After yesterday’s Parliamentary launch of a new all-party report on play, Adrian Voce, a contributor to the document, casts a critical eye over it as he argues for a more focused campaign for national play policy
Let’s be honest. This week’s report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood is not, in fact, ‘the most comprehensive recent study of play in all its forms’ that the group’s co-chair, Baroness Benjamin, yesterday claimed at its launch. Rather, it is an eye-wateringly long list of recommendations – not all of them consistent – within a somewhat idiosyncratic and partial survey of evidence found elsewhere. The report’s author, former MP, Helen Clark is rightly praised for pulling together a very diverse range of perspectives, but the report suffers from not establishing some defining principles, drawing out common themes or reconciling its contradictions.
Critics might also say that in calling for a somewhat nebulous ‘whole child strategy’ rather than the new national play strategy that the group had previously called for, it has reigned back from the proposal for a clear and coherent play policy that many of us hoped this document would consolidate. It has done so, according to the report, in order to avoid ‘the misconception that its overriding purpose is to improve and increase the number of fixed equipment play areas’; a risk surely best averted by simply not calling for such a programme.
Confusingly, the report states that the Play Strategy building programmes of 2008-10, which set out to build 3500 play areas and 30 staffed adventure playgrounds, was ‘not delivered’. In fact, these programmes were the only parts of the Play Strategy that were substantially completed before the Coalition abandoned it in 2010. It is true that some funding was clawed back from local authorities in 2010-11, but by that time the majority of new build had already been procured, if not actually installed. Play England’s best estimate at the time (our monitoring role having been withdrawn) was that between 85-90 per cent of the Playbuilder programme was finished before the plug was pulled.
It is not playgrounds, however, but the rather crude representation of the need to provide children with more freedom and self-responsibility that has attracted what media exposure the report seems to have received. Produced not by an authoritative academic or other play professional, but by the public affairs company that runs the group, the report, in places, betrays a lack of understanding of the nuances of the risk-benefit approach that has been so successfully progressed by the sector in recent years (even while referring extensively to the key works in this area). Seeming to advocate for children ‘playing near potentially dangerous elements such as water and cliffs’, and ‘exploring alone with the possibility of getting lost’ invites incredulity and will do little to further the cause of free-range childhoods; as the metaphorically raised eyebrow of some of the coverage suggests (although the Baroness seems to have done a good job of talking down some of the more excitable journalists).
Set against these criticisms, the report contains some welcome and extensive proposals to rescue playwork from its threatened extinction (or annexation by the learning continuum). It calls for national planning policy to be used as a tool to help shape child-friendly, playable environments, and points to the pioneering work in Wales, were the play sufficiency duty on local authorities is taking effect, begging the question why the rest of the UK should not follow suit.
Nevertheless, while it is always encouraging when Parliamentarians take a serious interest in play – and there is much else that is good in the report – there is a sense here of an opportunity missed. This is frustrating for some of us who have contributed to it but had little influence in its drafting. However, perhaps we should not be surprised. Without government funding, APPGs are dependent on the voluntary contributions of external contributors, the expertise of their secretariats and the funding of whatever sponsors can be found for their publications. It will not have escaped those who are sceptical about the report’s positive take on the role of technology in children’s play, that it was sponsored by Leapfrog, a manufacturer of children’s tablets and other electronic ‘learning toys’; or that the Association of Play Industries, representing fixed equipment manufacturers – the report’s other sponsor – shared the speaking platform with Leapfrog at the launch in Parliament, while playwork was nowhere to be seen. It was a crushing reminder of how far back the play agenda has fallen since 2010 – and of what a short memory the body politic has – that Fraser Brown, the world’s first and only professor of playwork, the profession largely behind the groundbreaking Play Strategy of 2008, was in attendance at yesterday’s event, but not invited to speak.
This is politics, however. Reservations aside, we must use this moment to enrol allies within Parliament – and among those who influence it – to build again the case for a bold, coherent and strategic government policy for play. In the big picture, the fact of the report will come to be more important than its detailed content. Play advocates must capitalise on its best elements to cultivate a resurgence of interest in play among policymakers, while at the same time being much clearer and more focused about what it is we are asking for. This could be summarised as
- putting play on a par with the rest of child policy when considering legislation and funding decisions by reinstating a secretary of state for children, not just education;
- co-ordinating a long-term, cross-cutting strategy – supported by non-commercial play sector specialists – to promote a child-friendly, playable public realm, supported by planning policy and engaging the relevant departments and sectors;
- supporting the professional development of playwork and regulating for its recognition as required practice for all out-of-school care, extended services and other staffed provision.
This is the national strategy that children need from the government, which spends billions every year on their formal education and next to nothing on providing them with space to enjoy their childhoods beyond the school gates.
It is the play policy implied by the UN’s General Comment of 2013 and, if we get it right, a reversal in the obesity epidemic will be the least of its rewards.
Policy for Play – responding to children’s forgotten right by Adrian Voce is published by Policy Press on 28 October 2015 and can be ordered here.
An exclusive extract from Policy in Play, elaborating on the essential elements of national play policy, will appear on this website next week.