own experience is that there are other persuasive arguments for play policy to be taken seriously. And when it comes to the shape of such policy, the CRC, though it may not have been the decisive part of winning the argument, is the recognised framework. This is especially true since the UN’s General Comment on Article 31 clarified that governments have an obligation to ‘promote, protect and fulfil’ children’s right to play by means of appropriate ‘legislation, planning and budgets’.

One disappointing aspect of these two recent developments is that the APPG report makes no reference to the CPPF review. This is perhaps hardly surprising: four years of attrition after such a steep ascent has left the play sector  – and many others – more fragmented than it has ever been. But one thing the campaign for the Play Strategy taught us is that whatever the evidence, it weighs infinitely more with ministers when cited by others. To an austerity government, the play sector arguing for play policy is easy to ignore; MPs making the same case, much less so.

The Play Return makes a valiant attempt to suggest that ‘there is enough empirical evidence for policy makers to be confident that initiatives that lead to improved play opportunities will also reliably lead to (health and other) … benefits’. The play section of the APPG report, taking the CRC and the General Comment on Article 31 as its starting point, looks beyond individual initiatives to a renewed version of the strategic approach that was in place before 2010.

Taken together, they resolve the debate – to make a persuasive case for an approach to play policy that can do justice to its importance.

Adrian Voce


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