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Withdrawing qualifications is another blow to playwork

14 Mar

Play England has reported that CACHE (Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education) has closed its Level 2 Award and Certificate, Level 3 Award and Level 4 Award and Certificate qualifications to new registrations. The other main awarding organisation, City and Guilds are also now only open for registrations of full Diplomas at levels 2, 3, and 5, although they are still offering the Level 4 Award. All of these qualifications, for both awarding organisations, are only available for registration until November 2017.

According to Play England, these qualifications, vital to the growth of a professional playwork sector for two decades, no longer fit within the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) that replaced the former Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) under the Coalition Government.

Under the RQF, the ‘stepping stone’ awards and certificates, which could previously lead incrementally to full diplomas via the credit system, is being phased out. Thus, when existing qualifications come up for renewal, unless they are suitable for conversion to the new framework they are being withdraw, in spite of many playworkers and their employers preferring the modular approach.

Prospects

But the prospects of playwork in England adapting to this new context are affected by a funding squeeze. With registrations for playwork qualifications declining because of a dearth of available finance, awarding organisations are finding it harder to make the business case for the development of new ones. At a roundtable meeting at the National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne last week, co-hosted by Play England and the Playwork Foundation, it was agreed to lobby CACHE and City and Guilds, to extend registration of the level 2, 3 and 5 qualifications beyond the end of the current year. The two organisations have written to the awarding bodies and are encouraging playwork trainers and employers to do the same.

Nicola Butler, chair of Play England, says: ‘Playwork is a highly skilled job. Parents, playworkers and employers all want the playwork profession to have the training that is needed for the job, but while most playwork employers would like to be able to invest more in professional development of their workforce but are prevented from doing so by the lack of public funding’.

So what are the reasons for this decline in the playwork sector after so many years of growth? One factor is the partial de-regulation of the school-age play and childcare sector. Since September 2014, there has been no statutory requirement for out-of-school clubs and holiday play-schemes to employ staff with ‘full and relevant’ childcare or playwork qualifications. (Over-8s and open-access providers have never been required to register).

Cuts

At least as significant as the change in regulatory requirements has been the effect of cuts to local authority play services, which in many places have been withdrawn altogether.  A 2014 report showed that capital and revenue spending on children’s play by England’s local authorities from 2010-13 fell by 50% and 61% respectively and it is clear that deep cuts have continued.

Many believe that playwork is now in something of an existential crisis, certainly in England. 10 years ago, the first phase of a 10-year national play strategy included funding to qualify 4,000 playworkers and a new graduate level qualification for playwork managers. Since then, the government has, according to the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, ‘undermined’ children’s right to play by abandoning the play strategy and not having a minister with responsibility for play policy for the first time since the 1980s; a situation that remains, in spite of the calls for a wide ranging national play policy by an All Party Parliamentary Group on children’s health in 2015.

What does all this mean for children? Most obviously, vital play services such as staffed adventure playgrounds (where playwork originated) are being closed. In some places these are being replaced with fixed equipment play areas, as in Watford; in others, such as Battersea Park, children can now indulge in ‘tree-top adventures’ for between £20 – £38 a session, where they used to play for free on structures that they had helped to build. Wendy Russell of the University of Gloucestershire estimates there only 150 traditional adventure playgrounds remaining in Britain, compared to around 500 at their peak; and with the erosion of playwork training and the on-gong pressures on funding, she has called those that remain an ‘endangered species’.

Extended schools

Less apparently, but perhaps even more significantly (certainly for larger numbers of children) the removal of a requirement for qualified staff means that children attending after-school and holiday play services – not voluntarily, let’s remember, but because their parents need to work – are now much more likely to be supervised either by classroom assistants or staff with no training at all; often on school premises.

When Labour introduced the concept of ‘wrap-around’ services as a key development of its ‘childcare revolution’, it was quick to distance itself from the term ‘extended schools’; but what the abandonment of playwork practice as the benchmark for quality in out-of-school provision means for many children, is that they are now effectively in school for up to 10 hours a day.


 A New Playwork Apprenticeship

The one area of potential growth for the playwork training sector is apprenticeships. The government is introducing an Apprenticeship Levy, although most small centres are not eligible for this funding unless subcontracted by larger providers. On this point, the Playwork Foundation is concerned that a high proportion of the few larger centres offering playwork apprenticeships employ trainers and assessors who are ‘not occupationally competent’.

A group of playwork employers has submitted an expression of interest to develop a new Playwork Trailblazer apprenticeship, which aims to: enable employers to access playwork apprenticeships; clarify what they should cover; develop the skills needed for quality playwork provision; and reinforce that they need to be delivered by trainers and assessors fully competent in playwork.

Adrian Voce

An edited version of this article was published in Children and Young People Now on 14 March 2017

This article is about playwork qualifications in England. For an overview of the situation in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales read this

Adventure playgrounds are too important to consign to history

8 Feb

Eran at Glamis

A variety of recent projects in the arts, heritage and academic sectors have taken adventure playgrounds as their theme, bringing welcome attention to this important part of the UK play scene. However, cautions Adrian Voce, it would be a mistake, and a missed opportunity, if the surge of interest were to be predominantly nostalgic or historical.

Over the last year or so, adventure playgrounds in the UK seem to have become the subject of wider than usual attention far beyond the usual play and playwork sectors. In truth, this swell of interest is around an accumulation of separate projects and initiatives, which have each either come to fruition or been launched, with attendant publicity, around the same time.

Perhaps the most high profile of these, certainly in terms of popular culture, is no less than a brand new stage musical. The Lockleaze adventure playground in Bristol, known locally simply as ‘The Vench’, is both the subject and the setting for an original new comedy-musical, described by the Bristol Post as ‘a wildly funny and vivid new production about a miscreant group of Bristolian misfit teenagers who come together to build an adventure playground’. Junkyard will open on 24 February at Bristol’s Old Vic theatre.

Sharing memories

The Vench was also one of a number of adventure playgrounds in the West of England cities of Bristol and Gloucester, recently mined by researchers for the memories that they have inspired and bequeathed to their local communities. Sharing Memories of Adventure Playgrounds (SMAP) was a research project of the University of Gloucestershire that beautifully conveyed, through an exhibition, a film and a short report, the unique role that places like the Vench can play in the lives of successive generations of communities, and the value they hold for neighbourhoods where there may not otherwise be much that children can call their own.

Elsewhere in England, researchers and curators at the Queen Mary, University of London and the V&A’s Museum of Childhood respectively are also collaborating on an exciting new initiative on the social history of London’s adventure playgrounds. Adventures in the City: the politics and practice of children’s adventure play in urban Britain, 1955–97 is a funded PhD project that began last year and will culminate in a new, interactive, permanent exhibition (an adventure playground, one presumes – as much as such a thing is possible within this context) at the museum’s popular Bethnal Green site in East London.

One hears of other doctorates that have identified adventure playgrounds and their history as a subject ripe for researching (e.g. Shelly Newstead’s paper at Child in the City 2014). There are other artistic ventures too. Mark Neville’s recently opened exhibition of photographs on the theme of ‘Child’s Play’ chooses adventure playgrounds as the setting for what it describes as ‘play in free space’. Neville juxtaposes his commanding images of children very much taking their space in some of London’s adventure playgrounds with those of children in less sympathetic contexts: the ‘structured space’ of school, and the ‘oppressed space’ of war and poverty.

‘Fulfilling childhood’

2015 saw the release of a short documentary film by Erin Davis ‘about the nature of play, risk and hazard’ set in The Land, an adventure playground in North Wales. ‘The Land’, as the documentary is also called, was described by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic as a film that ‘will change everything you think you believe … In scene after natural scene the truth becomes obvious: With a little bit of creativity, empathy and guidance, children can be freed to experience a much more fun, adventurous and fulfilling childhood.’

This kind of exposure and recognition for a form of provision that perennially struggles on meagre budgets and – with some rare exceptions – little support from their local authorities, can only be welcome. It is important too, that both academia and the heritage sector are taking adventure playgrounds seriously as the subject of research and cultural archive.

Nevertheless, play advocates may also feel a little uneasy that so much of this attention is from an historical perspective. It is more than implied in this approach that adventure playgrounds today, if not quite anachronistic, are certainly an ‘endangered species’, as Dr. Wendy Russell acknowledged at the launch of the SMAP project last month. She estimates that there are no more than 150 remaining in the UK – and that not all of these are necessarily adventure playgrounds in the original sense of the term – compared to more than 500 in their 70s heyday.

Sense of community

Exploring the reason for this decline needs an article (or a PhD!) all to itself, but as Mark Neville’s exhibition and its accompanying book assert, Erin Davis’ film so eloquently conveys and the children past and present of Bristol and Gloucester’s adventure playgrounds say for themselves, the supported space to play – with materials large and small, with the elements, and with the full spectrum of human curiosity, invention, and interaction, protected from the future focused, outcomes-obsessed world of adult-laid plans and rules for them – and the unique experience of community that is given to children in a proper adventure playground, is too vital to be merely a museum piece.

We must hope, rather, that exhibiting adventure playgrounds, researching their history, and celebrating them through the arts will alert a new generation of advocates, policymakers and funders to their unique value to children and communities now.

Adrian Voce

Photo: Eran at Glamis Adventure Playground by Adrian Voce

If we want children to be happy and healthy, we have to make space for them to play

7 Oct

The crisis in young people’s mental health needs resources for more and better services, but it should also be a wake-up call for policymakers who have neglected one of the most fundamental ways to prevent it in the first place: properly addressing children’s basic need for time and space to play

Reactions to what is widely being called ‘a crisis in young people’s mental health’ has tended to focus on the quality and availability of the services for children and teenagers who need help, and on the excessive pressures of an education system that causes such distress to young minds.

There are good reasons for such concern. NHS figures[1] have revealed that, as at June 2016, more than 235,000 young people (aged 18 and under) were accessing specialist mental health services for such problems as anxiety, depression, self-harming and eating disorders. Research by the Guardian suggests that a large majority of those working to deliver this support believe it is inadequate; a view endorsed by Young Minds, the UK’s leading mental health charity for children.

Meanwhile, Natasha Devon, the Government’s own mental health champion for schools until the role was abolished in May 2016, has produced a harshly critical report of the DfE and its recent reforms, blaming the education system’s narrow focus on academic subjects and passing exams at the expense of PSHE[2], sport and the arts, for ‘actively conspiring against good paediatric and adolescent mental health’.

if children are increasingly constrained in the behaviour they most enjoy, we should not be too surprised if they develop symptoms of unhappiness.

Commenting in the Guardian this week, Owen Jones attempted to broaden the picture, calling for a ‘remorseless focus’ on what he identifies as the economic and social causes that ‘drive children to mental distress in the first place: overcrowding, poor housing, poor diet; lack of exercise, family conflict … (and) poverty’. Nowhere in this debate has one of the more obvious issues been identified, which is that if children are increasingly constrained in the behaviour they most enjoy, we should not be too surprised if they develop symptoms of unhappiness.

Psychologists from a range of perspectives have long identified play as crucial to children’s emotional wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment; key to their capacity to experience the vitality of living in the here and now; and fundamental to their developing resilience, adaptability and creativity. The Mental Health Foundation recognises as much: placing the important role of play second on a checklist for maintaining children’s good mental health. The great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith was not trying to be smart when he said ‘the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression’.

Successive governments have turned their back on play

Successive governments have turned their back on play

In 2008, after the UK came bottom of a Unicef league table of the wellbeing of developed nations’ children, there was a consensus  – across the child policy as well as the political spectrum – that children desperately needed more time, space and opportunity to play, not virtually, on screens and social media, but with their actual friends, outside, as they have done for millennia. A 10-year strategy was launched to ‘make England the best place in the world to grow up’, with every neighbourhood made safer from traffic and containing attractive places to play within easy reach of children’s homes.

a genuinely child-friendly, playable public realm seems further away than ever.

As we all know, the Play Strategy was abandoned almost immediately the Coalition Government took office in 2010 and, in spite of growing evidence that free play in the real world is a vital component of a healthy, happy childhood, no serious attempt was made by either of David Cameron’s governments to fashion their own response to what the former Prime Minister himself described as the dearth of ‘everyday adventures’ that was making British children ‘the unhappiest in the developed world’. Indeed, children’s play services up and down the country have been decimated by austerity measures ever since; and the play strategy’s broader ambition – to create a genuinely child-friendly, playable public realm – seems further away than ever.

Theresa May says her new government will be ‘driven not by the interests of a privileged few’, but aim to create a fairer society that ‘works for everyone’. She may not have had children in mind when she said this, but as she and her chancellor begin to again redefine the role of the state, to perhaps play a greater role in the funding of public infrastructure, we should hold her to account not just for the state of the services that children need when they are distressed, but for the quality of the environments they have to grow up in. If we ‘want a society that promotes happiness and wellbeing among children’ we must start by giving them back the space where they are happiest, and the freedom to enjoy it.

Adrian Voce

[1] Mental Health Services Data Set (MHSDS), NHS Digital

[2] Personal, Social and Health Education

A condensed version of this article has appeared in today’s Guardian, on the letters page.

‘Risky play’: a clarification

4 Jul
This second in a short series of articles about risk and play, by Adrian Voce, aims to clarify that, while a more enlightened approach to risk management is an important aim – on which much progress has been made – the banner ‘risky play’ may not be a helpful one.

My blog last month, ‘The trouble with risky play’ stimulated some interesting debate, although some of it seemed to miss the essential point of the piece, which is my issue with the use the word ‘risky’. Some key commentators suggested that I was advocating that we avoid the word ‘risk’, or duck the issue altogether. This could not be further from the truth.

I applaud the way the play movement and parts of the play industry have fought back in recent years against the excessive risk-aversion that can so diminish real play value in managed settings. Indeed, as director of Play England (2006-11), I conceived and commissioned the first edition of the document, Managing risk in play provision: implementation guide, which has done so much to promote the risk-benefit approach and challenge the ‘safety first and last’ culture that was so inhibiting providers.

Jump

Photo: Mick Conway

To be clear, my issue is with the term ‘risky play’, especially when used as a promotional banner for a form of provision. This is no pedantic fixation, but rather a plea that we recognise that language is important, and that its widest meaning is determined by common usage, not professional adaptations of it.

Take a look at dictionary examples of sentences using the word ‘risky’: ‘It was much too risky to try to disarm him’. ‘It’s risky to buy a car without some good advice’. ‘We shouldn’t go there. It’s too risky’. ‘Risky investments can lead to financial ruin’. The meaning is clear. If something is deemed ‘risky’, the risks are understood to be excessive. Such activity is best avoided. Inviting parents to encourage their children to do things that are expressly risky is simply counterintuitive: where children are concerned, the instinct to protect is too profound.

 “the word ‘risky’ is most commonly used when the risks are judged to outweigh the benefits”

Everything contains an element of risk; we weigh risks all the time against benefits or rewards. My point is that the word ‘risky’ is most commonly used when the risks are judged to outweigh the benefits. The ‘risky play’ movement is an attempt to subvert that meaning as part of its aim to reverse a trend wherein ‘We have lost sight of the fact that there might be such a thing as a “good” risk’ (Furedi, 2002). But language doesn’t work like that; it evolves through common usage, not through appropriation by professional sectors.

The person who first coined the term ‘risky play’, as far as I can tell, is an academic, Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter (2007). Her research is about an aspect of play behaviour. ‘Risky play’, in her terms, is something that children do. It does not follow that provision itself should therefore be ‘risky’. It is also worth noting here that Sandseter, a Norwegian, is not writing in her native language. She acknowledges that the ‘disagreement about terminology might be a result of different cultures and languages’ and also observes that, in Norwegian, there is no direct translation of ‘adventure’, as in adventure playgrounds. The Norwegian for ‘risky’ play, she says, has instead become the accepted term, appearing in policy documents dealing with education and childcare.

 

NEF_1424

Photo: Play England

It may be that I am over-cautious and that the same will happen here and in North America and Australasia. My concern is that it will not, and that in the English-speaking world, promoting ‘risky’ activity or behaviour in children through bespoke provision can seem to be cavalier, when it should be anything but. This makes us hostages to fortune.

Last year I received a troubled phone call from a colleague in East London after a child was killed on a playground in Mile End Park. An inquest has been adjourned until 2017, pending a police and Health and Safety Executive investigation, and it would be wrong to comment further on the case. But tragedies will sometimes happen in children’s play, and if the space is a managed one people will be held to account. In general, a diligent risk-benefit assessment, professionally executed, recorded and acted upon as necessary, should be a sound defence against charges of negligence. This approach is good practice, but if a provider is explicitly promoting ‘risky play’ in such terms, there will be an inevitable, added pressure to prove it – in the public eye, if not in the courts.

The potential harm to the cause of allowing children more freedom and better opportunities to play is great. Just consider the way some media honed in on one specific element of the All Party Parliamentary Group’s Play report last year, which advocated greater autonomy for children to explore the outdoor world. Taken out of context and therefore missing the nuances of the risk-benefit approach – as well as the scores of other recommendations within the report – newspapers invited an incredulous reaction by baldly headlining the suggestion that children be allowed opportunities for ‘risky play’ near ‘potentially dangerous elements such as water, cliffs and exploring alone with the possibility of getting lost’.

“the need for controversy and scapegoats can be relentless and ruthless, as many people working in child protection know too well”.

Children’s safety is an emotive issue. Any hint of corporate or professional culpability for endangering children will always attract media attention, not all of it fair or balanced; the need for controversy and scapegoats can be relentless and ruthless, as many people working in child protection know too well.

The risk-benefit approach recognises that playing involves elements of risk-taking by children, some of which we should not prevent, but rather encourage and support within a professional practice to avoid their serious harm, while recognising that accidents will nevertheless sometimes happen. When they do, and we have to account for our approach, do we really want to have to explain our particular meaning of the term ‘risky play’? Or do we want to simply stand up for children being given the fullest range of play opportunities, some of which include properly assessed challenges and risks, appropriate to their age and experience? We may think that one is shorthand for the other. Perhaps the courts would agree. But will the media? Will parents? Do we want to wait to find out?

Adrian Voce

 

References

Furedi, F. (2008), Paranoid parenting: Why ignoring the experts may be best for your child. London: Bloomsbury.

Sandseter, E. B. H. (2007). Categorizing risky play: how can we identify risk-taking in children’s play? European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 15, 237- 252.

For play, vote to stay

22 Jun

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There are good practical reasons for play advocates to vote ‘remain’, but perhaps, suggests Adrian Voce, none of these matter. The play movement is innately open and inclusive; the opposite of the leave campaign’s main argument.

The imminent referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union may, on the face of it, have nothing to do with children’s play. Regular readers of these pages – along with anyone who has responsibility for planning, funding or managing play spaces – will know, however, the importance of policy context for what we are trying to achieve. Tomorrow’s vote will either hugely change that context, withdrawing our government and our courts from the treaties, conventions and laws of the EU, and our economy from the single European market, or it will keep the UK within the context of European as well as national policy for the foreseeable future.

So poorly has play policy faired under David Cameron’s administrations since 2010 that some advocates may reasonably argue that we couldn’t do any worse. They may be inclined to vote ‘leave’, if only to give the Prime Minister and (most of) his Conservative government a bloody nose. Others may believe that the EU is a protectionist, capitalist cabal, primarily benefitting big business and social elites. Here, a vote to leave would be for the more progressive, socially inclusive, fairer Britain that would naturally look more favourably on public play provision and child-friendly planning. Each of these arguments to vote ‘leave’ is tempting. And they are both wrong.

‘would the play sector fair any better outside of the EU?’

It is true that the current and previous governments of Mr. Cameron have been a disaster for the play sector. One of the first acts of the Coalition in 2010 was to shred the Play Strategy, and then to remove play policy from ministerial responsibility altogether. The effect on local provision has been nothing short of devastating. But would the play sector fair any better outside of the EU?

Even if one dismisses the possibility of Brexit triggering a widely predicted recession, the vision championed by the leave campaign – of a dynamic, independent country, free of the shackles of big bureaucratic government and its cumbersome regulations – is for the kind of low-tax, small-government, free market economy that would inevitably require still more of the austerity that has driven hundreds of long-established public play services into the dust – or into the hands of private businesses. A Britain – quite possibly soon reduced to a separate England – run by the right-wing of the Conservative Party will not be a new dawn for progressive social democracy. Policy for play will be derided as ‘nanny statism’ and the bonfire of public play provision will blaze more fiercely than ever.

Economics aside, there is a broader reason for play advocates to vote for ‘remain’. When I spoke alongside the then shadow schools minister, David Willetts, at the Conservative Party Conference in 2007 (as an independent ‘specialist’, I hasten to add) I was a little perturbed to find that, as opposed to the thoughtful debate on play policy that I had naïvely understood to be joining, the session began with Willetts’ full blown assault on the policies of the Brown government (which I was then advising on its forthcoming play strategy). One of the targets for this highly partisan rhetoric was the EU, which Willetts quite inaccurately blamed for the ‘health and safety madness’ that was stifling children’s freedom to play.

‘a Europe-wide movement … has rich potential for future projects to develop our field, its reach and its impact.’

There are, of course, no EU regulations about children’s play: the European safety standards for play equipment are a voluntary, industry-led code, whose merits or otherwise are part of a different discussion. But in making a connection between play policy and the EU, Willetts was, inadvertently, noting a link that has, in fact, been a great benefit to the play movement in the UK. One of the very few sources of central public funding for play that has survived the Cameron years has been European Social Fund (ESF), whose continued support for the University of Gloucestershire’s VIPER (Volunteers in Play – Employment Routes) project, for example, is in a long tradition of ESF funding for vital playwork infrastructure projects in things like training, qualifications and quality assurance. This source of funding would be cut off to all future UK applications in the event of Brexit, whereas a Europe-wide movement, drawing upon the rich networks that already exist, inspired by the success of the International Play Association with the UN, and supported by the ESF, has rich potential for future projects to develop our field, its reach and its impact.

‘withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ECHR will inevitably lessen (the CRC’s) influence’.

More broadly, the policy case for public provision for play and a more child-friendly, playable public realm, in the perennial absence of the kind of hard evidence of its ‘cost-benefits’ that policymakers like, is based on human rights, which are international. Given the disinterest of the current government in policy for play, advocacy for it is necessarily a long game. Its foundation is in article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, now explicated by the UN’s General Comment of 2013. As a joint Parliamentary Committee recently noted, ‘the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has begun to take note of the Convention (on the Rights of the Child) in the context of its interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights’. The UK has ratified the CRC of course, and that would not change on Brexit, but withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ECHR will inevitably lessen its influence.

I suspect that for some, perhaps many, play advocates, these economic, financial and legal arguments to remain will be beside the point. The most dominant argument of the ‘leave’ campaign has been about bringing immigration under control, meaning down. That debate is raging (in every sense of the word) everywhere that the referendum is discussed. I do not want to explore it here, other than to say that inclusion and diversity, the celebration of difference and the dedication to making space for everyone, are deeply embedded within the play movement, underpinning all good practice. If for no other reason, our instinctive aversion to the ‘politics of hate’ and division that has so demeaned this debate, should be enough to tell us how to vote tomorrow.

Adrian Voce

 

 

 

 

This UN report is an indictment of a government that doesn’t care – but also an opportunity for play advocates

14 Jun

IMG_2314

The UN’s latest report on the UK government’s record on children’s rights includes some stringent conclusions about the abandonment of play policy. If play advocates can seize the moment, suggests Adrian Voce, it also provides the basis for a persuasive influencing campaign to restore children’s right to play as a national priority.

The concluding observations of last week’s report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, on the UK’s recent record on children’s rights, has been welcomed by Theresa Casey, the President of the International Play Association (IPA) as ‘the strongest I’ve seen’ on children’s right to play.

This is perhaps no cause for celebration among play advocates. The CRC’s ‘concern about the withdrawal of a play policy in England and the under-funding of play’ across the UK, merely confirms what we know about the woefully inadequate, not to say destructive response of the UK government since 2010, to a human right for children that the CRC says ‘is fundamental to the quality of childhood, to children’s entitlement to optimum development, to the promotion of resilience and to the realisation of other rights’.

The Children’s Rights Alliance for England went on to observe that, since 2010, the government had in fact ‘undermined children’s rights under Article 31 …’

The dismissive approach of the Coalition and Conservative governments of David Cameron, to article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which commits states parties to support and provide for the fulfilment of the right to play, was highlighted by the independent NGO, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) last year. Its civil society report to the CRC on the UK government’s record on children’s rights pulled no punches when it came to play, saying: ‘Rest, leisure and play have been a casualty of the austerity drive. In the absence of a national play policy, many councils have disproportionately targeted play services for cuts with many long-standing services and projects closed and the land redeveloped’.

The CRAE report went on to observe that, since 2010, the government had in fact ‘undermined children’s rights under Article 31 by: abandoning a ten-year national play strategy for England with eight years still to run; cancelling all national play contracts … (and) withdrawing recognition of playwork in out-of-school care…’

Play policy since 2010 has been all downhill

Play policy since 2010 has been all downhill

Many observers of the work of the CRC over the years have been disappointed at its lack of rigour in holding governments to account for article 31, but the committee’s publication in 2013, of a general comment[1] on the ‘right to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts’ appears to have raised the bar, further vindicating the work of Theresa and her colleagues at IPA in lobbying the UN to produce the document.

UN expects national governments to honour its obligations to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ children’s right to play

The General Comment (GC17) on article 31 expands on government responsibilities for children’s play under the 1989 convention, urging them ‘to elaborate measures to ensure’ its full implementation. GC17 makes it clear that, in the face of increasing barriers, the UN expects national governments to honour their obligations to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ children’s right to play by taking serious and concerted action on a range of fronts including, in particular, ‘legislation, planning and funding’. Last week’s report simply highlights what we already know: that the UK government, having been among the world leaders in national play policy before 2010, has since been in abject dereliction of this duty.

While we take no pleasure in this confirmation of the steep decline in the status and priority afforded to children’s play within national policy, we should, nevertheless, see the UNCRC’s report as both an opportunity and a reminder. The opportunity is to fashion an influencing campaign, aligned to the wider advocacy movement for children’s rights in the UK, to persuade future governments to recommit to children’s play. Unsurprisingly, the CRC is critical of the UK record on children’s rights in other areas than play. Its main recommendation is that a broad national children’s rights strategy, abandoned by the coalition government in 2010, should be ‘revised … to cover all areas of the convention and ensure its full implementation’. In England, this plan included a 10-year national play strategy. The play movement should be building links with other children’s rights advocates – who will now use the CRC’s report to put pressure on policymakers – to ensure that the right to play is properly considered in any such revision.

There has been a tendency, since the demise of the Play Strategy, in England at least, to lower our ambition for play policy

The reminder delivered by the CRC report is that children’s play is a serious, crosscutting policy issue, requiring a strategic response and high-level leadership. There has been a tendency, since the demise of the Play Strategy, in England at least, to lower our ambition for play policy. The Children’s Play Policy Forum, for example, has seemed to level its proposals at an agenda that disregards play for its own sake, relegating it to the level of an activity with only instrumental value to such existing policy areas as improving children’s health, reducing neighbourhood conflict or encouraging volunteering.

Good public play provision and playable public space can contribute to all these things of course, but the UN reminded us last week that our government has a duty to legislate, plan and budget for children’s play, first and foremost because it is their human right. Such an approach will most likely fall on deaf ears, as does so much else with this government, committed as it is to relentlessly scaling back public services and privatising the public realm. Our duty in this case is to point out its failure, and to cultivate support from policymakers outside the government.

An All Party Parliamentary Group, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, the Children’s Commissioner for England, the Leader of the Opposition and now the United Nations have all recently called for a higher priority to be afforded to children’s play by our local and national governments – many of them urging the UK government to emulate that of Wales in adopting a play sufficiency duty on local authorities.

The Play England board earlier this year sanctioned an open, independent debate about its future role and purpose. Sadly, it seems to no longer have the resources even to manage its own consultations; but if it only does one thing between now and the next general election, this must surely be to cultivate and capitalise on such support in high places and coordinate a cohesive, sustained influencing campaign for play to be once again afforded the status it needs within government policy.

Adrian Voce

[1] A UN General Comment is defined as ‘the interpretation of the provisions of (its) respective human rights treaty’ by its treaty bodies. In other words, it is the UN ’s own interpretation of how nation states should meet their obligations under international law.

The trouble with ‘risky play’

8 Jun
First in a short series of articles about risk, play and policy.

Last month, the Lawson Foundation in Canada announced a new grants programme aimed at ‘getting kids outside and enjoying unstructured, risky play’. This was just the latest example of how the ‘risky play’ banner has been adopted far and wide by advocates aiming to promote giving children greater freedom and more opportunities for adventurous, outdoor play.

But what does ‘risky play’ actually mean? And is its increasingly widespread use to describe one of the primary aims of the play movement, unproblematic? Or is it, in fact, an unnecessarily (ahem) risky strategy, making us hostages to fortune?

In this series of articles, Adrian Voce, who inadvertently had a role in popularising it, will argue that ‘risky play’ is an ambiguous, contradictory term, open to misinterpretation (wilful or otherwise) and that the whole question of how we manage and promote risk is now tending to overshadow and distort some of the wider issues around children’s right to play.

Playground460x276

Photo: Play England

Playday in 2008, was the apogee of that decade’s sustained campaign for UK government action to address the decline in children’s outdoor play opportunities. In April of that year the government had announced a £235m national play strategy for England, commissioning Play England as its delivery partner. Independent of this new government funding, Play England was also, at that time, the lead partner for the Big Lottery Fund’s £155m Children’s Play Initiative. This twin role, and the resources that came with it, enabled the newly reformed and expanded national body to exercise an unprecedented level of influence on national policy for play in England, and an equivalent public profile.

So it was that Playday 2008, with Play England leading the media campaign, reached previously unknown levels of attention. Double-page spreads in the biggest selling tabloids; TV and cinema ‘infomercials’; and interviews on mass-audience TV and radio news programmes had become the norm since the Play Strategy launch in April. This coverage reached a climax in August, when an estimated 1m children attended free Playday events up and down the country, previewed on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Newspaper headlines … and a genie released

Among the many other media items at that time, The Observer, on the Sunday before Playday, featured an interview with me, as Play England’s director, where I talked about the Playday theme, which we called ‘Give us a Go!’ to highlight children’s concerns that they were being denied traditional, adventurous play opportunities such as tree-climbing by an over-protective adult world. Three days later, on Playday itself the Guardian carried my own comment piece, where I discussed the findings of our research, published that day, suggesting that children were being increasingly deprived of free play by a risk-averse culture. Although nowhere in either the interview or the comment piece did I use it, the Guardian’s sub-editors picked up on the term ‘risky play’, used in our literature review to summarise the type of behaviours explored in some of the studies of risk and play (e.g. Christensen and Mikkelsen, 2007). Hence, the headlines appeared: ‘Kids need the adventure of “risky” play’ and ‘Risky play prepares kids for life’ – and a genie was out of its bottle.

the headlines appeared: ‘Kids need the adventure of “risky” play’, and ‘Risky play prepares kids for life’ – and a genie was out of its bottle.

The term ‘risky play’ does not appear anywhere in the Play Safety Forum’s long-standing position statement on Managing Risk in Play Provision – the well-established rationale for weighing risks against benefits in play provision that was, and is, widely agreed across the sector – nor in the first edition of the new document of the same name that Play England published at that time as part of a raft of guidance to underpin the Play Strategy. Even Tim Gill’s (2007) ‘No Fear: growing up in a risk averse society’, an entire book on the subject, does not use the term. Nevertheless, ‘risky play’ began to emerge as shorthand for the risk-benefit approach we were all promoting and has continued to gain currency ever since.

The term was not, in fact, coined by the Guardian’s headline writers, or by Josie Gleave, the author of Play England’s review. ‘Risky play’ appears in academic literature from the same period and earlier. Sandseter (2007) notes that there was a new focus on ‘children’s right to do risky play’ but no studies to define or categorise it: a situation she then sets out to rectify. Sandseter draws, for her study, on earlier theories about the relationship between child development and risk-taking – and the implications of this dynamic for human evolution – found in the work of Bruner, Jolly and Sylva (1976) for example, as well as more recent studies from the likes of Ball, about the play sector’s response to the issue.

Such an understanding … has been a key to the development of playwork and adventure playgrounds ever since Lady Allen of Hurtwood said ‘better a broken bone than a broken spirit’.

Within the field of playwork, Hughes (2002) has identified ‘deep play’ as one of the distinct play types that practitioners need to be aware of and support through ‘enriched play environments’. Deep play, according to Hughes, is characterised by the child’s instinctive need to seek out and encounter risky situations in their play, to confront danger, challenge their limits and overcome fear. Such an understanding is integral to playwork practice and has been a key to the development of playwork and adventure playgrounds ever since Lady Allen of Hurtwood said ‘better a broken bone than a broken spirit’.

Nowhere, however, did Allen, Hughes or any other playwork pioneers adopt the term ‘risky play’ to describe either an innate play behaviour or an aspect of play provision; and Sandseter’s use of the term is within the context of an academic study of children’s behaviour, not a policy proposal or campaigning slogan.

The central role of risk, and how it is managed in the adventure playground tradition is highly pertinent here. It was Lady Allen who coined the term ‘adventure playgrounds’ to better describe the ‘junk playgrounds’ that she was busy setting up and promoting after being inspired by her seminal visit to Emdrup in Denmark. One can only wonder how far we would have come had Lady Allen decided to call her newly imported idea, ‘risky playgrounds’.

‘Risky’ or ‘adventurous’? A question of language

The dictionary defines an adventure as ‘an unusual and exciting or daring experience’, as well as ‘the excitement associated with danger or the taking of risks’. Its main synonyms are ‘exploit’, ‘escapade’, ‘deed’ and ‘feat’. Adventurous is defined as ‘willing to take risks or to try out new methods, ideas, or experiences … full of excitement’. Its synonyms are ‘audacious’, ‘bold’, ‘courageous’, ‘enterprising’, and, yes, ‘risky’.

Risk on the other hand is defined as ‘a situation involving exposure to danger; the possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen; a person or thing regarded as a threat or likely source of danger. Its main synonyms are ‘chance’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘danger’, ‘threat’ and ‘menace’. Risky is defined as ‘full of the possibility of danger, failure, or loss’, with synonyms, ‘dangerous’, ‘high-risk’, ‘hazardous’, ‘unsafe’, ‘precarious’ and ‘dodgy’.

it is not pedantic to want to find and use words that best describe what is being done and why

Language matters. In any field of public endeavour, where practice and the conveyance of what it stands for are equally important, it is not pedantic to want to find and use words that best describe what is being done and why. Although ‘risky’ and ‘adventurous’ are, in a sense, synonymous, the latter word has an unarguably more positive meaning. It also captures much better the essence of children at play – wanting to push the boundaries, test their limits and, sure, take some risks – but in the pursuit of fun and excitement, not the reckless endangerment that the term ‘risky play’ can evoke.

How the adult world responds to this important evolutionary and developmental impulse in children has undoubtedly tended in recent decades towards excessive caution. A more regulated public realm and a more litigious culture are partly to blame. But however much the play movement may now want to rehabilitate the concept of risk, adopting the term ‘risky play’ as a positive label to promote a less risk-averse approach, is it realistic to attempt such an inversion of language and its meaning in the common lexicon? We know what we mean by risky play, but does everyone? Do parents? Will the popular press, in the event of tragedy? Is it time for a rethink?

What the play movement has achieved in this area over the last 15 years is considerable. We have nudged the whole sector, sanctioned by the Health and Safety Executive, away from ‘eliminating risk’ towards ‘weighing up risks and benefits when designing and providing play opportunities and activities’. The problem with the banner ‘risky play’ is that it emphasises the risks, not the benefits. Children are drawn, naturally, healthily, to certain kinds of risky behaviour when they play; but ‘risky’ cannot be the most appropriate word to describe the opportunities and environments we want to provide for them, or the practice we adopt in doing so.

In future articles in this series, I will further explore some of the problems of continuing to promote ‘risky play’ as such, and also consider the less apparent costs of the play movement placing so such much emphasis on this issue.

Adrian Voce

Bruner, J.S., Jolly, A. and Sylva, K., eds. (1976) Play: its role in development and evolution, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Christensen, P. and Mikkelsen, M.R. (2007) ‘Jumping off and being careful: children’s strategies of risk management in everyday life’, in Sociology of Health & Illness, vol.30, no.1. pp112-130.

Gill, T. (2007) No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society, London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Hughes, B. (2002) A playworker’s taxonomy of play types (second edition). London: PLA YLINK.

Sandseter, E. B. H. (2007a). Categorizing risky play: how can we identify risk-taking in children’s play? European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 15, 237- 252.

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