Archive | Blog post RSS feed for this section

These 10 policy steps could give children back the freedom to play

5 Oct

Public anxiety about children’s excessive use of digital media and computer games has reignited the debate about ‘battery-reared’ children. Adrian Voce argues that the retreat from real-world, outdoor play began before the ubiquity of tablets, smartphones and social media. Policymakers should be focussing on how the built environment and public space responds to children’s need to play.

Eight years after the abandonment of a national play strategy for England, children’s play has again come under the spotlight. Commentators and public figures, including Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, and Health Select Committee chairperson, Sarah Wollaston MP, have commented on the phenomenon of “battery-reared” children and how this may be connected to the childhood obesity epidemic and the rising incidence of poor mental health in young people.

Such commentary reflects a growing public anxiety that sedentary, screen-based entertainments have come to replace real-world play as the predominant leisure activity for children. Others fear that social media has become more significant to many young people’s friendship groups than spending physical time together.

While such anxieties may or may not be justified in themselves, the decline in children’s outdoor play began long before the digital revolution; its causes lie more with changes to the built environment and public space than in the screens children turn to when they are denied access to it.

“The decline in children’s outdoor play began long before the digital revolution”

Children need no reason to play; it is simply how they enjoy being alive and express who they are. Scientifically, though, there are very good reasons for it.

Playing promotes positive feelings and is crucial to children’s resilience and emotional development. Because they are in control, it enables children to learn how to navigate the world, encounter and manage risk, be adaptable and resourceful, make choices and build relationships. Play is a key to attachment, creativity, motivation and self-confidence. The fact that it also involves more physical activity than most sports is incidental.

Most parents know that children need a good amount of space to play, and the freedom to enjoy it; that a child playing in the right outdoor environment is a child fulfilled. Parents don’t need public health data to tell them that after playing out with their friends, children come home exercised and contented, ready for a healthy meal and a good night’s sleep.

“Parents are increasingly reluctant to let children play out unsupervised”

Nevertheless, parents are increasingly reluctant to let children play out unsupervised. The challenge, then, is to understand why, and to address these barriers and concerns. Solutions should be bespoke to each community, but there are some common themes and principles. Here, not as an exhaustive list, are ten suggestions for play policy.

1) Stop blaming parents

Parents’ permission is key, but changes in parenting practices alone can’t account for the decline in play opportunities. Whatever else we want for our kids, we firstly need them to be safe from serious harm. With road traffic accidents still a major cause of death to young people, and rising levels of air pollution and violent crime, the reluctance to let children outside unaccompanied isn’t simply paranoid parenting.

It is up to public policy to reassure parents that their children will be safe outside. Then there is the disproportionate emphasis on formal education, exams and structured “enrichment activity”. It is small wonder if many parents have forgotten that not everything a child needs to learn can be “delivered”.

2) End the domination of traffic

Pedestrianised areas, home zones and play streets should be the norm for urban communities. Where this is not deemed possible, the 20mph speed limit, while helping to reduce road traffic fatalities, is still too fast for children to play outside. For residential streets this should be reduced to 10 mph or less, with more shared space to remove the default right of way for vehicles.

3) Support and promote street play

Redesigning streets will take many years and significant capital investment to implement to scale, but temporary street closures are an affordable short-term measure  — closing off roads to traffic and encouraging children to make use of local space. Local authorities should designate named officers to provide such support and work with community groups and parent volunteers to grow the number and frequency of regular street play days. The UK’s Playing Out network demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach, but it will take public policy to scale it up.

4) Design for play

The play sufficiency principle pioneered in Wales should be embedded into the planning and design principles for public space, housing and the wider built environment. Recent research by ZCD architects, including the Mayor of London’s design advocate Dinah Bornat (also a Playing Out volunteer) shows how. Policymakers and planners in London and beyond should be studying her report.

5) Integrate playable space throughout the public realm

Space to play should not be defined by fences, safety surfaces and standardised equipment, but integrated throughout a liveable, intergenerational landscape that includes unplanned space that children can populate and animate with their play. Valuing and responding to children’s play in the conception and design of public space is vital — including supporting their participation in such projects wherever possible.

6) Build adventure playgrounds

In dense urban environments, traditional adventure playgrounds are a tried-and-tested solution. They should be bespoke to each community and staffed by qualified playworkers with their uniquely child-centred and permissive approach. Such spaces have evolved over several decades in some of the world’s busiest cities to become recognised by many researchers as the ideal form of dedicated play space, but they are under threat from short-termism and austerity; their numbers have been in decline since the crash. Enlightened policy would protect those that remain and set out a program to enable more to be built.

7) Ensure daycare is good for children, not just parents and employers

For many children in the modern world, traditional play time — after school and in the holidays — is spent in day care. Until deregulation by the Coalition government, these services were run by qualified playworkers and had to include playable outdoor space. Creating child-friendly neighbourhood space will do little for the children who spend up to eight hours a day in childcare, but reintroducing appropriate standards and a qualified workforce to after-school and holiday services would provide them with the play opportunities they need.

8) Open up school grounds for neighbourhood play

Schools are by far the greatest recipient of public funding for children and yet are massively under-utilised as community assets, being gated and out-of-bounds for all who do not attend, even when school is out. School grounds, if not school buildings, should be made available as playable community spaces, especially in neighbourhoods with limited access to green or open space.

9) Develop safe routes to schools, parks and play areas.

Mobility is vital: child-friendly, “playable” neighbourhoods have safe, accessible and familiar routes to give children the connectivity that adults take for granted. More cycle lanes, footbridges, subways and off-road footpaths joining children’s homes to suitable spaces are a start. Animating those spaces with playable designs, community art and landscape features would transform most neighbourhoods for children.

10) Adopt a national strategy for play, and make local responses a statutory duty

Many of the suggestions I have outlined are within the remit of local government, but others are dependent on national policy too. Education, planning, public health, law-and-order and transport each have a bearing on decisions that can either constrain or enable children’s play opportunities. The final suggestion then is that a cabinet minister — perhaps a secretary of state for children — must be given overall responsibility for strategic, cross-cutting play policy, to lead and coordinate cohesive changes across each relevant sector, and at all levels and in each respective department of government. This should include legislation similar to the Welsh play sufficiency duty. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013) has made clear that children’s right to play is a responsibility of government under article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, requiring legislation, planning and funding as necessary. The time is ripe for the UK government to take that responsibility seriously.

The Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa famously said, “if a city is good for children, it will be good for everybody else”. The child-friendly city begins on every child’s doorstep. The policy challenge is making it easier for children to cross that threshold and go out to play.

Adrian Voce

An edited version of this article was first published by apolitical.co

Advertisements

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

 

 

A new beginning for playwork?

20 Nov

The world’s only professor of playwork, Fraser Brown of Leeds Beckett University, welcomed the launch of the new Playwork Foundation at a special event in London last week. Adrian Voce, who also spoke at the event, reports on the launch and its background.

Playwork, the practice growing out of the UK’s adventure playground movement, made significant strides through the 90s and 2000s, towards what might be called professionalisation. Higher education courses, vocational qualifications, national occupational standards and recognition within the regulatory framework for out-of-school provision, saw growing numbers of playworkers employed in a variety of settings. Since 2010, this progress has suffered some serious setbacks. The deregulation of after-school and holiday childcare, the abandonment of a national play strategy for England, and a relentless squeeze on local government budgets, has seen many adventure playgrounds close and playwork courses withdrawn, as job prospects diminish.

A crisis meeting to consider how the field should respond was called in 2013 by the playwork scholar Bob Hughes and his close colleague, the late Professor Perry Else of Sheffield Hallam University. The summit arrived at two main conclusions. Firstly, the ‘grand narrative’ of playwork and what it can do for children needed to be more persuasive and better articulated. Secondly, a fully independent playwork practitioner body needed to be created to develop and amplify the ‘argument for playwork’.

Independent

Some of those at the meeting in Sheffield believed that the second of these imperatives was the primary objective: that playwork needed to construct its own vehicle before the first objective could be achieved. Such a body should be independent; no longer reliant on the waxing and waning allegiances of larger ‘parent’ or ‘umbrella’ organisations, for whom children’s right to play was only an occasional priority.

Four years later, the Playwork Foundation opened for business last week at a special launch event in London, declaring itself to stand ‘for playwork, playworkers and play’. Fraser Brown, now playwork’s only professor, gave the keynote address and elucidated, with illustrative vignettes, what distinguishes playwork from other practises.

playwork actively resists dominant and subordinating narratives and practises with children
– Professor Fraser Brown, Leeds Beckett University

Defining it simply as ‘the process of creating spaces that enable children to play’ Professor Brown described playwork as a unique approach that privileges who children are now, over what they might become. He said it ‘actively resists dominant and subordinating narratives and practises’. He said playwork offers children flexible environments in which to afford them opportunities for the fullest possible range of play types, as evolutionary biology suggests they need; and practises ‘non-judgmental acceptance’ and ‘unconditional positive regard’ for children.

IMG_2214

Elsewhere at the launch event, board members Ali Wood and Karen Benjamin – each experienced playwork trainers, writers and consultants – introduced the new organisation with a review of the foundation’s development since the idea was first mooted in 2013. They said that an extensive consultation with the field had found overwhelming support for a new vehicle for playwork and had established some clear aims and principles.

We need an organisation that is play literate and promotes play literacy
– Penny Wilson, author of The Playwork Primer

Wood and Benjamin said that, although slow because of the lack of resources (the new body has no funding), the development work had been proceeding steadily to this point. The foundation has a charitable constitution, adopted by a board of trustees, and is awaiting charity commission registration. It has a website, a list of potential members and has developed a dialogue with national bodies in each of the four UK nations. The time was ripe, they said, to launch a membership scheme as the next significant milestone

Impassioned

Penny Wilson, the London-based playworker and author of The Playwork Primer greeted the launch of the new body with a lyrical and impassioned entreaty from the field, reflecting the discourse at a recent adventure playground conference in Bristol. Wilson said the field wants ‘an organisation that is tailor made – like playwork is  – a bespoke design with enough strength in its warp and weft to be responsive and resilient, to be able to meet and greet the unpredicted; an organisation that is play literate and promotes play literacy’.

Meynell Walter, who convenes the annual national playwork conference, spoke about the longer-term history of playwork development, and previous incarnations of the national movement. He hoped the new organisation would help to revive the field after the decline of the austerity years.


Adrian Voce comments

There has been a temptation to consider playwork’s decline during the austerity years as significant of a fundamental rejection of it – by policymakers and, by extension, the public at large. This would be a mistake. The depth and breadth of public sector cuts and deregulation in the wake off the financial crisis was a tsunami that took little account of what was in its path. The treasury and education ministers that cut the play budgets at a stroke, discarding a whole series of national contracts, were not targeting our field in particular. They were radically reducing the role of government – and government spending – in general. It wasn’t personal.

Cycles

The decline in playwork opportunities need not be long-term. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, which has held a poll lead over the governing Conservatives since the general election in June, has spoken passionately about children’s right to play. Corbyn represents an Islington constituency that has more adventure playgrounds than any in the country. He knows about playwork and what it offers children, especially in the deprived inner cities.

Economics and politics go in cycles. It was the English play movement’s misfortune that it reached its moment of greatest opportunity in public policy just as the global economy crashed to one its deepest ever troughs. But the consequent period of austerity has been an opportunity to re-group, stronger and hopefully wiser than before, ready to take the case for play and playwork into future campaigns without being dependent on other professional groupings or sectors.

Although modest in scale, many of those attending the launch event in London last week said the new body felt like something they could identify with and belong to. Others said it seemed like a significant moment in playwork’s history. Perhaps: time will tell.

Profound recognition

At a much bigger event last week in the same London venue – the two-day Child in the City international seminar – some of the best moments were when playwork practitioners and researchers conveyed the essence of what they do, and what their research reveals, to the wider audience of children’s rights advocates. There was then an unmistakeable, profound recognition that here was something important, something people have been looking for – an approach to working with children that respects their own agency and engages with them on their own terms. It is no accident that the play movement has its greatest traction within the discourse on children’s rights. Many advocates believe it is urgently needed wherever adults work with children, or create spaces for them.

Whether the Playwork Foundation proves to be a good vehicle for this task or not – and whether the next swing in the political cycle offers more opportunities for it or not – the case for playwork is much too compelling for it to be halted by the vicissitudes of economic ebb and flow. It is the practise of honouring children’s unfettered embrace and re-imagination of the world they both inhabit and create – and of doing our best to provide and protect the space for that ancient, vital process. Which is all any of us can do.

Adrian Voce

Main Photo: Children building a new play structure at Tiverton Adventure Playground in Devon (Adrian Voce).
Inset photo: Ali Wood (l) and Karen Benjamin (r) at the launch on 8 November (Adrian Voce).

Adrian Voce is a board member of the Playwork Foundation, and author of Policy for Play (Policy Press, 2015)


More details of the different presentations, including a full transcript of Penny Wilson’s speech, will be made available soon on the Playwork Foundation website.

With thanks to Goldsmiths University of London, who hosted the Playwork Foundation launch event free of charge.


JOIN THE PLAYWORK FOUNDATION HERE

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.

Playful Planet

for a child friendly world

Play and Playwork

at the University of Gloucestershire

Child in the City

Responding to children's forgotten right

Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter

Risky play, well-being and outdoor education in early childhood

The Playwork Foundation

For playwork, playworkers and play

British Politics and Policy at LSE

Experts analyse and debate recent developments across UK government, politics and policy

The Daily Post

The Art and Craft of Blogging

White City Play Project

Supporting playfulness in Wormholt and White City, London

Everyday Playwork

Stories and reflections from a London adventure playground

Play and Other Things...

Play and all that surrounds it...

mickplay

Thinking about children's play

Love Outdoor Play

Because it's good to play outdoors.

Lily Holloway

play it, make it, love it.

Julia Voce

Theatre Maker. Facilitator. Clown.

Policy Press Blog

Publishing with a purpose

eddie nuttall

Stories and reflections on play and playworking

janeoutdoorplay

thoughts from a playworker

Lyrics and Chocolate

Life, art, bad cooking and all things boring or not

Scope's Blog

Scope exists to make this country a place where disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else. Until then, we'll be here.

VCSblog

Thoughts from VCSchange

PlayGroundology

...an emerging social science

Rethinking Childhood

Website for Tim Gill: researcher, writer, consultant

arthur~battram…

musings|scraplog: complexity| community|play|management managerialism| biology|art ~ helpful concepts & provocations

PlayInPeril

please share information here about play facilities, playgrounds, et cetera in peril (mainly England in the UK)

Eran's Books

Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

popupadventureplaygrounds.wordpress.com/

Together, we all can support child-directed play - one cardboard box at a time.

Pop-Up Play Shop

From Empty Shopfronts to Community-led Play Spaces

Play Everything

Morgan Leichter-Saxby

Steve McCurry's Blog

Steve's body of work spans conflicts, vanishing cultures, ancient traditions and contemporary culture alike - yet always retains the human element. www.stevemccurry.com

Policy for Play

Responding to children's forgotten right

The WordPress.com Blog

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.

%d bloggers like this: