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For play, vote to stay

22 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrian Voce

 

 

 

 

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

14 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play policy since 2010 has been all downhill

Play policy since 2010 has been all downhill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrian Voce

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

The trouble with ‘risky play’

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

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

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

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

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Photo: Play England

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

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

Newspaper headlines … and a genie released

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrian Voce

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

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

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

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

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

Play: children’s default setting

28 Apr
In this adapted extract from Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right, Adrian Voce summarises the importance of play and the barriers to its full enjoyment that modern children face. This extract was first published on the Toy Industries of Europe’s Importance of Play website.

PinkW01While the precise nature of play remains elusive and indefinable, several academic disciplines – from evolutionary biology to developmental and depth psychology and the emergent neurosciences – each agree in their different ways that children’s play is central to who and what we are. It seems clear from these various studies that playing has a vitally important role, both in individual development and in human evolution, but that its primary purpose is simply to be enjoyed.

The great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith famously said, ‘the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression’; the act of playing brings about ‘renewed belief in the worthwhileness of merely living’. Playing is children’s default setting. After being fed, clothed, rested and feeling reasonably secure, their first need is to play. It is a deep and instinctive biological trait: the way that the young orientate themselves and discover how to engage with, navigate and co-create the world of which they are a part. For children, playing is the main medium for self-exploration and self-expression. They first form their self-identity by instinctively rehearsing and developing their emotional and physical repertoires through play. It is how they first encounter and learn to manage risks.

Playing is children’s default setting. After being fed, clothed, rested and feeling reasonably secure, their first need is to play

First and foremost, for children, play is fun. This compels them to seek opportunities for it in all circumstances and contexts. It is an evolutionary imperative, which means that playing children are acquiring the self-confidence and developing the mental and emotional capacity and adaptability to not only deal with what life might have in store for them, but also to live it fully, moment to playful moment. Children’s capacity to create such moments is perhaps the only definition of their resilience that we need.

That children seek opportunities to play wherever and whenever they can should tell us something; but the vital role of play in child development is often widely misunderstood by policymakers, who can frequently be heard to say – as they contrive to manipulate and direct the play of children towards the acquisition of narrowly defined knowledge and skills – that there is no difference between play and learning. This dangerously misses the central point about playing, which is that children do it simply because they need to, because it is in their nature. Learning is incidental, unless it is to become better at the game.

To play the way that their biological instincts demand, children need space: cultural, social and emotional as well as physical and geographical space. That is, they need spacious environments that afford play opportunities, and they need permission and confidence to use them without the encroachment of adult agendas. Because the need for play is universal, it follows that these environments must be part of the public realm, accessible and available to all children.

But play’s self-directed nature and practically infinite variability calls for a different type of public realm from that which has increasingly become the norm. Children need a degree of freedom that is now only rarely granted to them. Space to play is increasingly controlled, dominated or narrowly prescribed to children by adult society. By a range of measures, the space and opportunity for children to play is diminishing. Most pre-teen children in modern Britain no longer play out in their local neighbourhoods. Their independent mobility or ‘licence’ to come and go unaccompanied was drastically curtailed during the latter quarter of the twentieth century and does not appear to be recovering. It is widely considered dangerous, socially unacceptable or both for children to be outside without adults. Mostly, during out-of-school hours, they are either inside – doing their homework, watching TV, playing computer games, ‘chatting’ (i.e. texting) on social media, out somewhere with adults or in an after-school club. If they are lucky, they might be at the park or local playground, but even here, during the primary years, they are by and large closely supervised.

This is the age of the ‘battery-reared child’ in which the play of children – which has been a fundamental, instinctive part of the human story, integral to our evolution – is being confined and constrained like never before.

Throughout human history, until very recently, children have tended to play – and had the freedom to play – in the streets where they lived, or the equivalent common spaces between and around their dwellings. But this is 2016, and without projects like Playing Out, organised and promoted by local parents who know what is being lost, ‘free-range kids’ are disappearing from public space – have indeed disappeared altogether from many places, certainly in their primary years. This is the age of the ‘battery-reared child’ in which the play of children – which has been a fundamental, instinctive part of the human story, integral to our evolution – is being confined and constrained like never before. Children’s freedom to play outside is being trumped by the real risk of death or injury from traffic[1], the perceived threat from predatory strangers[2] or a range of demands on children’s time, from homework to extra-curricular classes and clubs.

This change – which many experts, including the government’s own, believe has profound implications for children’s health and development as well as the nature of society itself – is neither inevitable nor irreversible but rather a result of decisions about how we conceive, design, develop and manage public space and public services and how they each respond – or do not respond – to children, and what science tells as about their nature and the nature of their need to play.

Adrian Voce

IMG_2061Adrian Voce OBE is a writer and consultant on children’s play. He is a former chair and director of the Children’s Play Council and was the founding director of Play England, in which role he was the leading external advisor on the government’s national play strategy for England.

[1] Around 5,000 children under the age of 16 die or are seriously injured on Britain’s roads each year. Nearly two in three road accidents happen when children are walking or playing (AA Motoring Trust, 2014).

[2] Over four-fifths of completed abductions recorded by the police involve a perpetrator known to the victim. Less than one-fifth is committed by a stranger (Newiss and Traynor, 2013).

 

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

29 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traffic, planning, and housing

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

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

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

Policing and anti-social behaviour

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

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

Childcare and Schools

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

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

Future directions

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

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

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

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About the Author

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

 

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

David Bowie called to the ludic spirit in us all

18 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrian Voce

 

 

 

10 challenges for the play movement in England in 2016

5 Jan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

Adrian

 

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