Archive | January, 2016

Policy for children’s play is crucial – and not just for better health

29 Jan

Published yesterday on the LSE’s policy and politics blog:

Children’s play is a subject that has all but disappeared from the policy agenda since 2010 – other than as a target for cuts and privatisation. Yet the last Labour government led the world by introducing a 12-year Play Strategy for England: an issue that Jeremy Corbyn seems keen to resurrect. A new book by Adrian Voce OBE, describes the policy, what it achieved, and why a new version of it is badly needed. Policy for Play, he argues, should be a priority for the government, not just as part of its anti-obesity programme, but as an integral part of supporting good childhoods.

The forthcoming National Obesity Framework, long promised by Downing Street to address the ever-growing health problems arising from poor diets and inadequate exercise, has prompted the All Party Parliamentary Group on A Fit and Healthy Childhood to publish its own report of the same title. Key among the cross-party proposals is a greater accent on children’s informal activity. This would mean making a much bigger priority of their need for time and space to play – freely, in the common spaces and places of a child-friendly public realm. In 2014, the parliamentary group, co-chaired by the former children’s TV presenter, Baroness Floella Benjamin, called for children’s play to be reinstated as a ministerial responsibility and for a new national play strategy to be developed that should include a statutory duty on local authorities to make sufficient provision for play, as is now the case in Wales.

Given the subject’s previous absence from national debate since the Coalition Government abandoned Labour’s national Play Strategy for England in 2010 – after only two of its planned 10 years – the proposal received a surprisingly diverse array of endorsements. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England proposed that ‘policy and strategy for children’s play and recreation should be reinstated as a ministerial responsibility’, and that ‘sufficient provision for play should be made a statutory duty for local authorities in England’. The new Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield promised: ‘over the next five years I will be ambitious in helping children to develop their independence and freedom through play…’play strategy

Perhaps most surprisingly, the soon-to-be Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn agreed, writing an opinion piece in the Sunday People to highlight his support for the parliamentary report and condemn the Conservative government for its “tough choice” to prioritise corporation and inheritance tax cuts over funding for local authorities’  ‘maintenance or improvements to play areas’.

It is true that local play budgets have been drastically reduced since 2010, when Michael Gove’s restructured Department for Education (no longer Children, Schools and Families) sacrificed most of its extra-curricular programmes to shore up the schools’ budget and still contribute to ‘deficit reduction’. The 12-year Play Strategy(2008) was abandoned and Nick Clegg’s promise of a new Coalition policy for play came to nothing.

The abandonment of national policy – and the £400m of central funding, since 2006, that underpinned it – saw play provision become a disproportionate victim of austerity.  A report by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE, 2014) found that across the 32 local authorities (of 152 approached) able to comply with a Freedom of Information request on play budgets, there had been an overall reduction of 54 per cent between the years 2008-9 and 2014-15. This figure is thought to be widely under-representative of the true picture, with many of the authorities failing to comply because there was no longer even an officer with responsibility for play. Many play services and play areas have consequently been closed or privatised, such as in Battersea Park on the south bank of the Thames, where children wanting to climb and swing in a place that was, for more than forty years, an iconic open-access adventure playground, now have to pay between £18 – £33 a session for the privilege.

Yet the Play Strategy was always about more than improving and expanding playgrounds. The bigger challenge was to reverse the modern trend of the ‘battery-reared’ childhood: children confined to their homes, or to structured, managed activities, as the outdoor world becomes increasingly out-of-bounds to them; and formal education concerns itself almost exclusively with their future employability. These phenomena are not the result of inadequate or insufficient playgrounds, but the conflation of a number of long-term changes both to public space and how it is perceived, and to childhood itself, constructed by political discourse and shaped by public policy. Those who applauded New Labour’s ambitions for a more child-friendly, ‘playable’ public realm – and are now calling for children’s play to be revisited as a policy theme – are as concerned that these deeper issues be re-joined as they are that local playgrounds should be better supported against closure.

The ‘licence to roam’ and play as a human right

policy-for-play-finalChildren’s play is recognised as a human right by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the UN expanded on what this implies for policy in 2013, when it issued a General Comment calling on governments to elaborate their plans for legislating, planning and funding to provide for it.

Pragmatically, though, the bigger driver for a meaningful response is likely to be the health implication of children’s increasing inactivity. Public Health England estimates that a third of 10-11 year olds and over a fifth of 4-5 year olds is now obese. While policymakers focus on how to improve diets and increase formal exercise, studies of the calorific efficiency of children at play demonstrate that freely playing children frequently engage in more intense levels of physical activity than in even the most vigorous organised sports. Unlike sports, however, the activity is spontaneous, for no reward and enjoyed by all children. Thus, children rest and exert their bodies alternately in a self-regulated, natural rhythm over sustained periods. So convinced was he of the physical benefits of free play that Dietz, writing in the British Medical Journal in 2001 about the coming obesity epidemic, opined that the ‘main solution’ was ‘to simply turn off the TV and let them play’.

Whatever the incentive to re-establish a meaningful response to children’s need or right to play it will involve taking on a number of long-established policy areas where their needs are rarely considered; and, ultimately, one where they are construed to be less important than – or at best, equivalent to – their future needs as adults.

One oft-quoted measure of children’s declining freedom to enjoy outdoor space unsupervised – their degree of independent mobility, or ‘licence to roam’ – has been the proportion of them walking unsupervised to school. A study by the Policy Studies Institute in 1990 found that this figure fell from 80 per cent in 1971 to a mere 9 per cent by 1990 and more recent studies suggest this figure may now be even lower. A policy for play must tackle the causes of this withdrawal.

Traffic, planning, and housing

Research perennially reveals that cars, vans and lorries – moving and stationary – are the greatest barrier to children’s independent mobility and the street play that goes with it. Traffic calming schemes alone do little to address the problem. What is needed is a major and long-term rethink of how we conceive streets where people live. The pervading model of roads with dwellings down each side has resulted in whole neighbourhoods, districts and cities becoming devoid of children playing on the pavements or in the ‘shallow sidewalk niches out of the line of moving pedestrian feet’ (Jacobs, 1961), as they had done in previous generations.

Street play schemes are a grass roots attempt to reclaim this space from ‘king-car’ but must lead in the longer term to more home-zones, pedestrian areas, and shared space designs – as the norm, not the exception – so that the streets where people live are once again for people of all ages to enjoy, not just for vehicles to drive down.

To the extent that planning decisions directly impact on the shape and nature of the built environment and how it responds to people, national planning policy and local development frameworks should specifically identify space for children’s play as a planning priority, while planning guidance for housing in particular should specify minimum standards – quality and quantity – of play space in new developments, such as those produced by the Mayor of London in 2006.

Policing and anti-social behaviour

A society that proscribes hopscotch, ball games and young people simply hanging out together, while accepting a daily toll of death and injury to children simply trying to get from one side of a street to another clearly has a long way to go to create a child-friendly public realm. A report by Demos in 2006 provocatively suggested that an ASB hotline should be established not for reporting nuisance by young people, but for them to log the many instances where they are harassed by adult society (such as the use of the notorious ‘mosquito’ buzzers) for simply being out in public.


This may be a step too far even for a radical like Corbyn, but a successful play policy will need to engender a more sensitive, enabling approach to the policing of children and young people.

Childcare and Schools

Increasing the availability and affordability of childcare, not just for preschool children, but those in their primary years too, has been a major policy for successive governments. Labour’s manifesto in 2015 included the promise to ‘introduce a legal guarantee for parents of access to wraparound childcare from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through their local primary school’, but since the end of its flagship Every Child Matters policy, much less attention has been paid to the quality of such provision, which too often amounts to children being effectively kept in school for up to 10 hours a day. It was part of the long-term play strategy that ‘extended services’ should contain a basic offer of staffed play provision, appropriately staffed by qualified practitioners. This would entail enriched play environments, including a requirement for outdoor space, and an adherence to the recognized standards of playwork.

For most communities, the local school is the greatest resource solely for children. The vast majority are narrowly focused on the curriculum, driven by a policy agenda that prioritises children’s narrowly defined ‘future life-chances’ over their needs and aspirations as people now. At the very least, school grounds are potential play spaces for local children throughout the day, and all year round, but are generally out-of-bounds when lessons have finished. With a more outward-looking, community-focused approach, these under-utilised public assets could become local ludic hubs. This would go a long way towards ensuring all children have somewhere to play near where they live.

Future directions

In the longer-term, a progressive child policy would look closely at the most current research on the nature and significance of children’s play in a range of academic disciplines –from evolutionary biology to neuroscience – and question the narrow, Piagetian basis of much modern educational practice.

In these days of seemingly endless austerity for public services, such an agenda may seem like wishful thinking in the extreme, yet it is less than six years since one very like it was a cornerstone of the last Labour government’s on-going reform programme, represented by its 10 year Children’s Plan to make England ‘the best place in the world to grow up’.

It remains to be seen whether or not David Cameron’s National Obesity Framework will again elevate the issue as a policy priority in the way that Baroness Benjamin and her colleagues propose, but if Jeremy Corbyn and his team want a big, popular issue around which to unite the parliamentary party and appeal to families across the spectrum, they could do worse than call a child policy review that again takes a serious look at children’s play and its place within the public realm.


About the Author

voceAdrian Voce OBE is an external member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood and on the core group of the European Network of Child-Friendly Cities. He was the main government advisor on the Play Strategy (2008) and founding director of Play England. His new book , Policy for Play, is available now.


(Image credit: Antibus13 CC BY-NC 2.0 and featured image: David Robert Bliwas CC BY 2.0)

David Bowie called to the ludic spirit in us all

18 Jan


When the superstar of ‘smooth soul’, Barry White died in 2003, a playwork colleague (who shall remain nameless) produced a seemingly heartfelt tribute, citing the singer’s extensive charity work to support adventure playgrounds and other play projects for street kids in some of the US’s most troubled inner cities. To their great embarrassment, and everyone else’s amusement, the Children’s Play Council (before I worked there, I’m relieved to say) picked up the story and ran it in their widely read Play Today periodical. It was of course a hoax. Before his fame, White had been involved in gangs, but there was no evidence of him using his celebrity to champion playwork or any other play-related cause.

Sadly, reports of David Bowie’s death last Monday morning were not a hoax. As it seems to have done to everyone I know, the news came as a shock, as though it were a personal loss. I think this is not just because I’ve been watching and listening to him since 1972, when he burst into my 13 year-old consciousness like a kind of cosmic Pied-Piper, but because his consummate mastery and other-worldly aura had seemed to imbue him with superhuman powers. He seemed invincible.

It had not occurred to me to mark his passing here. Bowie’s death seemed no more relevant to the play sector than Barry White’s, 13 years earlier. True, his music and what he represents seems especially important to the playwork fraternity – but this could probably be said of almost any group of my peers. Couldn’t it?

Then I listened to Jarvis Cocker’s tribute on BBC 6Music yesterday. The Pulp frontman – who evidently felt the loss as deeply as every other presenter, musician and listener to that and, no doubt, many other stations – played a number of things I had never heard before, including a fascinating talk Bowie gave to some music students in America, about his approach to music and art in general. He said that when he was finding his way as a young writer and performer, he realised, quite early on, that what most inspired him was to experiment with forms, looking for novel ways to combine disparate styles to create something new and surprising. He described this process as always asking himself the question: ‘what if?’

A penny dropped. David Bowie has often been described as ‘more than a musician, more than a pop or rock star’, but someone who used his own image and identity as an integral part of his art, forever ‘reinventing himself’ to present new and exciting personas through which to perform and communicate. This was of course true, but listening to the man describe his musicianship – and listening to the evolution of one of his many classic songs, Fame, from a unique synthesis of old-school American R&B and German post-industrial rock (mentored by that other transcendentally brilliant shaman, John Lennon) was to fully understand that Bowie was not a musician who also experimented with image and identity, but an experimental artist who was driven to forever look for the new and surprising in all the forms available to him – music, image, narrative and performance.

Why is this relevant to play advocates? Because the attitude, ‘what if?’, is fundamentally a playful one. ‘If it itches’ Bowie told his rapt audience of American students, ‘we’re told to take it to the doctor … No: if it itches, play it’. Play is an ambiguous thing, difficult to pin down or define. The playwork understanding of it is something we often have to defend and protect against the anti-ludic forces of conformity, control and instrumentalism. How to convey the value of play without succumbing to such pressures? One way might be to ask people to imagine a world in which Davie Jones of Beckenham had not become David Bowie, but gone to work in a bank.

As far as I can tell, David Bowie had no more of a connection with the play movement than Barry White; but in what he represented, in ‘giving boys the keys to the dress up box’ (Grayson Perry) and all of us a bit more permission to invent, experiment and express different parts of ourselves, he was as close to embodying the spirit of play – surprising, joyous, exciting and a little bit dangerous – as anyone of his stature has ever been.

Adrian Voce




Bold move to kickstart an outdoor play renaissance in Canada

13 Jan

An interesting development in Canada, reported by Tim Gill, who will be involved.

Rethinking Childhood

Last week the Lawson Foundation, a Canadian family foundation, launched an ambitious outdoor play strategy with the announcement of $2.7 million (£1.3 million; $US 1.9 million) in funding for 14 projects.

Lawson Foundation outdoor play strategy graphic

The strategy has an explicit and exclusive focus on unstructured outdoor play. Tackling risk aversion is a prominent theme, building on the Foundation’s recent support for a groundbreaking consensus position statement [pdf link] whose key message is that the biggest risk is keeping kids indoors.

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10 challenges for the play movement in England in 2016

5 Jan


As the New Year gets under way, the seemingly never-ending squeeze on public services, coupled with the perennial under-valuing of children’s play by policy-makers in particular and adult society in general, conspire to paint a gloomy picture for the English play scene in 2016.

It is sometimes hard to see past on-going cuts to front line services, the creeping privatisation of provision and the dearth of serious new initiatives to promote and support children’s right to play in the face of the many barriers they continue to face.


Will 2016 see growing support for children to play in the streets?

Yet, throughout 2015, there were unexpected but welcome signs of growing support for the kind of government play policy that could really make a difference. Fractured as our movement and diminished as our capacity may be as a result of five years of austerity, the challenge of the New Year is to identify these opportunities, formulate a cohesive response to them and coalesce around a plan to turn them into substantive commitments. Here’s how.

  1. Develop play policy proposals … on the right basis
  2. Solicit wider support within Parliament
  3. Cultivate influential allies
  4. Pump up the volume through sympathetic media
  5. Grow support within the opposition
  6. Support local initiatives and engage local play champions
  7. Build our presence on social media
  8. Engage with national bodies to make them more effective
  9. Lobby ministers and opposition with persuasive proposals
  10. … and plans for how they can be delivered

None of these challenges would be easy in normal times. In the current prolonged period of hugely reduced public spending and the acute scarcity of resources for policy, development and campaigning work, they will be extremely hard to achieve – certainly with anything like the success of the previous decade. It may be that individuals and small groups, each addressing the agenda in their own way and within their own sphere of influence, will be more effective than any kind of national campaign. Over the coming weeks I will discuss each off them in turn and offer my thoughts on how to again secure political commitments to children’s play in England.

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On a personal note, 2015 saw more than 11,000 visits to the site: a modest figure by mainstream internet standards, I’m sure, but my most widely read blogging year to date.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!



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