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


7 Responses to “Outcomes or rights? Parliamentarians’ call for play policy suggests we need both”

  1. mickplaymick 4 November 2014 at 7:23 pm #

    Why do we in the play sector keep de-inventing the wheel? “We must speak with one voice” is the cry I hear again and again. It echoes the challenge from Cabinet Minister Chris Smith – the first time play was ever taken seriously. And then we find again, and again, and tediously again that while play people talk and talk it certainly isn’t with one voice. Or is more that we don’t listen to each other?
    Petronius Arbiter in 210 BC said it all: “I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”


    • adrianvoce 5 November 2014 at 1:57 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Mick.

      I think that finding common ground and reconciling differences so as to build consensus and speak with that ‘one voice’ requires the kind of infrastructure (a round table at the very least!) that – in our case and many others – has been largely dismantled by government cuts (aided and abetted by certain ‘parent bodies’ who, when push came to shove, decided to eat their young – but I don’t have to tell you about that!)

      Having said that, I too find it dispiriting in the extreme that whatever resources are still available to our various national groupings in England seem to be deployed, year after year, to anything other than rebuilding a communicative, transparent body for the non-commercial play sector.

      CPC punched above its wait because it was able to create that sense of unity of purpose and accountability to its membership. Not everyone agreed with it on everything (God forbid!) but it was able to speak with some authority as a result.

      We could do worse than seek a return to that model, although it won’t be easy without the core government funding that went the same way as the rest.


  2. plexity 5 November 2014 at 11:11 am #

    It is chilling, not in the sense of Cameroonian chillaxing rather the Edgar Allen Poe variety, to observe that Play Wales’ funding was cut totally a few months ago. Yes, it has been reinstated, that is not the point. We have a bureaucratic machinery, like the Spanish Inquisition operating a deranged ‘outcome-based’ methodology that can produce utterly perverse outcomes, undesired by anyone involved. England is no different. As long as this sort of bonkers box-ticking persists, and lawdy knows, its practitioners know how to persist, that now infamously iconic playground and its vile ilk will keep happening.


    • adrianvoce 5 November 2014 at 2:01 pm #

      Thanks Arthur, the big difference is that, by now, everyone has come to expect the ‘deranged outcome based methodology’, while no one expects…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. bernardspiegal 5 November 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    I tend to think that the ‘play world’ suffers from an absence of debate – not about play as such, but about developing critiques of how we have tried, and continue to try, to affect the wider social and political realm. The tendency has been to address the national and local state in its own terms – outcomes, instrumentalism, etc. Now, that may be necessary as a temporary, pragmatic tactic, but ultimately it is self defeating, responding – note, ‘responding’ – to the weather, when climate change is required.

    And this in part explains why too much faiith should not be placed in the elixir-like, wished-for benefits of play policies, national or local. As with any policy, they are subject to interpretation, and we have no grounds for believing that such policies will be understood and interpreted as we would wish. Which is a long way of saying I seem to lean towards Arthur’s position.


    • adrianvoce 5 November 2014 at 4:55 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, Bernard.

      I think ‘the play world’, certainly in this part of it, has a big fight on its hands to remain viable, let alone taking on ‘the wider social and political realm’ – although I do like the idea!

      I think there is such a challenge to the ‘dominant discourse’ in the work of people like Lester and Russell and Petrie and Moss, but I’m all for more of that, and enjoyed your recent blog for example.

      For my small part, I have created a relatively narrow focus for this site which is based on the simple premise that making space for children’s play is a societal responsibility and therefore a duty of government. I use the word ‘policy’ to mean the approach, plans, strategies and proposed actions of government (as distinct from mere policy statements, which, as you say, can be open to interpretation – or ignored).

      I agree that we shouldn’t have faith in play policies, but I do think we have to insist upon them and get involved in developing and delivering them (which will mean making mistakes and risking the kind of brickbats that come from getting close to government) – and, of course, holding government to account for them.

      Policy, in these terms, is simply the vehicle for action; establishing its premise, framing its intent and setting out commitments to its execution. Without these it is just platitude and no one needs that.

      But children do need the public realm to respond to their need to play – and that means government policy for play, because the market will not deliver it.


  4. FPFC News (@FPFCNews) 6 November 2014 at 9:23 pm #

    There’s a lot to agree with here, and also I echo, again, the question, ‘why do we let them keep making us reinvent the wheel’ when they know full-well the value of Play. Is it just lip-service or are they constrained by the latest crisis ‘the system’ has thrown up to beggar the poorer elements (80% +) of society? Maybe, review that system, eh? You know the one operating on the Gaderene Swine principle into a abyss of future global break-down and degradation of humanity at its own (richest) hands.

    By all means, have a statutory duty, and let it be A31(Right)based with GC17 informing the decision-makers and their advisers/servants about the proper framework.

    Government WILL have to tackle what I see as perhaps the greatest thief of residential street play, the private car, or more accurately the owners who have conducted a mass-and-free privatisation of that space. IMAGINE THAT, if you will. Because unless you can, and then go beyond imaginings, our kids will continue to be under house arrest, their jailors their own parents and communities.

    We have all the evidence, it’s all around us – not what play can achieve but what happens when it’s prevented. Never mind organising pond-dipping, tree-hugging, nor tokenistisc once-in-a-while play streets – BTW they were originally known as street playgrounds …. hmmmm.

    It will take time to get new legislation, so let’s not waste time and let’s use what law is there – again, I rattle on about S508 and s507a&b of the 1996 Education Act. The DUTY is there, also duty to consult kids, it covers out-of-school, it addresses play, youth and other activity areas, it gives councils powers to do things as well as requirements of provision.

    Now, it does need some tampering with – that part of S507b which allows LEAs (that’s who have the responsibilities) to excuse themselves with the phrase “as far as is practicable” re youth provision (or more accurately provision for those 13 and over. That has to be removed for it’s allowing some LEAs to almost remove provision.

    Also, a new clause needs adding, that the provision should reflect obligations under Article 31 and other relevant articles and advice of the UN.. I’d also want to see added a clause that creates Play Council, a statutory body with charter, independence and funding powers, as per the Arts and Sports Councils provision for adult recreation and culture (see A31.2).

    This is what I will be taking to Fair Play’s membership and supporters as the main plank of our 2015 GE campaign and sod the new lobbying law, we ain’t a charity.

    This is a good debate, bang on target. We’ll be drafting a report for the UN Human Rights Committee re the UK quinquennial review, any want the time-table, just email me. It will have things to say about all this, contributions welcome.


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