Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right
by Adrian Voce
Policy Press, 2015
Reviewed by Maria Nordström
Maria Nordström reviews a book that describes how a policy initiative in England, which elevated the importance of planning and investment in children’s play, became a pawn in a game of high politics.
In London, in 2004, Adrian Voce, the author of this engaging new book, was at the forefront of a play policy initiative that was perhaps unique anywhere in the world. It was then that the first elected Mayor of London (2004) published the London Plan, the spatial and economic development strategy for one of the world’s greatest cities.
Thanks largely to Voce and his colleagues at the small, regional NGO, London Play, this important, high-level strategy included a policy to protect and develop space for children’s play: a commitment that was then underpinned by the production of guidance (Mayor of London, 2005) to London’s 33 local borough councils on how they should develop local play strategies to implement the policy. There followed supplementary planning guidance (Mayor of London, 2008) on minimum space standards – qualitative and quantitative – for children’s play space.
This ground-breaking development in London led, indirectly, two years later, to the adoption of the Mayor’s approach by England’s largest non-governmental funding body, the Big Lottery Fund (2006) for its £155m Children’s Play Initiative, which saw each of England’s local authorities develop area wide play strategies as the basis for allocated lottery funding. It was no coincidence that, by this time, Voce was director of the influential Children’s Play Council, which became the lottery programme’s delivery partner – establishing the new national body, Play England in the process.
Suddenly, children’s play, playgrounds and play space were on the agenda like never before. Crucially, the importance of proper strategic planning for play was being recognised by policymakers for the first time…
Suddenly, children’s play, playgrounds and play space were on the agenda like never before. Crucially, the importance of proper strategic planning for play was being recognised by policymakers for the first time, and it was not long before the national government got in on the act.
The UK government’s £235m Play Strategy (DCMS, 2008), with Play England contracted to support its delivery, was intended to last for ten years, aiming to make England ‘the best place in the world to grow up’. But it was not to be. Consequent to the major economic crisis of 2007-2008, and the change of government in 2010, the strategy was cancelled – but not before the unprecedented sum of £360m had been spent on public play provision.
Britain has long had its strong personalities committed to children’s right to a child-friendly city, and especially to their right to play. Adrian Voce joins Colin Ward, Roger Hart, Tim Gill and several other influential writers and thinkers who have made Britain a beacon for play advocates everywhere. The most famous of these, Roger Hart, the eminent children’s geographer now living in the United States, has written a fine foreword to this book.
Voce…paints a vivid picture of how strong an influence can be wielded by dedicated practitioners – in this case playworkers – when committed to affecting change.
Voce shows how the play policy venture became a pawn in a highly political game, but he also paints a vivid picture of how strong an influence can be wielded by dedicated practitioners – in this case playworkers – when committed to affecting change.
These ‘advocates for play’ are an English phenomenon, with no direct equivalent in Sweden. Perhaps the closest comparison is with people working in, for example, park games, whose task it is to encourage and support children’s play without controlling or organising it according to predetermined programmes or ‘outcomes’.
The emergence of playworkers, of whom Voce himself was one, arose from those who staffed traditional adventure playgrounds in England from the 1950s and 60s onwards, and it is to such places that he suggests one should look to discover the essence of a good play space. Adventure playgrounds simply allow children space to explore, materials to mould and environments to transform, constantly evolving as integral components of their daily play lives, where something new will always emerge.
Such places – or equivalent – and their qualities are essential components of good play provision according to Voce. His book challenges our notions of playgrounds as defined spaces, locked into a specific appearance and reliant on pre-existing designs and equipment. Instead, there is the suggestion that all space for children should simply be conceived as a place where they might play, and to afford them as many possibilities for it as possible.
his book challenges our notions of playgrounds as defined spaces, locked into a specific appearance and reliant on pre-existing designs and equipment
Voce and his practitioner colleagues have happily adopted the term ‘playwork’ to describe their role; it is important, he emphasises, that we understand that play and work are not opposing phenomena. Referring to a well-known quote from the great play scholar, Brian Sutton-Smith, Voce agrees that the opposite of play is depression.
The English Play Strategy, and the longer-term play policy adventure that Voce relates so vividly, came to an abrupt end in 2010. Perhaps as a consolation to the reader – and himself – Voce mentions briefly the more enduring (so far), play policy of Wales – which has devolved powers for education, youth and, therefore, play. Here, there is now a legal requirement on all municipalities to account for and evaluate a ‘sufficiency’ of children’s local play opportunities: the first country in the world to enact such a measure, he says.
Once upon a time, Sweden was unique, with our national standards for children’s playgrounds in newly built neighbourhoods. But that story is not written yet; not in English.
Maria Nordström, Ph.D., Environmental Psychologist, is a visiting researcher at the Swedish University Of Agricultural Sciences.
Big Lottery Fund (BIG) (2005) Children’s Play Initiative: https://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/global-content/programmes/england/childrens-play
DCSF / DCMS (2008), The Play Strategy, London: Crown Copyright.
Mayor of London (2004) The London Plan: the Spatial Development Strategy for London, London: Greater London Authority.
Mayor of London (2005), Guide to Preparing Play Strategies; planning inclusive play space and opportunities for all London’s children and young people. London: Greater London Authority.
Mayor of London (2008), Supplementary Planning Guidance: providing for children and young people’s play and informal recreation, London: Greater London Authority.
This review has been translated from the original Swedish version, which first appeared in the print journal, STAD: debatt och reflexion om urbana landscape (CITY: debate and reflection on urban landscapes), Issue 12, March, 2016.
Policy for Play can be ordered here