In this adapted version of an article originally published in the International Journal of Play, Adrian Voce places the establishment of the Playwork Foundation in its historical context, and sugge…
The Playwork Foundation has published a blog setting out the case against closing adventure playgrounds, which is well worth a read:
‘Playwork is an essential component of adventure playgrounds, a form of staffed provision renowned the world over as offering children the best opportunities to play within a dedicated, manag…
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
In this interview from the ‘Childcare Conversations’ series on First Discoverers, author of Policy for Play, Adrian Voce talks about why he found playwork so rewarding and why campaigning for children’s right to play is so important to him.
Above all, writer Adrian Voce is a passionate advocate for children’s play, which his latest book ‘Policy for Play’ uncompromisingly describes as a child’s ‘forgotten right’. In conversation with First Discoverers, Adrian reveals some thought-provoking observations about childcare issues, explains why working with children is a privilege, and calls for an end to the ‘institutionalisation of childhood’.
“… more a playworker than a childcare worker”
Careerwise, Adrian recalls how, even before he became a parent, he felt very fortunate to be working on adventure playgrounds: “… my working life was a kind of reverse of the norm. Most other people went home to their families at the end of the day. I used to get the feeling I was coming home each day that I went into work …”
Role definition is significant for Adrian who definitely regards himself ‘more as a playworker than a childcare worker’, and it’s uplifting to hear his explanation of why the distinction is important: “I think children playing … are as vibrant and alive as humanity gets and it’s a huge privilege to be in that world again, with the reflective capacity of an adult.” Continuing, he confesses himself: “… driven by the need to help create [play] opportunities for children who may not otherwise have so many of them.”
Dignity, respect and empathy…
Discussing inspirational moments he has experienced, Adrian recounts a moving story which will resonate with all childcare professionals:
“I worked as a special needs assistant, supporting a boy with mobility difficulties to take part in the mainstream education system. He was a normal little boy with a love of play and sport, and a real competitive nature. But his legs didn’t work very well and he spent a lot of time on his hands and knees. He was a great crawler! My job was to intervene as little as necessary to enable him to be part of the class, but mainly to just let him get on with it.
One sports day in Year 2, he lined up with other kids for a beanbag race between two teams. When it was his turn to race, the boy from the other team who lined up against him, when he saw who he was up against, without any cue or instruction from the adults or other kids, just instinctively dropped to his hands and knees so that they could have a fair race. I thought that was quite special.”
“It’s time we asked … whether schools and childcare are children-ready”
As a respected consultant on public provision for children’s play and the founding director of Play England, Adrian is clearly a dedicated campaigner – so look away now if you are easily unnerved by forthright opinion expressed by a committed children’s activist –
“I’d like to see the tenets, knowledge and skills of playwork recognised as core to the skill-set required for all childcare workers, in both early years and after school settings; and a reversal of the insidious institutionalisation of childhood that I fear is a result of our obsession with a very narrow measure of education.”
On schools and childcare:
“Rather than focusing on children being school-ready, it’s time we took a few big steps back and asked whether schools and childcare are really children-ready.”
On parenting attitudes:
“The message [parents] get is that they are over-protective, paranoid even, for being wary to let their children out alone … what is ‘risky play’ for example? It does not sound like something I would like my children to be doing! I think it’s an ill-advised label for a sensible, professional approach to managing risks …”
Working with others on a national campaign to persuade government to make children’s play a policy priority enabled Adrian to voice his playwork philosophy:
I think children should be in supportive environments where they feel safe and secure enough to be themselves … to explore, invent, manipulate and discover. [They should have] access to the elements, a wide range of loose parts and materials … and opportunities to climb, hide, build, jump, balance, swing and all the other things a playful child wants to do … their playful nature will do the rest.”
Nevertheless, as he recounts, political intervention eventually succeeded in transforming an enlightened, groundbreaking approach into a roller-coaster ride:
“This led to the national Play Strategy for England of 2008, an ambitious 10-12 year plan with many different elements, that was designed to make England the best country in the world for children’s play. Seeing this scrapped after only two years, by people who did not even understand what it was, was pretty tough …”
“… there is a wider responsibility to make the public realm safer … for children.”
Moving on to discuss the supposed perils of play, Adrian’s playworker perspective on adventure play evokes a nuanced response. When asked if children can ever be ‘too safe’, he observes:
This is a big question and it depends what we mean by safe. Emotionally, no: the more loved and accepted a child feels, the more resilient, creative and adaptable they will be. But physically, denying children the incremental freedoms they need to explore the world on its own terms is not really keeping them safe, but rather protecting ourselves from the objects of our own anxiety … I wonder sometimes whether we put too much focus as a sector on the whole issue of risk and safety … Another problem I have with some of the current discourse about risk is that it tends to overshadow the fact that some of the risks parents are concerned about are all too real … [with] traffic, for example, they may have a real concern about exposing children to roads that are many times busier and more dangerous than they used to be. If we want parents to be more willing to allow their children the freedom to play outside, then there is a wider responsibility to make the public realm safer – and seen to be safer – for children.”
And finally, Adrian’s advice to anyone considering a career in childcare is predictably upbeat and enthusiastic:
Go for it! Working with children is the most enjoyable way to make a living that I’ve ever had the privilege to follow. Be real, don’t patronise them … they will respond to that and reward you with absolute trust … I think children need that feeling of a safe place, where they can be themselves and know that they are OK, no matter what. I think a good playworker (childcare worker, teacher) gives them that.”
This interview first appeared on First Discoverers
Thoughtful reflections on a very real, frightening and tragic issue, from an organisation working on the play movement’s front line.
I am thinking about Play, about violence, about challenging behaviour and about Play.
As an organisation fully based in Islington, IPA is profoundly affected by the recent tragic murders in our borough of our young people.
I wonder how we can make sense of what is happening and what we can do.
I strongly feel that media stories need to be challenged. I remember being terrified of nuclear war when I was young. I didn’t have a free paper on every bus or the news or twitter on my phone but I knew about it. I used to cry with nightmares sometimes.
Do we know what children are scared of now?
The constant media story of children in Islington is one of violent knife crime, ASBO’s, drug dealers, gangs, high house prices, no jobs, ill health and obesity. The children and young people are all too aware of this…
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The National Playwork Conference on 4-5 March could be a pivotal moment for the field.
A rolling discussion, initiated by Professor Perry Else of Sheffield Hallam University and Bob Hughes of Play Education last summer, about how the playwork field can remake the case for staffed play provision in the face of mounting cuts and a hugely unsympathetic policy landscape, moves to Eastbourne next week.
Since that Argument for Playwork gathering in July, subsequent meetings in Gloucester and Birmingham have developed the beginnings of a consensus within the field, that the time is right to create and establish our own vehicle: an independent playwork practitioner body, owned by and accountable to its members.
Nobody is underestimating the scale of such a task, but one major hurdle – finding a broad initial agreement within the sector about what kind of body we want – may be in reach. The National Playwork Conference, held in Eastbourne on 4th and 5th March will either confirm or confound that hope.
The group driving this process has produced a short statement setting out the proposed direction of travel and some broad principles for a potential new body. It is asking the playwork community to endorse it by expressing an interest in possibly joining such an organisation when and if the project achieves its aim.
This invitation makes Eastbourne a pivotal moment. Without a strong mandate from the field, it will be difficult to sustain any credible momentum for such an ambitious project. If, on the other hand, the playwork community decides to organise itself; work together; adopt some structures and processes, reconciling our differences to the purpose of re-establishing our common ground and amplifying our collective voice and influence, there’s absolutely nothing to stop us. Like the Spirt of Adventure Play conference in Cardiff, every year Eastbourne demonstrates that there is far more uniting UK playwork than there is dividing it.
Perhaps this year we can harness that spirit to take playwork to the next level.
If you are part of the UK playwork community and want to endorse this process but are not attending Eastbourne, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and she will happily add you to the list. Thanks.
The statement can be read here.