Policy for play needs an urgent rethink

19 Sep

Photo: M. Conway

Responding to a welcome report from the Children’s Commissioner on the need to do more to support children’s play, Adrian Voce says leadership – and a new long-term plan – must come from government.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has called for play to ‘make a comeback’ as a key to combatting the increasingly sedentary lifestyles that mean today’s children are ‘the least active ever’, with profound consequences for their health.

Of course play has never really gone away. Children will play in all but the most constrained or distressed circumstances; it is in their nature. A deeply instinctive impulse, integral to our developmental and evolutionary processes, children’s play will be a part of the human story for as long as our species exists.

What Longfield is rightly commenting on, in her report, Playing Out, is the radical diminution, over recent decades, of the space and opportunity for children to play as fully and with as much freedom as they need – and the absence, since 2010, of any meaningful policy response. She is right to be concerned, and advocates will welcome her call for play to be put back on the policy agenda, perhaps with just three caveats.

The first is that to conceive of children’s play as primarily a vehicle for their physical activity, runs the risk of designing interventions to favour certain types of play over others. This may be more damaging than it sounds.

Play is not simply about exercise

Although it is notoriously difficult to define, some things are broadly agreed across the wide range of play studies. One is that it is characterised by children being in control. Another is that there is a wide range of play types, not all of them involving vigorous physical activity, and that children derive most benefit from being able to move in and out these at will.

“Given space and permission, children will tend to exercise more in playing than almost any other activity, including most sports”

While it is true that, given enough space and permission, children will tend to exercise more in playing than in almost any other activity, including most sports (Mackett and Paskins, 2008), this is precisely because they are free to express themselves as they will, following their own often random and spontaneous agendas. As any parent or teacher knows, children are naturally energetic; left to their own devices, in the right environment, their innate ebullience is all the motivation they need to use their bodies to the full.

Yet seeing play as primarily a form of physical activity – and increased opportunities for it therefore as a way to raise exercise levels – can lead to programmes and services that inhibit the all-important element of choice. A study from Canada (Alexander et al, 2014) warns that such an approach can have the effect of narrowly defining play in a way that disregards much of its real nature, ‘reshaping meanings of play for children (with) unintended consequences for their wellbeing’, by privileging future the outcomes of play over the immediate benefits of playing for its own sake.

This is important, not least because, as Longfield points out, playing is vital not just for children’s ongoing and future health, but for their here and now mental and emotional wellbeing too  – not to mention its key role in their creativity and development. Any policy response must be careful not to make the ancient, instinctive impulse of children to play, purely instrumental to addressing the current obesity crisis. This will tend to lead to programmes that are more about sport than play – great for sporty children, but missing the essential point that if we simply allow children the time and space to play as they want, they will get all the exercise they need, as an incidental benefit to its true purpose: the simple enjoyment of being fully alive.

Workforce investment

The second caveat to the ‘Playing Out’ report is that although there is a strong call for greater investment in play services ­ – after-school centres, holiday play schemes, adventure playgrounds and play rangers – it does not mention the regulatory framework for such provision, which has in recent years seen the need for standards, including a trained and qualified workforce, virtually abandoned.

Supervising large groups of children and supporting their opportunities to play requires skills and underpinning knowledge quite different from those required in the classroom. Until the early part of this decade, such a role was increasingly the domain of trained and qualified playworkers – bringing the permissive, enabling and pastoral quality of care, and the in-depth understanding of play and play environments that is needed. Without the playwork approach, out-of-school provision for many children is more about day care – a convenience for parents and employers – than it is about their time and space to play. Any investment in extending provision must be accompanied by a new look at regulations, and an accompanying workforce strategy.

The contrary societal trends highlighted in the commissioner’s report – ‘busy lives, busy roads, fewer communal spaces’ – are not new. 10 years ago the phenomenon of ‘shrinking childhoods’ in the UK gave rise to the most serious attempt yet by national policymakers to address children’s need for space to play.

The Play Strategy for England (2008) was a bold plan, not just to increase the provision and raise the quality of dedicated play spaces, but to embed within long-term policies for planning, housing, traffic and open space, the need for children to live in safe, child-friendly neighbourhoods, where they would be attracted to play outside with their friends on a daily basis – and their parents would feel confident enough to let them. This 10-year strategy was abandoned after only two years, as part of the coalition government’s austerity measures; children’s play as a policy issue in England has been sidelined ever since.

“The most effective initiative in supporting children’s play over recent years has been a parent-led campaign”

The third note of caution in welcoming what is a generally strong report is therefore to do with leadership and drivers for change. The report recognises the complex, crosscutting nature of the issue when it recommends that ‘play provision should be strategically planned as part of each area’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment’, yet it does not acknowledge the reality that without either a national policy framework or a dedicated funding stream for children’s play, many local authorities, in these still straitened times for the public sector, will ignore such advice.

Finally, the commissioner’s report rightly points to the key role of parents but offers them little more than a reference to some ‘child-centred apps to help encourage children to do more’, and her own ‘Digital 5-a-Day Guide’. In fact, the most effective initiative in supporting children’s play over recent years has been a parent-led campaign that owes very little to digital media or official guidance

Playing Out, begun nearly ten years ago by two mothers in Bristol, has galvanised a new street play movement that is inspiring play advocates around the world and yet struggles for funding in the UK, in spite of its rapidly growing network of local street play activists.

It is not just the temporary street closure model that makes Playing Out so powerful. What makes it so potent (and the reason I agreed to become an associate board member of this not-for-profit) is that it is a parent-to-parent network. Having used the same name for her report – and highlighting in it the model they have pioneered – it would be good to see Anne Longfield’s report leading to some sustained support for this organisation and its work.

A need for leadership

The Children’s Commissioner has shone a much-needed light on a vitally important but sadly neglected area of public policy. For policymakers to continue to ignore it will be to the long-term detriment of generations of increasingly screen-bound children. But if this or any future government is serious about tackling the issue it will need to provide both leadership and sustained commitment to a long-term vision for a genuinely child-friendly world – a vision that engages parents and children themselves in its realisation.

An All Party Parliamentary Group reporting on children’s play has called for a cabinet minister for children, not just education, and for a new national strategy to address the play challenge. It has also called for the UK government to emulate that of Wales, which has placed a statutory duty on local government to plan for all children to have a ‘sufficiency’ of opportunities to play. Any fresh approach to policy should take a serious look these proposals.

‘Play on prescription’ may be an imaginative contribution to the obesity strategy, but the universal need for children to have time and space to play on a daily basis needs a strategy in its own right.

Adrian Voce

 Adrian Voce is an associate board member of Playing Out CiC and a board member of the Playwork Foundation. This opinion piece is written in his own right.

An edited version of this article first appeared on apolitical.co

 References

Alexander, S, Frohlich, K, & Fusco, C (2014), ‘Playing for health? Revisiting health promotion to examine the emerging public health position on children’s play’, Health Promotion International, 29, 1: 155

Mackett, R and Paskins, J, (2008), Children’s physical activity: The contribution of playing and walking, Children and Society, 22: 345-7

 

 

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2 Responses to “Policy for play needs an urgent rethink”

  1. Tim Gill 20 September 2018 at 11:37 am #

    Thanks for this thoughtful, constructive assessment Adrian. I don’t disagree with your three messages. I would have liked to have seen more on transport and planning, which is a key element in many cities, and vital if we are to avoid ‘hard-wiring’ a battery-reared childhood. And my international work on child-friendly urban planning suggests that political will and officer capacity are more important than any specific play policies in building programmes with the potential to have a big impact. But these are differences in emphasis. The key question for the Children’s Commissioner is: what does she do now? And the key question for play advocates is: how can we work with her?

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  2. adrianvoce 20 September 2018 at 12:30 pm #

    Thanks for the comment Tim.

    I completely agree about transport and planning. I’m also sure you are right about political will; but equally sure that a local level this is much more likely to follow where there is national leadership and a suitable policy framework, especially in the current climate of ongoing budget constraints. Otherwise, as your own research once famously found, children are subject to a postcode lottery as to how seriously their need for space to play is considered.

    And yes, we need to engage with the Children’s Commissioner and help her to develop this argument. Watch this space!

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