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

 

 

 

‘For playwork, playworkers and play’

29 Feb

New vehicle for playwork nears completion of early development and tells field it will soon be ‘open for business’

Playwork Foundation Logo

The steering group formed to develop plans for a new representative vehicle for playwork has announced that it has agreed a name and a legal structure for the new body, and is applying to the Charity Commission to register The Playwork Foundation as a new Charitable Incorporated Organisation.

The proposed objects of the new body, which will have to be approved by the Charity Commission before it can operate as a charity, are:

‘To advance and promote education, for the public benefit, in children’s play and playwork, in particular but not exclusively by: providing information; raising awareness; facilitating discourse; carrying out research; and building capacity’ within the field of playwork.

The new playwork foundation is almost ready to launch. Photo: Meriden Adventure Playground

The new playwork foundation is almost ready to launch. Photo: Meriden Adventure Playground

Notwithstanding these specific objectives – written within the constraint of the form of words required for charity registration – the steering group has made it clear that it expects the new body’s trustees to be guided by its founding aims and principles (developed through a series of open meetings and mailings over 2013-15 after a summit in Sheffield to discuss the future of playwork) and the needs and wishes of its members.

A survey of the playwork field in 2014-15 found that more than 94 per cent of those responding welcomed the idea of a new vehicle for playwork, and said that representing playworkers, raising the profile of playwork and campaigning for playwork services should be its top priorities.

In an email to prospective members, the steering group said it expected the foundation’s activities – in its early stages, when it is not funded – to be “modest”, but that it will, nevertheless, “be open for business” once registration is complete. It is developing a new website and a regular newsletter; and it intends to “ engage fully in the national discussions and debates that are most relevant to our field –offering a platform for the playwork community to do the same”.

The steering group will be at this year’s national Playwork Conference in Eastbourne to discuss its plans, and wants to encourage the playwork community to get involved and make use of the new vehicle.

The Playwork Foundation Steering Group is:

Simon Bazley
Karen Benjamin
Jeff Hill
Barbara McIlwrath
Simon Rix
Adrian Voce
Debbie Willett
Ali Wood

To be on a mailing list for further information about the Playwork Foundation please email adrianvoce@me.com

“Let’s end the institutionalisation of childhood”

9 Feb

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.”

adrian-voce-children-seesaw

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 –

On playwork:

“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 …”

children-rollerblading

Paradise lost…

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.”

David Williams

This interview first appeared on First Discoverers

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.

____

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)

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