Today’s blog is from Policy Press.
Adrian Voce’s book ‘Policy for Play: Responding to children’s forgotten right‘ publishes today. We caught up with Adrian to find out a little more about the background to the book, what inspired him to write it and why he thinks children’s right to play is ripe for reconsideration by policymakers.
Children’s play is an unlikely subject for a book about policy; what made you want to write it?
Well, that’s one of its main points. Because play is very important to children, but much less so to the adults who control their environments, it is widely overlooked within child policy. But from a wide range of perspectives playing is crucial, both to children’s wellbeing in the present, and to their on-going development.
When considered next to the growing evidence of constraints on children’s play, it is not difficult to conclude that a broad, strategic and sophisticated response is required at different levels of society. And, because all children need to play, this must be a public realm response, which means a key role for government.
The book looks back at the Play Strategy for England, which was abandoned in 2010. How is this relevant now?
Notwithstanding the Welsh Government policy, which makes play provision a statutory duty on local authorities, the Play Strategy of 2008 was the closest a national government has yet come to a full response to Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).
The UN’s own General Comment of 2013 elaborates states’ obligations under the convention to make the plans, provide the funding and legislate as appropriate to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ all children’s right to play. The UK government set out to do that with a 12-year plan in 2008, but because it was then scrapped after only 2 years, there is a tendency to dismiss it as failed policy, or to overlook it altogether.
My book aims to stimulate a fresh look at what was achieved in terms of policy development; not to resurrect the strategy itself, which was of course particular to its wider context of New Labour’s reforms (universal outcomes and so on), but at its principles and its broad approach: as a detailed case study of what is possible in policy terms.
Wasn’t the Play Strategy mainly about new playgrounds? Can play advocates really claim that this is a priority when public expenditure is still under so much downward pressure?
The most significant – and longer term – elements of the play strategy were not the new play areas but the measures to effect change in the way public space responded to children’s needs. Traffic, highways, parks, planning, housing, and policing: these are each important areas of public policy that impact on children’s access to the outdoor world for their play. The approach I am advocating in the book, and which was begun through the Play Strategy, tackled each of these areas – nationally and locally – aiming to cultivate shared understandings, through professional development and joint planning, of what children need from the public realm.
Traffic, highways, parks, planning, housing, and policing…are each important areas of public policy that impact on children’s access to the outdoor world for their play.
One of the ironies of the premature termination of the Play Strategy was that this part of the policy was not expensive in Treasury terms. The plan after 2011 was to embed the concept of strategic partnerships for children’s play within the joint planning and commissioning process of local government – with the incentive of a new national indicator for play – and to provide high level training and facilitation to the cross-cutting professional groupings that would be necessary to make this happen. The decision to scrap this had less to do with finance and more to do with a different concept of the role of central government.
In his foreword to the book, Professor Roger Hart talks about playwork. Where does this fit with your approach to play policy?
Playwork is synonymous, for many people, with childcare for older children but, when practiced properly, it is a new approach to working with children, less wedded to the dominant discourse that informs more established practices and underpins so much child policy. Playwork resists the assumption made throughout the world of education and children’s services – and much of society – that adult responsibilities for children’s future ‘life chances’ override their own designs on their time and space: that ‘we know best’.
If our residential areas became, once again, daily places for children to play… a rapid reversal of childhood obesity would be just one of the benefits.
Playwork serves only children’s play and their opportunity and capacity to enjoy it to the full. In so doing, its theory and practice has assimilated a wide, trans-disciplinary perspective on children’s play, which makes playworkers some of the best – and best informed – advocates for an enlightened approach to play policy that you will find anywhere. If policymakers want to engender a healthy, active child population they really should engage with vocational playworkers, as they know what constitutes playable space. If our residential areas became, once again, daily places for children to play – outside in the common spaces of their streets and neighbourhoods – we would see a rapid reversal of childhood obesity, to mention just one of the benefits.
Isn’t there a contradiction in your recommendations to improve the playability of public space at the same time as expanding the number of staffed adventure playgrounds?
Yes, playwork has always been aware of the paradox of its approach. It’s a profession that aims ultimately to be unnecessary, at least in its direct provider role; but then you could probably say the same about social work and even medicine! Ideally we wouldn’t need playworkers or adventure playgrounds, but that utopia isn’t coming any time soon.
Playwork emerged on adventure playgrounds and one of the most exciting elements of the Play Strategy was the Pathfinder programme to expand their number and to develop playwork as a profession. Instead, we are seeing probably the steepest reduction in real (staffed) adventure playgrounds that we have ever had, and a corresponding decline in playwork.
What are the current prospects for play policy?
Well, the book relates how play provision – let alone strategic planning for more playable public space – has been a big casualty of austerity; but it also touches on the green shoots of new policy emerging, with an All Party Parliamentary Group, the new Children’s Commissioner, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and even the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, all calling for the Government to reinstate children’s play as a ministerial responsibility and to rethink its decision to abandon policy for play.
In more general terms, I think play will become a bigger issue as long as public space is perceived as unsafe and unwelcoming to children. Whether it is out of concern about the consequences of sedentary lifestyles, or out of a realisation that the futures we anxiously anticipate for them are maybe less important than the quality of their lives now – no society (to paraphrase Lloyd George) can neglect the need of its children to play.