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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 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

It was originally entitled: THE RIGHT TO PLAY IS FOR EVERY CHILD, REGARDLESS OF WHERE THEY LIVE.

Artist Mark Neville explores childhood play in collaboration with The Foundling Museum

12 Oct

By Tom Seymour (reblogged from bjp-online.com)

mark-neville-the-jungle-book-rehearsals-sewickley-academy-2012-courtesy-mark-neville

Main image: Mark Neville, ‘The Jungle Book Rehearsals, Sewickley Academy’, 2012. All images © Mark Neville, courtesy The Foundling Museum

As identified by the UN in the 2013 General Comment on Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a child has a universal human right to play. A new exhibition of photographs, as well as a symposium and photobook, by photographer Mark Neville, aims to generate debate around the complex nature of child’s play, and to advocate for improved provision for this universal right. At a time when up to 13 million children have been internally displaced as a result of armed conflict, photographer Mark Neville presents a series of images of children at play in diverse environments around the world.

Immersing himself in communities from Port Glasgow to North London, and in the war zones of Afghanistan and Ukraine, the series is a celebration of the thing that all children, regardless of their environment do – play.

mark-neville-boy-with-hoop-in-kakuma-refugee-camp-kenya-2016-courtesy-mark-neville

Mark Neville, ‘Boy with Hoop in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya’, 2016

The exhibition includes new photographs of internally displaced children in Ukraine; residents of Kakuma, Kenya’s second largest refugee camp, and depictions of children at play in London adventure playgrounds.

Through his photographs Neville captures children’s spontaneous urge to play and their determination to do so in the most unfavourable environments. His images reveal how, through play, children claim a place of power, safety and freedom.

Presenting the images on display along with an overview of the groundbreaking work in the field of child’s play, a book will seek to raise awareness of this universal right, and also focus attention on attitudes towards play in the UK and how the conditions for children can be improved.

mark-neville-child-jacket-slaughtered-goat-sweets-painted-nails-xmas-day-helmand-2010-courtesy-mark-neville

Mark Neville, ‘Child, Jacket, Slaughtered Goat, Sweets, Painted Nails, Xmas Day, Helmand’, 2010

Adrian Voce – playworker, writer and former director of the campaigning body Play England – gives an overview of the national and international work in the field of child’s play, alongside a review of cultural representations of children at play and historical attitudes towards childhood, as seen through the prism of the Foundling Hospital, by curator Nicola Freeman. Copies of the book will be disseminated free to key policy makers and government departments, experts in the field, and to each of the UK’s 433 local councils, in order to directly impact upon government policy thinking and strategy.

A symposium on 20 March will explore the issue of spaces for play, looking at the real and imagined barriers to play in our cities, and focusing in particular on the privatisation of space.

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Mark Neville, ‘Arts and Crafts at Somerford Grove Adventure Playground’, 2011, courtesy Alan Cristea Gallery

In the context of the Museum, the idea of spontaneous play is set against the institutional play evidenced at the Foundling Hospital through archive photographs and film footage. Founded in 1739, the history of the Hospital mirrors the growing recognition of the distinctive needs of children, and the role of play in their lives – from the proliferation of children’s toys and books in the 18th century and campaigns for playgrounds throughout the 19th century, to the closing of the Bloomsbury estate in the early 20th century, now within a fully developed area of London, to give the children better access to fresh air and nature.

Mark Neville said: ‘The right of the child to play a barely discussed, yet fundamental human right.

“We aim to use the Museum as a space for debate and an instrument to improve the rights of vulnerable children.

“By addressing the issues through three symbiotic strategies – an exhibition at the Museum, a hardback photobook with a targeted dissemination, and a symposium – we believe we can really make an impact on this forgotten right.”

Caro Howell, Director of the Foundling Museum, said: “Play is creative, disruptive and a universal human drive. Mark Neville’s powerful images demonstrate its essential role in enabling a child to make sense of the world and to shape their place in it, no matter how challenging the environment.”

Child’s Play is on show from 3 February – 30 April 2017 at The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ.

More information is available here.

Bold move to kickstart an outdoor play renaissance in Canada

13 Jan

An interesting development in Canada, reported by Tim Gill, who will be involved.

Rethinking Childhood

Last week the Lawson Foundation, a Canadian family foundation, launched an ambitious outdoor play strategy with the announcement of $2.7 million (£1.3 million; $US 1.9 million) in funding for 14 projects.

Lawson Foundation outdoor play strategy graphic

The strategy has an explicit and exclusive focus on unstructured outdoor play. Tackling risk aversion is a prominent theme, building on the Foundation’s recent support for a groundbreaking consensus position statement [pdf link] whose key message is that the biggest risk is keeping kids indoors.

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