Bring back play

21 Jun

by Maisie Rowe

In this guest blog, originally published in this summer’s edition of the Landscape Journal, Maisie Rowe explains how a recent exhibition highlights how much our attitudes to play have changed – and largely not for the better.

Hardly any other modern concept had a more far-reaching and enduring influence than the Skrammellegeplads’, says Gabriela Burkhalter. She is talking about the ‘junk playgrounds’, which were conceived in Denmark by the landscape architect Theodor Sorensen in the 1940s.

Burkhalter is curator of an excellent recent exhibition, The Playground Project, held at the Kunsthalle, Zurich, which reviews a hundred years of playground design through pictures, books and full-size play installations. Her exhibition contained much to inspire the landscape architect, not least by reminding us what design looked like when it was rooted in theories of human development and the belief that play is a right of the child.

The Playground Project in Zurich. Photo: Annik Wetter

The Playground Project in Zurich. Photo: Annik Wetter

Freidrich Froebel, inventor of the kindergarten, wrote: ‘Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.’ Froebel, Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori were just some of the key figures in a discourse that, by recognising childhood as central to human experience, would put children at the heart of the twentieth-century social project. The design of playgrounds took on artistic and social importance: ‘If childhood is a journey, let us see to it the child does not travel by night’, said Aldo van Eyck, who designed around 730 play- grounds for the city of Amsterdam.

‘the twentieth century was not kind to children’

But despite being described as ‘The Century of the Child’, the twentieth century was not kind to children. Conflict and upheaval devastated childhoods and, while the enlightened pedagogues sought to nurture the innate creativity and spirit of each child, cities blindly privileged the motorcar over the child and sacrificed open space to bricks and concrete.

So playground design was always going to be contentious. From early on, it was beset by a tension between mass delivery of practical municipal play facilities and provision that emphasised deep play and contact with nature. Some of the earliest playgrounds were severe, gymnasium- like spaces provided by reformers and philanthropists to engage slum urchins in purposeful activity, once they were liberated by reform from factory labour. By contrast, the progressive designer C. Th. Sørensen spent time watching how children, left to their own devices, played on waste ground, building dens and damming streams.

‘Sørensen said: ‘They (the children) can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality’

Sørensen’s collaborator was Hans Dragehjelm, ‘the father of the sand-box’. They drew inspiration from the German idea of sand play; in Berlin, in the 1850s, huge piles of sand, called sand bergs, had been provided for children to play with. Dragehjelm set up Copenhagen’s first sand playground but Sørensen took the idea further, says Burkhalter: ‘Sørensen made even more room for the creative moment: the children were given materials and tools to build their own worlds.’ Of his ‘junk playground’, established at Emdrup in Copenhagen in 1943, Sørensen said: ‘They (the children) can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality… It is so obvious that the children thrive here and feel well, they unfold and they live.’

An English landscape architect, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, chanced on Sørensen’s project while on a British Council lecture tour through occupied Europe. Lady Allen came from the class of eccentric, posh-but-penniless bohemians. Enamoured of nature, she spotted that these gloriously chaotic environments – with their dens, ropes, bonfires, gardens and animals – offered urban children freedom, self-expression and an outdoor life.

She wrote: ‘In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities… There was a wealth of waste material… and no man-made fixtures. The children could dig, build houses, experiment with sand, water or fire, and play games of adventure and make-believe.’ Adopting a rallying-cry of ‘Better a broken arm than a broken spirit!’ she reinvented Sørensen’s Skrammellegeplads as ‘adventure playgrounds’.

‘playwork practice evolved into a highly-skilled (but under-valued) profession’

Continental adventure playgrounds are relatively orderly affairs. Small groups of children work assigned plots of land; at Kolle 37 playground in Berlin, children to this day are given 20 nails per session to work with, which they use, re-use or barter. Britain’s adventure playgrounds developed a more anarchic and squalid character – photographs of Clydesdale Road Adventure Playground in the 1950s show children revelling in daubed paint and old sofas – while our playwork practice evolved into a highly-skilled (but under-valued) profession. Sørensen was aware of this contradiction: ‘Of all the things I have helped to realise, the Junk Playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works’. It is curious that this most significant of contributions to landscape architecture should be a sort of anti-design; produced by child-builders with the minimum of involvement by the professionalised adult designer, without aesthetic consideration.

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An adventure playground in 1966. Photo: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

While it is difficult to escape the sense that playground design today has become formulaic, the Playground Project exhibition reminds us that it need be anything but that by describing a wealth of innovative sculptural forms, derived from an array of design practices. The play sculptures of Josef Schagerl and Egon Møller-Nielsen ‘combined the autonomy-based language of modern sculpture with the goals of play and functionality’, according to Burkhalter. Their underlying anti-elitism aimed to encourage public acceptance of abstract art.

In America, Joseph Brown, who was a boxer, sculptor and teacher of architecture, experimented with kinetic works like Jiggle Rail and Swing Ring, while Paul Friedberg and Richard Dattner made the playground itself into an abstract sculptural composition. Their landforms invited children to hide, clamber and interact, but designed out parental hovering. In Italy and France, the radical spirit of ’68 informed the experimental practices of Riccardo Dalisi, Palle Nielsen and Group Ludic, whose spaces were tools of political engagement and subversion. And the architect Aldo van Eyck earned himself a special place in playground design heaven by inserting more than 700 playgrounds into the fabric of the city of Amsterdam between 1947 and 1978, combining playground design with a form of place-making.

And so to the present day, where we face growing evidence that children are spending less and less time playing outdoors. The phenomenon is variously ascribed to parental fears, stranger danger, perilous roads, over-structured leisure time and electronic games; the costs are commonly named as childhood obesity, poor mental health, disconnection from nature and the breakdown of community.

While the true nature and effects of this crisis – if indeed such a crisis exists – are up for debate, negativity surrounding the question of children’s play is leading to a reconsideration of what constitutes a playground.

‘(a)…proliferation of adult-controlled monetised play experiences’.

One expression of this is the proliferation of adult-controlled monetised play experiences. At Westfield, London, Kidzania brings children indoors to try out an array of professions, at a cost of £29.50 per child. The experience is claimed to ‘teach kids essential life skills including financial literacy, team work and independence.’ With 28 UK sites, Go Ape, (£18 per child), enables harnessed visitors to navigate a fixed circuit of high ropes, zip-wires and walkways, suspended from trees. These are terrifically fun days out, but what they offer is not true play, defined in the British playwork tradition as ‘freely chosen, self-directed and intrinsically motivated’. At Go Ape, the activity is neither freely chosen nor self-directed. You cannot choose the sequence in which you use the equipment, nor are you free to go back and do something again (and again). At Kidzania, which conceives childhood merely as preparation for adulthood and rewards the acquisition of specific skills, the activity is not intrinsically motivated.

How do you provide the maximum of space for imaginative play in a constricted space? Architect Asif Khan has tackled this problem at Chisenhale Primary School in east London (his children’s school) by designing an elevated structure which effectively creates more space. Access via a rope or a rope trellis, the space not only offers access to exciting slides, but areas designed for quiet and contem-plation. The structure is clad in heat-treated tulipwood, an abundant American hardwood that combines the sensuality of timber with a smooth surface devoid of splinters and great durability.

Of greater interest to the landscape architect is the fact that practitioners from the fields of playwork and design are questioning the logical basis of the playground itself. Adrian Voce is author of the excellent Policy for Play, which describes the twenty-year campaign to enshrine the right of the child to play in government and planning policy. He told me: ‘Adventure playgrounds responded to the loss of spaces where children could play. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need playgrounds because spaces where children grow up and go about their day would be spaces which they – and their parents – could perceive as safe. Playgrounds condescend to children’s need to play. They make it separate: but is this to keep children safe – or is it to keep society orderly and safe from children? Sadly, however, we don’t live in a perfect world so if it wasn’t for playgrounds, where else would children play?’

‘radical thinking about children in the built environment is coming close to eliminating the playground all together’

Some of the most radical thinking about children in the built environment is coming close to eliminating the playground all together. A cross-disciplinary team, led by Dinah Bornat of ZCD Architects, is using people-counting methodologies developed by Jan Gehl to gather evidence of the extent to which housing design fosters or discourages free outdoor play.

Bornat describes this as a new way of looking at external spaces: ‘In housing schemes that work well, play happens spontaneously. What’s needed is for children to have access to car-free, communal space from their doorsteps. We’re looking at ways in which housing design can enable this to happen.’

The origins of these ways of thinking can be found in the work of the anarchist, urbanist and educator, Colin Ward. In 1979, he looked outside the playground and said: ‘I don’t want a Childhood City. I want a city where children live in the same world as I do… If the claim of children to share the city is admitted, the whole environment has to be designed and shaped with their needs in mind… Every step the city takes to reduce the dominance of motor traffic makes the city more accessible to the child. It also makes life more tolerable for every other citizen.’

We should question our practice. We should make cities playable. But let’s not give up entirely on that playful, sculptural, experimental landscape that is experienced with both body and imagination known as the playground. The design of playgrounds still has plenty to say about the design and experience of all landscape.

Maisie Rowe

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.

UN slams UK Government for lack of policy, planning and investment in play

10 Jun

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The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is highly critical of the UK Government’s recent record on children’s play, in a new report published this week.

The advance (unedited) report of the CRC’s concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on children’s rights, says that the committee is ‘concerned about the withdrawal of a play policy in England, and the under-funding of play…’ across the UK.

The report contains praise for the Welsh government’s introduction of a statutory play sufficiency duty, saying that the committee ‘welcomes the initiative of Wales to adopt play policy and integrate children’s right to play in legislation.

The CRC report notes that there are ‘insufficient places and facilities for play and leisure for children … as well as public space for adolescents to socialize’ and calls on both the UK Government and the devolved administrations to do much more to adopt the measures set out in its general comment No 17 (2013) on Article 31 of the UNCRC, to: –

‘(a) Strengthen its efforts to guarantee the right of the child to rest and leisure and to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child, including by adopting and implementing play and leisure policies with sufficient and sustainable resources;

(b) Provide children safe, accessible, inclusive and smoking-free spaces for play and socialization and public transport to access such spaces;

(c) Fully involve children in planning, designing and monitoring the implementation of play policies and activities relevant to play and leisure, at community, local and national levels’.

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In general, the CRC report criticises the UK government for not taking forward the 2009 UK-wide strategy on children’s rights, Working together, achieving more, which it says 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, abandoned by the coalition government in 2010, with the subsequent removal of play policy from ministerial responsibilities.

Adrian Voce

 

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 within 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).

 

‘A eulogy for an unfulfilled future; a statement of faith in the possibility of resurrection’.

5 Apr
Bernard Spiegal reviews ‘Policy for Play: Responding to children’s forgotten right’ by Adrian Voce, published by Policy Press.

Bernard Spiegal

I was invited by the International Journal of Play to write a review of  Adrian Voce’s ‘Policy for Play: Responding to children’s forgotten right’. 

This is the original manuscript of the review published by Taylor & Francis in International Journal of Play on 15 March 2016  available online http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21594937.2016.1146492

Policy for Play is at once a eulogy for the demise of an unfulfilled, wished-for future, and a statement of faith in the need for, and possibility of, resurrection.

The unfulfilled future is the Play Strategy for England which did not live long beyond its birth; the hope of resurrection resides in the belief of many play advocates, and certainly the author’s,  that children’s ‘forgotten right’ to play can be secured only by a national, all-embracing policy (or strategy, the terms are used interchangeably) for play.

Policy for Play is Adrian Voce’s well-written account of the rationale for national play polices…

View original post 1,402 more words

How the world’s most ambitious play policy was interrupted

23 Mar

 

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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.

 References

 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

 

 

 

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