Archive | Blog post RSS feed for this section

Play 2021 – A new conference on children, play and space

20 Jan
Chalk Rainbow.jpg



A major new play conference has been announced by Playful Planet and the University of Birmingham, for the summer of 2021.


Conference themes, developed through a high calibre programme of keynote speakers, plenary sessions and parallel workshops, will include: –

  • Play in schools
  • Street play, planning, and the built environment
  • Playwork
  • Play in the early years

Each theme will include a mix of research, policy and practice – and how each of these has been affected by the pandemic. These themes will be more fully developed by the programme committee in its call for papers.


Play 2021 is for practitioners, researchers, students, public officials and policymakers concerned with issues of play and space in childhood. It will consider planning and traffic as much as playwork and pedagogy – with the common theme of advocacy for children’s rights: to play, to enjoy the built and natural environments, and to fully participate in the life of their communities.

The conference is for: –

  • playworkers, play activists, teachers, youth workers, and early years practitioners;
  • architects, landscape architects, planners, designers, highways engineers, and developers;
  • parks and recreation managers, leisure officers and public health officials;
  • policymakers, political advisers and politicians
  • researchers, lecturers and students of play and playwork, children’s geographies, childhood studies, child development, children’s rights, and related disciplines.


A call for papers will be published soon. Submissions will be invited from researchers and practitioners in play, pedagogy and the built environment.


In the first instance, all bookings will be for a high-quality streamed event; but as covid restrictions change over the coming months, we anticipate that delegates will have the option of upgrading to a live seat for the event, which will be in Birmingham University’s state of the art conference centre.


Birmingham is England’s second city, easily accessible by rail and air. The university campus is a short journey from the city centre. Full travel directions and accommodation options will be published here in due course.


This information can be downloaded as a pdf document here
Or just send them this link:








Moving ‘Policy for Play’ to a new platform

27 Nov

A message from Adrian Voce

This simple blogsite has been my platform, since 2011, for news, articles and op-ed pieces about all matters related to policy for children’s play.

As part of the establishment of my new not-for-profit, Playful Planet, a new platform has been developed that will now include Policy for Play content, together with a wider array of posts on the themes of children’s play and child-friendly places.

Do please visit the new site, where you can sign up to receive regular updates.

This site will remain open for a few weeks, but will no longer receive new posts. In due course, we will close it down and archive its content on the Playful Planet site.

Thereafter, visitors to will be redirected to the new site.

Thank you for visiting Policy for Play. I hope you will enjoy the new site even more.

The work to promote effective policy for children’s play continues…

Adrian Voce

As lockdown eases, what children, families, AND teachers now desperately need is a great Summer of Play – but who will provide it?

23 Jun

The cautious optimism among play advocates in recent weeks, that the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to a fundamental re-evaluation of what is most important for children, their families, and communities, was given a cold reality check on Sunday, when the UK’s most progressive mainstream newspaper, the Guardian/Observer, dedicated its entire editorial to an 8-point ‘manifesto for children’ without once mentioning their need to play. It is an illustration (again) of how lowly children’s own priorities are within the national debate about what is best for them.

At the start of the lockdown nobody was too surprised, in the circumstances, that the government’s response to an open letter from more than 40 play researchers, practitioners, and advocates asking for ‘clear advice’ about outdoor play, merely reiterated that we all must ‘focus on preventing the spread of Covid-19 (and) protecting the most vulnerable in society’. When the government’s only other stated priority was ‘offering support to those impacted by social-distancing, including companies and employees’, it was clear that the sudden constraints on space and opportunity for children to play was not going to be even a secondary issue for ministers.

‘There is little evidence that children’s profound need to play has received any more consideration. How lowly their own priorities are within the national debate about what is best for them’.

Now, as we move towards a substantial easing of the lockdown, these fears are born out. Children’s profound need to play has received little or no consideration from the government.

Researchers concerned

Some eminent researchers, including the ‘Play First’ alliance, have expressed serious concerns about the effect that a lack of play opportunities is having on children’s mental health, and called on the government to ease lockdown ‘in a way that provides all children with the time and opportunity to play with peers, in and outside of school … even while social distancing measures remain in place’. Others have specifically called for a nationwide plan to repurpose residential streets for play during lockdown and beyond.

The four national UK play organisations have endorsed a report from the Play Safety Forum calling for the government’s approach to be ‘urgently reviewed’ on the basis that the current policy ‘completely ignores’ the benefits of outdoor play to children (especially at a time of stress and uncertainty), while the risks of infection are ‘very low’.

Strong words

These are strong words, and necessarily so. The government in Westminster has indeed ignored children’s play as a policy issue ever since it first came to power on 2010, in spite of long recognising it as such. Having abandoned the Play Strategy for England, it believes local authorities should make their own policies for play, but has starved them of the cash that most of them would need to do anything meaningful, at the same time as deregulating both planning and childcare in ways that relegate children’s play to the status of an optional extra.

‘For children the overwhelming priority is playing with their friends’.

Now, however, would be the moment to think again. Millions of parents, teachers and children are stressed, tired and seriously unhappy after a full term-and-a-half trying to keep up with the curriculum via variable on-line platforms and ad hoc home-schooling, without receiving any of the ‘softer’ benefits of being part of the school community. For children this overwhelmingly means playing with their friends.

The government has announced a ‘Covid catch-up’ package for primary and secondary schools to support children returning to school in September to recover lost ground, and has also said that providers running holiday clubs and activities for children over the summer holiday will be able to open ‘if the science allows’ (although the guidance on this seems to be delayed). The relative importance attached to these two measures? £1 billion is allocated to the former, zero to the latter, which is conceived primarily as a service to parents – who will no doubt have to cover the cost themselves. For many, many children – the same children for whom the £1b catch-up fund is designed – this will mean summer play schemes are unaffordable. In turn, many independent providers will be unable to operate – which puts an additional pressure on schools, just as they need the mother of all breaks.

A play recovery fund

The answer is obvious. A discreet ‘play recovery’ fund should be established, in consultation with the play and playwork sectors, to enable non-school based holiday play schemes to be offered free of charge in the areas that will need them most. And the government should also talk to Playing Out, its network of street play activators, and the growing number of local authorities who now support temporary street closures for play, to consider an expanded national programme of street play sessions over the summer.

Some will think such an idea cavalier: that children’s outdoor play is simply too random and chaotic to observe any kind of public health protocols, even with the distancing requirements relaxed. But even if the Play Safety Forum’s persuasive risk-benefit assessment is disregarded, the government should know that the playwork field is highly professional, and always resourceful. Whatever the safety measures might need to be, no one will be better at engaging with children to follow them than playworkers.

Playwork responds to the crisis

For a field seriously depleted after 10 years of austerity, deregulation, and (in England) policy neglect, the field rallied well to respond to the crisis – in spite of some of its fundamental tenets seeming completely untenable in a public health emergency that demands distance, isolation, and regimentation. Playwork practitioners and advocates have offered timely guidance on how to sustain play opportunities through the lockdown, including playing at home. Adventure playgrounds have reached out to offer relational space and support to communities whose physical playgrounds were closed, and some practitioners have given new meaning to the term face-to-face playwork by taking it to the online platforms with which we are all now so familiar.

Play England and the great playwork theorist, Bob Hughes, have set out some wise words and good practical advice on ‘Play after Lockdown’. But first, in this time of national crisis with families desperately needing a break before a return to the new normal –many of them unable to go away because of increased job insecurity or unemployment – the country needs the play sector to step up and do what it does best: give our kids space and support to have a good time. From within the billions that this terrible pandemic has cost the economy, is a few million for a well-deserved and badly needed Summer of Play, too much to expect? At the very least, the Observer should include it in its manifesto.

Adrian Voce

Academics highlight children’s need for street play during lockdown

20 Apr

There are growing calls this morning for governments and local authorities to urgently look at steps to allow more children to use their local streets for outside play.

A new paper by Prof. Alison Stenning and Dr. Wendy Russell explores the issues around children’s access to space during government restrictions, within the context of the vital importance of play for their wellbeing and resilience.

The paper suggests that rethinking the purpose of residential streets may hold a key to making the lockdown less harmful to children, more bearable for families, and, therefore more sustainable for communities.

Read the full paper here.

Government should issue guidance on children’s play during the coronavirus crisis

20 Mar

This open letter to the UK government – from play practitioners, researchers, advocates, and industry bodies – urges the Chief Medical Officer and Public Health England to consult with the field on producing clear advice that keeps children and communities safe while still allowing them the opportunities for playing outside that could now be more important than ever.

As researchers, children’s play charities, and advocates for children, we fully support the current policy of social distancing to combat the growing coronavirus pandemic. With yesterday’s announcement of school closures, this now includes millions of families facing an indefinite period of home-schooling, with limited or no childcare. There is understandable uncertainty and anxiety about how they will cope. One major issue is, how will children play?

Space and opportunity to play is essential for children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, social connectedness and resilience. Of course, children can continue to play inside; we encourage families who need ideas, to search the internet and other media for resources and suggestions from play practitioners on how best to support indoor play. There are many rich ideas to be found, requiring little or no expense.


But all parents know that children also need space to play outside. Healthy regular exercise is as vital for them as it is for adults. Public Health England (2018) identifies that ‘ensuring all children are as active as possible throughout childhood is important for population health … this activity can include all forms of active play’.

In addition to the physical health benefits, it is important for children’s mental and emotional wellbeing that they can move around, let off steam and express their natural vitality through play. Outdoor play in open space – within the public health parameters – could now be an important part of community resilience, particularly for those without private gardens, or living in high density and high-rise housing.

We note the current government guidance that social distancing can still include ‘going for a walk outdoors if you stay more than 2 metres from others’, and we welcome the Chief Medical Officer’s recent remark, that it is important that children still exercise, enjoy themselves and play outside in the park.

Social distancing

There remains uncertainty, however, about how to enable this within the social-distancing rules – for example: with younger children; in ball games; and in the use of equipment. We appreciate the challenge of advising the public in the midst of a fast-changing crisis, but we do urge the Government and Public Health England to consider the question of clear guidance; and to consult with play practitioners and academics on this.

We are also happy to work with local authorities and other agencies through this crisis, on any plans to support communities in this important area of public life and healthy childhoods.

Signed by

Adrian Voce OBE, Playful Planet and the European Network for Child Friendly Cities

Tim Gill, independent researcher, writer, and consultant

Alice Ferguson and Ingrid Skeels, Playing Out CIC

Anita Grant, Play England

Dr Wendy Russell, University of Gloucestershire and independent researcher

Professor Alison Stenning, Newcastle University

Ben Tawil and Mike Barclay, Ludicology

Robin Sutcliffe, Children’s Play Policy Forum

Karen Benjamin, The Playwork Foundation

Dinah Bornat, ZCD Architects and Mayor of London Design Advocate

Caroline Boswell, ex-Head of the Mayor of London’s Children and Young People’s Unit

Marion Briggs, Alliance for Childhood

Professor Fraser Brown and Mike Wragg, Leeds Beckett University

Mick Conway, Playfile

Amica Dall, Assemble

Charlotte Derry, Playful Places

Anna Gaffney, A Place in Childhood

Helen Griffiths, Fields in Trust

Mark Hardy and Deborah Holt, Association of Play Industries

Eleanor Image, Play Association Tower Hamlets

Graham Jones and Paul Greatorex, Leisure and the Environment

Professor Peter Kraftl, University of Birmingham

Naomi Lott, University of Nottingham

Anna Mansfield, Publica

Chris Martin, University of Leicester

Dr Mel McCree, Bath Spa University

Jess Milne, Consultant Playworker

Eddie Nuttall, Felix Road Adventure Playground Association

Kay O’Brien, Hackney Play Association

Cath Prisk, Outdoor People and

London National Park City Schools

Julia Sexton, Sheffield Hallam University

Katherine Shaw, Kids

Meynell Walter, Ip-Dip magazine and IPA England

Sally Watson, Newcastle University

Holly Weir, University of Westminster

Tom Williams, Woodland Tribe

Penny Wilson, Play KX

Dr Philip Waters, I Love Nature CIC

Rob Wheway, Children’s Play Advisory Service

Ali Wood, Meriden Adventure Playground Association

Dr Jenny Wood, A Place in Childhood, and Heriot-Watt University


Putting children at the heart of urban planning: a call for action

24 Oct

Authors: Tim Gill, Adrian Voce, Darell Hammond and Mariana Brussoni

Four leading advocates make the case for placing children at the centre of urban planning. This offers a compelling vision for cities, and paves the way for action that matches up to the enormity of the task facing city leaders.

Cities around the world are failing children. 30 years after the launch of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – which aimed to make children’s needs and views central in policy making – most cities are hostile if not life-threatening places for their youngest inhabitants.

The global death toll of children on the roads is surely the most shocking illustration of the failure of urban planning. Road traffic is the leading global cause of death among people aged 15–29, and the second highest single cause of death for children aged 5–14.

The lives of urban children are also blighted by polluted air (much of it caused by road traffic). Around 2 billion globally live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds international limits, and almost 300 million live in areas where levels are considered to be toxic. Worldwide, around 127,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from outdoor air pollution [pdf link].

Poor urban planning restricts children’s play and mobility, fuelling the global epidemic of child obesity: a public health problem whose existence would have staggered experts back in the 1970s. It also plays a part in rising levels of adolescent mental health problems, by preventing many children from developing resilience early in life through opportunities for independence.

Of course, children are not the only ones suffering from failed urban planning. To quote Enrique Peñalosa’s memorable phrase, they are an ‘indicator species’ for cities. The sight of children being active and visible in public space is a sign not just of their own wellbeing, but of a generally healthy, liveable urban environment.

Meanwhile – as growing numbers of young people around the world are telling us, with voices at once clear, insistent and persuasive – cities are struggling to respond to the climate crisis. And aside from a handful of cities in high-income countries, they are failing here too. In the vast majority, rapid urbanization and unplanned growth are storing up huge problems for our future.

Why children should be at the heart of urban planning

In our view – and as backed up by a growing body of evidence – the most compelling response to the problems of urbanization, and to the call for climate action, is for children to be at the heart of urban planning. This article lays out the principles and strategic actions that flesh out this view.

As longstanding, committed advocates for children’s play, we honour the importance children attach to the ability to play freely out of doors, even in circumstances where adult eyes see more pressing priorities. Outdoor play supports children’s health and development in ways that other activities like structured sport or indoor play do not. It is central to our vision of a city that works for children.

But this does not mean that the solution is to create playgrounds (valuable though they may be). In too many cities, traffic-dominated streets carve up neighbourhoods, leaving children and families cut off from nearby parks and play areas.

Mobility unlocks neighbourhoods and the wider city for children and their caregivers.

Mobility unlocks neighbourhoods and the wider city for children and their caregivers. For the vast majority – and especially poorer families – mobility means walking. Walkability is the glue that holds neighbourhoods together. Hence fundamental to a child-friendly urban future is a shift away from car-centric planning and towards walking (and cycling, a gateway to expanding children’s horizons as they grow up).

The phrase ‘everyday freedoms’ – as adopted by the global planning and engineering firm Arup – neatly sums up our vision for children’s play and mobility. It is tempting to see this notion as a ‘nice to have’: a luxury compared to policy priorities like sanitation or schooling, especially in low- and middle-income contexts. But a moment’s thought shows this is mistaken. Education is a case in point. Making it safe and easy for children to get to and from school is hardly a ‘nice to have’. Rather, it is an indispensable part of the goal of securing universal access to education.

What needs to happen now

The problems of car-dominated neighbourhoods, inadequate and poorly-designed public space and environmental pollution must be tackled head-on. We do not need to wait for children to raise these issues (though they have been doing so for decades, in cities the world over).

Indeed, a shift in emphasis is needed, from process and participation to outcomes and impact, drawing on robust data and sound evaluations. Helpful though children’s participation is, the best measure of progress is positive change in the everyday lives of whole populations of children.

In an emerging field like this one, there is still much to learn. But we know enough to say that programmes must address children of all ages from birth through adolescence, focus on the residential neighbourhoods where most families live, and prioritise the marginalised communities who suffer the most from poor urban environments.

We are also calling for a broader set of actors to work together. No one agency has a monopoly on what makes cities child-friendly. We need to break down the professional and organisational silos that so often lead to isolated schemes, missed opportunities and wasted effort.

This in turn needs a level of cooperation ­– both between the leading agencies, and with the many smaller campaigning and advocacy groups – which recognises that the child friendly city concept has been taken up in different ways around the world by a wide variety of groups and individuals.

‘Municipalities … are the key agents of change, supported by national governments that create an enabling policy framework, and by strong partnerships with NGOs, civil society and the private sector’.

That said, it is municipalities that typically hold the functions that most strongly shape cities: planning, housing, green spaces, transport and schooling. They are the key agents of change, supported by national governments that create an enabling policy framework, and by strong partnerships with NGOs, civil society and the private sector.

We are impressed by the municipal innovation and leadership that is emerging from a handful of cities. Cities like Tirana, whose mayor Erion Veliaj sees children as both the lens and the catalyst for a new consensus vision for a fast-growing, polluted, car-dominated city that is trying to recover from its turbulent past. Cities like Ghent, which is integrating children’s perspectives into radical, sustainable planning, green space and transport policies.

We acknowledge the progress made by UNICEF’s official Child Friendly City Initiative, and welcome its increased profile, as signalled by the October 2019 summit in Cologne, Germany. We also recognise the excellent work done by NGOs and others who have taken up this topic. The Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 initiative (which two of us are part of) places the perspectives of infants, toddlers and their caregivers at the heart of global urban planning and design debates, and works on the ground in cities as diverse as Tel Aviv, Recife and Bogotá. At the community level, the UK campaigning group Playing Out has created a resident-led model of temporary road closures that is spreading around the world – and in doing so, is leading thousands of ordinary people to reimagine who and what streets are for.

Many more cities and agencies need to take up the cause of child-friendly urban planning: to build culture change and embed successful initiatives in policy, so that it is not left to a few isolated champions but instead becomes mainstreamed. This will require global learning networks that effectively nurture and share successful approaches and take them to scale.


No one actively wants to make cities worse for children. Rather, children – alongside other vulnerable city dwellers – are suffering the side-effects of short-termist, unsustainable, often uncontrolled, urban policies and programmes. With the equivalent of a new city of 1 million inhabitants being needed every week, it is time to call a stop on failed city-building that harms children and the planet.

Placing children at the heart of urban planning highlights both the key challenges facing cities, and the most promising solutions. It invites us all to look beyond our narrow, immediate concerns and instead to focus on the collective good, and on the longer term. The fact that cities are such complex organisms, and that urban planning is such a wicked issue, only amplifies the need for clear, unifying responses.

Seeing cities through children’s eyes is the best way – and perhaps the only way – to forge a compelling, consensus vision, and to build policies and programmes that match up to the enormity and complexity of the task facing city leaders.

Tim Gill, Adrian Voce, Darell Hammond, and Mariana Brussoni

Image: Playing Out CIC

About the authors

Tim Gill is an independent researcher and writer, and the author of No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society (2007). His 2017 Churchill Fellowship looked at child-centred urban planning in cities in Europe and Canada.

Adrian Voce is the director of Playful Planet and current president of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities. He is the author of Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right (2015).

Darell Hammond is an advisor for the Bernard Van Leer Foundation Urban95 strategy, amongst other advisory roles with Foundations and philanthropists. He was also the founder of US based NGO KaBOOM! which works to ensure that all kids get the play they need to reach their full potential.

Mariana Brussoni is a developmental psychologist and Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Her research focuses on child development, injury prevention and outdoor play.



UK planning policy mainly fails children, but London, Wales and Scotland begin to show the way

18 Sep

This summer’s publication of the Mayor of London’s proposed revisions to the London Plan was welcomed by advocates who have been pushing for a stronger policy on children and young people’s play, recreation, and independent mobility. Wider reaction to this part of the Plan, including from the UK government, signaled the ongoing influence of the capital; but will national policy follow suit?

The London Plan’s already relatively progressive approach to children and young people’s play and recreation is now to be further improved: to recognise their need for a wider range of spaces and opportunities; to ensure play areas offer real play value, with elements of risk and challenge designed in rather than out; and to afford greater independent mobility for children and young people, to break out of the sedentary, screen-based lifestyles that have become commonplace in the digital era.


The revised plan will retain innovative supplementary planning guidance first introduced in 2005-6, with its qualitative standards, and minimum spatial requirement of 10 sqm per child for play areas in new developments. Also retained is the recommendation that London boroughs should work across departments to coordinate area-wide play strategies: the approach that was adopted in England, by the UK government, for the world’s first national play strategy (2008).

Most eye-catching of all, however, certainly as far as media observers are concerned, the draft London Plan now specifies that play areas ‘should not be segregated by tenure’. This is a clear response to the worrying incidence of children from social housing being excluded from communal play areas in mixed developments.

Announcing the change, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, told the Guardian, “It is disgraceful that children who live in the same development would ever be prevented from playing together … The policies in my draft new London Plan are absolutely clear that new developments should be inclusive to all”.

Examination in public

Those of us who gave evidence at the London Plan’s Examination in Public may feel some gratification that our efforts on this occasion have received a positive response, but the real credit for this bold stance by the Mayor should more deservingly go to Louise Whitely, the parent of young children at the Old Baylis School development in south London, who  campaigned alongside her friends and neighbours for two years, to force the estate managers to honour the developers’ description of a ‘child-friendly’ estate; and Harriet Grant, the freelance journalist who brought the story to national attention via the Guardian, when a wall was erected to keep children from the social housing units out of the communal play space.

This was a narrative that captured public attention, highlighting a clear injustice in relatable, human-interest, terms, compelling policymakers to act; and not just in London. James Brokenshire, the (soon to be ex-) Communities Secretary, added the Government’s support for “planning and national rules that are there are properly upheld … (to end) segregation because of the nature of the home you live in”. It will now be up to his successor, Robert Jenrick, to deliver on that pledge.

Advocating for children’s rights in the built environment is challenging in the UK, where the absence of full adoption into UK (or Scots) law of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) means there is no statutory basis for rights-respecting policy. This is despite it being ratified by the government in 1991.

New research

But what does a more in-depth analysis tell us about UK planning policy and children’s rights? New research by Jenny Wood, of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and the Mayor’s design champion, architect Dinah Bornat, is assessing exactly that. While the full report is not due until the Autumn, the early findings seem to confirm the sense that children are most notable in national planning policy across the UK by their absence.

When mentioning them at all, planning documents most often refer to children either in the context of a list of protected minorities (usually in advice notes or documents with a lower standing in the hierarchy of planning than main policy documents), or as a kind of appendage to the default adult population, as in ‘people with children’, as though children do not have their own agency or distinct needs.

The research indicates that in recent years, of the four UK nations, Wales has had the most child-friendly planning policy. Whilst the assertions in the above paragraph still hold true for Wales, the latest Planning Policy Wales (PPW) was released in December 2018, and now aligns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act, 2015, to embrace the concept that people-centred placemaking is a route to wellbeing. Children’s rights also form the basis of child-focused legislation in Wales, including a duty on local authorities to assess and develop plans for a sufficiency of play opportunities for all children. With appropriate ‘linking-up’ of all these policy areas and faithful implementation, Wales has the greatest potential for child-friendly planning at present.

Play sufficiency

Current Scottish policy has been less child-friendly than in Wales and takes a predominantly economic focus. However, the recently completed stage 3 of the Planning (Scotland) Bill, includes measures that will give the most protection to children as a specific group of any national planning system. This should be through a statutory right to participate in the process of developing local development plans, and through planning authorities being required to produce ‘Play Sufficiency Assessments’ (emulating Wales). Child-specific legislation in Scotland is similar to that in Wales but currently weaker. However, the Scottish Government is currently consulting on how to integrate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots Law.

Seeking recognition for children’s rights within English planning policy has seemed particularly difficult since the abandonment of extensive government guidance in 2010-11, which had begun to prioritise children and young people’s need for more space as part of its long-term strategy to reverse the trend towards ‘battery-reared children’. Many practitioners believe the development imperative of the slimline National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) overrides design issues, to the detriment of the young, especially in the lower socio-economic groups. The research confirms that the NPPF is very weak on children as a specific group. Child-friendly aspirant local authorities have no national guidance for the task. Nevertheless, a number of English councils have embraced the concept, some with the UNICEF Child Friendly Cities Initiative, some independently.

In Northern Ireland, there is presently little protection for children at the national planning policy level, but the Department for Environment in the process of looking at child friendly planning, and the Belfast Healthy Cities initiative has the longest standing child-friendly city approach of any UK city.

Cautious optimism

The UK clearly has a long way to go to integrate the UN’s Habitat declarations that children’s rights are a responsibility of both national and local government, and that the built environment has an important role to play. However, the London Plan revisions, the recent breakthrough in Scotland, the long experience of Belfast, and the progressive, rights-based approach to children’s play in Wales, each give grounds for cautious optimism.

A survey of 3,000 homeowners by the UK Green Building Council found that a neighbourhood where children can play outside was a bigger selling point than having a south-facing garden, or even the prospect of property value appreciation per se. Making  planning policy work for children and young people – shaping a built environment where they can gather and play equally, move around independently and enjoy the right to roam that older generations took for granted – is not only an obligation under of the UNCRC; it makes sound economic sense too.

Adrian Voce and Jenny Wood

Adrian Voce is president of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities, and the author of Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right (Policy Press, 2015)

Jenny Wood is Co-founder and Chair of the Board at A Place in Childhood and a Research Associate in the Institute for Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University.

Jenny Wood’s research with Dinah Bornat is funded by the Royal Town Planning Institute and will be published in the Autumn of 2019.

Adrian Voce, Jenny Wood, and Dinah Bornat will each be speaking at Towards the Child Friendly City: children’s rights in the built environment, a major conference in Bristol City Hall, on 27-29 November, 2019. Full details here


Researching the influences on playwork

31 May

A research question: what influences playwork?

Playwork is an emerging profession based on an approach to working with children that privileges their play, the process of playing, and the provision of optimum environments for playing, above other considerations.

It is, in comparison to mainstream pedagogy certainly, a radical approach, with profoundly different perspectives and tenets to those found in the dominant discourses of child policy and children’s services.

But what are those perspectives and tenets? What is their evidence base? Do they amount to a cohesive praxis? Is there a recognisable and consistent playwork narrative? If so, how does it inform, and how is it informed by, other children’s rights narratives? Most pertinently, given the precarious situation of much of the playwork sector, after 8 years of austerity, does this narrative have resonance with policymakers and their electorates, or should the playwork field look to its future outside of public policy as such?

To help address some of these questions, I am researching the academic and other influences on playwork for a Masters dissertation. If you are in any way within the playwork field and would like to contribute, please complete a short survey here

Thank you!

Photo by Pixabay on

Segregated play space is an abuse of children’s rights

28 Mar

‘She seems genuinely impressed when she hears about the freedom and control that children have here, and especially at the sense of community and social connection they exhibit: that this is their place, of which they are immensely proud. Before she moves on, The Princess Royal turns to me and says that these children, from the ‘deprived’ social housing estates in the looming shadow of Waterloo Station, seem to be enjoying the kind of childhood that many supposedly better-off children would relish’.

From Policy for Play, responding to children’s forgotten right
Adrian Voce (Policy Press, 2015)

Writing in the Guardian this week, Harriet Grant reports on what can only be described as a form of social apartheid, in the design of a small housing estate in London. The article relates how, in a new mixed development on the site of the old Lilian Baylis School in SE1, North Lambeth, children living in social housing are excluded from the supposedly ‘communal’ play areas, where access is exclusive to those from the privately-owned units.

The article has caused a media furore, with everyone from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to the Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, decrying what architect Dinah Bornat, an expert on child-friendly housing, has called a shameful abuse of the planning process. Victoria Derbyshire’s daytime TV programme featured mums from each part of the estate, united in wanting all their children to be able to play together equally.

As of lunchtime today, the BBC was reporting that Henley Housing, the developer, has said it ‘has no objection to residents in the social housing estate accessing all the play areas’; it was ‘leading the way’ to find a ‘workable solution’. This was later confirmed by Grant in a follow-up to her Guardian story. The BBC reported that Warwick Estates, who manage the private part of the estate, however, are making no comment.

If they each think it’s wrong, who is responsible?

It is striking from Grant’s original piece how a variety of key players (no pun intended) – the designer, the developer, the council, the Mayor and the government – seem to agree (in the glare of media scrutiny anyway) that this segregation of children’s play space by home-ownership status is wrong. And yet there it is. If they each think it’s wrong, who is responsible? Dinah Bornat says she is still trying to get to the bottom of it. There has even been talk of a possible legal challenge by some housing law specialists and children’s rights advocacy groups.

My correspondence, going back to June last year, from one of the parents at Baylis Old School, reveals that the segregation of the play area is in fact only the latest instalment in a running battle at this site, between residents who understood from the marketing that they were moving into a genuinely child-friendly development, and the estate managers, for whom children’s play of any stripe seems to have been largely conceived as a nuisance to be policed.

Whether or not a ‘workable solution’ can be found for the Baylis Old School development (now it is in the media spotlight), the wider questions are: how common is this, and how can it be prevented? How can children’s right to play together in the common spaces of their immediate neighbourhoods – a feature of childhood as ancient as society itself, and believed by scientists to be a key to our evolution as a species – be better protected? Is this not a failure of public policy, wherein children’s right to play receives scant recognition, and no support, in defiance of various UN reports criticising the government for its dereliction?

I want to suggest four distinct policy measures that would make such an occurrence ­– and the wider disregard for children’s rights in public space –much less likely in the future.

1.Reform national planning policy

As the retreat of children from public space became a growing cause of concern through the 90s and 2000s, so the need for a greater role for planning policy to provide guidance on children’s play space became more and more accepted, with major planning documents such as the first London Plan and the government’s National Planning Policy Guidance 17 on Recreational Space, each highlighting the need for planners and developers to include children’s play within the overall concept and masterplan for any residential development.

At the time of the change of government in 2010, Play England had been commissioned to produce specific planning guidance that was to have been published by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It never saw the light of day and, as everyone now knows, the entire suite of national planning policy documents was soon torn up and replaced by one slim volume. It seems clear that The National Planning Policy Framework is only fit for purpose if that purpose is to allow the concept and design of the public realm to be led by developers. Brought in at a time of perceived crisis for the economy, it is now surely time for a review.

2. Reinstate children’s play as a matter of government policy

Would Lambeth council have allowed the developer at the Baylis Old School site to alter the plans and create a segregated play area if children’s play had been higher on their political radar? Perhaps, but it would have been less likely. When there was a Secretary of State for Children, with a serious national play policy, including a 10-year strategy and a £390m funding programme (including £155m of lottery money), local authorities were required to have a current local play strategy and play partnership, based squarely on principles and understandings about children’s right to play. Children’s play in England since 2010 has all but disappeared from the policy agenda other than as a tool for early learning and will continue to be neglected by cash-strapped local authorities until there is again some national leadership on the issue.

3. Adopt the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into UK Law

It has been both heartening and a bit depressing to see the parents from both sides of this unwanted divide citing children’s right to play equally, as per the UNCRC, in their campaign to end this terrible practice. Heartening, because we are often told there is not much appetite for children’s rights among the British public; the outpouring of sympathy for these children, and the stance of their parents suggests otherwise. Depressing because the UK, (or, more particularly, the UK government, and therefore England) is one of the more reluctant signatories to the convention. The UK is one of the very few developed-world governments not to have adopted the convention into national legislation, ranked a lowly 187th by the Kids Rights Index which monitors the degree of integration of children’s rights into national policy and legislation. This is why finding a viable legal challenge to this shameful decision may be harder than it ought to be.

4. Designate London and other conurbations Child Friendly Cities

The UN’s Habitat conferences of the 90s highlighted the particular threats to the wellbeing of children and young people by increasing urbanisation, population growth and poor long-term planning by municipal government. UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative is designed to ensure that local authorities, regardless of national government policy, fully adopt and implement the UNCRC within all relevant policies and processes. Very few British councils have signed up for the UNICEF initiative – many citing austerity and the cost of the programme – but some, like Bristol, have nevertheless declared their commitment to being a child friendly city and are developing plans and strategies accordingly. A child-friendly city is not just a city where child-friendly design principles are more widely adopted, but one where, as a cornerstone of the children’s rights ethos, these principles are applied equally to all children. 15 years after City Hall hosted the second international child-friendly city conference, Sadiq Khan should formally commit the capital to becoming a recognised Child Friendly City. His current London Plan revision is the perfect opportunity.

As a playworker in the 1980s, I had the privilege of working at an adventure playground in the same part of London as the Baylis Old School development. Like all such places (now sadly diminishing in number), it had its own unique character and culture, reflecting that of the local children who used it. One abiding memory is of how proud they were, not just of the playground (which they helped to build), but of their ‘manor’: the social housing estates in the shadow of Waterloo Station. Applying for grants for our project from the various funding programmes for deprived inner-city areas was frequently met with their scorn. “We’re not deprived; this ain’t a deprived area. Flaming cheek!’ would be one of the more printable reactions. As my story of the visit by our patron Princess Anne relates, there was support for this view from some unlikely sources.

Whatever else was going on in their lives, in one very important regard these children were indeed far from deprived. The adventure playground, and the wider public spaces surrounding it, were theirs to explore from an early age. With no gardens of their own, children from as young as 4-5 would be outside on a daily basis, in groups of siblings and friends – playing, making friends, getting up to mischief, growing up. The adventure playground was their place, but in those (pre-childcare registration) days of open-access, ‘drop-in-drop-out’ attendance, the wider public space of their estates was also their domain.

These kids, like so many who grew up before the outdoor world had become a no-go area for them, had the richest of play lives: meaning they grew up learning the physical and social competence, self-confidence and resourcefulness that only comes from having time and space to play, away from adult direction, structures and rules; immersing themselves, daily, in their own culture and society; making decisions and taking risks for themselves. In so doing they also developed the ‘place attachment’ so important to identity and citizenship.

Like the parents at Baylis Old School today, the adults in the lives of those children in the North Lambeth of the 1980s – indeed society as a whole, even if by a kind of benign neglect – understood the importance of their right to play, and that this right was for every child, regardless of where they live.

Adrian Voce
Image: Marc Rusines

Adrian Voce is the current President of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities. He is a trustee of the Playwork Foundation and an associate board member of Playing Out. His book, Policy for Play was published in 2015.

This article was first published by the Playwork Foundation


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.

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 in decline since the crash. Enlightened policy would protect those that remain and set out a programme 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 school and 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 the 1989 Convention; 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

%d bloggers like this: