Tag Archives: play policy

For play, vote to stay

22 Jun

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There are good practical reasons for play advocates to vote ‘remain’, but perhaps, suggests Adrian Voce, none of these matter. The play movement is innately open and inclusive; the opposite of the leave campaign’s main argument.

The imminent referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union may, on the face of it, have nothing to do with children’s play. Regular readers of these pages – along with anyone who has responsibility for planning, funding or managing play spaces – will know, however, the importance of policy context for what we are trying to achieve. Tomorrow’s vote will either hugely change that context, withdrawing our government and our courts from the treaties, conventions and laws of the EU, and our economy from the single European market, or it will keep the UK within the context of European as well as national policy for the foreseeable future.

So poorly has play policy faired under David Cameron’s administrations since 2010 that some advocates may reasonably argue that we couldn’t do any worse. They may be inclined to vote ‘leave’, if only to give the Prime Minister and (most of) his Conservative government a bloody nose. Others may believe that the EU is a protectionist, capitalist cabal, primarily benefitting big business and social elites. Here, a vote to leave would be for the more progressive, socially inclusive, fairer Britain that would naturally look more favourably on public play provision and child-friendly planning. Each of these arguments to vote ‘leave’ is tempting. And they are both wrong.

‘would the play sector fair any better outside of the EU?’

It is true that the current and previous governments of Mr. Cameron have been a disaster for the play sector. One of the first acts of the Coalition in 2010 was to shred the Play Strategy, and then to remove play policy from ministerial responsibility altogether. The effect on local provision has been nothing short of devastating. But would the play sector fair any better outside of the EU?

Even if one dismisses the possibility of Brexit triggering a widely predicted recession, the vision championed by the leave campaign – of a dynamic, independent country, free of the shackles of big bureaucratic government and its cumbersome regulations – is for the kind of low-tax, small-government, free market economy that would inevitably require still more of the austerity that has driven hundreds of long-established public play services into the dust – or into the hands of private businesses. A Britain – quite possibly soon reduced to a separate England – run by the right-wing of the Conservative Party will not be a new dawn for progressive social democracy. Policy for play will be derided as ‘nanny statism’ and the bonfire of public play provision will blaze more fiercely than ever.

Economics aside, there is a broader reason for play advocates to vote for ‘remain’. When I spoke alongside the then shadow schools minister, David Willetts, at the Conservative Party Conference in 2007 (as an independent ‘specialist’, I hasten to add) I was a little perturbed to find that, as opposed to the thoughtful debate on play policy that I had naïvely understood to be joining, the session began with Willetts’ full blown assault on the policies of the Brown government (which I was then advising on its forthcoming play strategy). One of the targets for this highly partisan rhetoric was the EU, which Willetts quite inaccurately blamed for the ‘health and safety madness’ that was stifling children’s freedom to play.

‘a Europe-wide movement … has rich potential for future projects to develop our field, its reach and its impact.’

There are, of course, no EU regulations about children’s play: the European safety standards for play equipment are a voluntary, industry-led code, whose merits or otherwise are part of a different discussion. But in making a connection between play policy and the EU, Willetts was, inadvertently, noting a link that has, in fact, been a great benefit to the play movement in the UK. One of the very few sources of central public funding for play that has survived the Cameron years has been European Social Fund (ESF), whose continued support for the University of Gloucestershire’s VIPER (Volunteers in Play – Employment Routes) project, for example, is in a long tradition of ESF funding for vital playwork infrastructure projects in things like training, qualifications and quality assurance. This source of funding would be cut off to all future UK applications in the event of Brexit, whereas a Europe-wide movement, drawing upon the rich networks that already exist, inspired by the success of the International Play Association with the UN, and supported by the ESF, has rich potential for future projects to develop our field, its reach and its impact.

‘withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ECHR will inevitably lessen (the CRC’s) influence’.

More broadly, the policy case for public provision for play and a more child-friendly, playable public realm, in the perennial absence of the kind of hard evidence of its ‘cost-benefits’ that policymakers like, is based on human rights, which are international. Given the disinterest of the current government in policy for play, advocacy for it is necessarily a long game. Its foundation is in article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, now explicated by the UN’s General Comment of 2013. As a joint Parliamentary Committee recently noted, ‘the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has begun to take note of the Convention (on the Rights of the Child) in the context of its interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights’. The UK has ratified the CRC of course, and that would not change on Brexit, but withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ECHR will inevitably lessen its influence.

I suspect that for some, perhaps many, play advocates, these economic, financial and legal arguments to remain will be beside the point. The most dominant argument of the ‘leave’ campaign has been about bringing immigration under control, meaning down. That debate is raging (in every sense of the word) everywhere that the referendum is discussed. I do not want to explore it here, other than to say that inclusion and diversity, the celebration of difference and the dedication to making space for everyone, are deeply embedded within the play movement, underpinning all good practice. If for no other reason, our instinctive aversion to the ‘politics of hate’ and division that has so demeaned this debate, should be enough to tell us how to vote tomorrow.

Adrian Voce

 

 

 

 

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’.

play-strategy

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

 

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).

 

Parliamentary report on play is a mixed bag – but advocates must seize the moment

15 Oct
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.

Children love being by cliffs and water - but should policy be telling parents when to let them explore such places alone?

Children love being by cliffs and water – but should policy be telling parents when to let them explore such places alone?

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.

Adrian Voce

Policy for play final

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.

Advocating for play at the crossroads (part 2)

6 May

In this second of a two-part blog about the prospects for play policy under the next government, Adrian Voce argues that playwork should be at the heart of the debate, and that the best hope for progress is a Labour victory tomorrow.

Will adventure playgrounds like this survive another five years of austerity?

Will adventure playgrounds like this survive another five years of austerity? Photo: Mick Conway.

With none of the parties featuring children’s play in their manifestos for tomorrow’s General Election – or, indeed, elsewhere in their campaigns in any positive sense – advocates for play policy face a huge challenge, whoever wins (or loses least badly) tomorrow’s vote.

The Children’s Play Policy Forum (CPPF), which commissioned a research review from Tim Gill after meeting with the Cabinet Office last year, appears to believe it has a dialogue with the incumbent government, upon which to build. Its proposals have the ring of a public response to a private discussion: some of them couched in terms that seem part of somebody else’s agenda. ‘Encouraging appropriate play in public space, while reducing neighbourhood conflict and the resulting pressure on police time’ or ‘support for staffed play provision to test social prescription health and well-being initiatives’ are certainly not ideas that seem to owe much to the Playwork Principles or Best Play (NPFA et al, 2000).

Using the language of existing priorities to persuade a government to adopt your own is a sometimes necessary ploy in the policy game, but one has to wonder, in the current climate, whether the possible rewards are worth the compromise. Any version of a new Conservative-led government – to meet its deficit reduction targets, not to mention its ideological mission – will need to preside over such a radical diminution of the public realm, such a break up of what is left of the universal networks and services to meet the common good, that the concept of public play provision, engendered and supported by government (national or local) with any kind of consistency or reach to the children who need it most, will recede into the past.

‘children’s play is unlikely to get any meaningful help from five more years of a Tory government, whoever might join them in forming it’

With no obvious contribution to make (Tim’s best efforts notwithstanding) to an economic model that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing that cannot show a monetary return, children’s play is unlikely to get any meaningful help from five more years of a Tory government, whoever might join them in forming it. Whatever crumbs the Cabinet Office may again offer in its brazen attempts to bribe the voluntary sector into colluding in the pretence that the Big Society is anything other than a pretext for savage cuts to public services and welfare, let us not be fooled that any of its programmes will amount to an impactful or strategic national policy for play.

If, however, Labour’s share of the vote holds up – and it holds its nerve in the whirlwind of speculation, negotiation and media scaremongering that is likely to erupt on 8 May – sufficiently to form a government that lasts longer than a few months, we will again have an administration that is, at least in principle, interested in how to support children’s play: and one with a track record on play policy (early demise of the Play Strategy notwithstanding), that has been admired around the world. In that case, we will need to remind the two Eds and their colleagues about their rudely interrupted mission to engender and embed a universal network of playwork services and playable neighbourhoods as a vital component of the ‘public commons’ (Lammy, 2007).

We will need to put play back on the agenda of a party that, when it was last in power, came to realise that a society truly taking responsibility for the maxim that ‘every child matters’ and wanting to dedicate itself to improving ‘universal outcomes’ for children, needed to see them as important stakeholders not just in their formal education but in the whole public realm. We will also need to be clear that the key challenges – how to engender community environments that children want to play in, and parents feel confident to let them – were never going to be effectively addressed by a capital build programme for new play areas whose scale was out of proportion to other measures in the strategy.

‘we should not acquiesce in the insidious assumption that, in hard times, society cannot afford to indulge its children in the luxury of free play’

This is important, not because play provision is not a good investment in the fabric of the built and planned environment – we should not acquiesce in the insidious assumption that, in hard times, society cannot afford to indulge its children in the luxury of free play – but because the more important parts of the policy in 2008-10 were not about new kit, but about embedding play as a priority within local planning and commissioning processes.

Revenue, not capital, will be vital to keeping the country’s remaining adventure playgrounds open and to extending the community play development seen in places as different as Bristol and Tower Hamlets, where community activism and outreach playwork has taken on the challenge of animating public space to bring the children of diverse communities out to play in the streets and estates where they live.

A less hands-off planning system is needed to ensure more liveable, play-friendly designs of public space within the plans for new, affordable housing that is a key Labour pledge. We will need to remind new ministers that it was a Labour policy in London that showed how this can be done.

These are effective, ‘up-stream’ solutions to a range of social and public health priorities, as well as essential to the progression of a key policy outcome in its own right: that public space and public services support children to enjoy their childhoods. It is these objectives – not requiring major capital investment, but an intelligent, crosscutting and strategic plan – that we should be advocating for after the dust of the election has settled.

We should also be making the case for a well resourced, specialist support and development body to drive the necessary changes at a national level, and to provide support to the besieged community networks of play associations and small local charities that are, in many areas, the only play champions left.

It will be a long haul. Whoever leads the new government, we are in a very different world from the one of July 2007. It was then that Ed Balls, in the newly created post of Children’s Secretary, proclaimed, “I want to live in the kind of society that puts asbos behind us”, where children are free to play ‘conkers and snowballs and climb trees’, as part of a healthy childhood. By the time his Children’s Plan was launched in December the same year – a plan to transform the public realm so that space for children to play was at the heart of a vision ‘to make England the best place in the world to grow up’ (DCSF, 2007) – the financial crisis was well under way. The Play Strategy he then announced would be as short-lived as the rainbow logo that symbolised this new, broader vision for child policy.

Lady Allen of Hurtwood (1968a) once exhorted that ‘each local authority should make a survey of the play areas in the parks, estates, schools and playing fields within its boundaries’ and ‘direct the various departments of housing, education, parks and health to co-operate’ with teams comprising ‘town-planner, architect, engineer and landscape architect’. A celebrated landscape architect herself, Lady Allen was also one of the original playworkers, long before the term was adopted. She did more than anyone in the UK to define, create and promote adventure playgrounds as one response to children’s need for space to play in a world that was increasingly making it scarce for many of them. What is sometimes forgotten is that her wider vision was to ‘create a total environment that gives pleasure to those who live there’ (Hurtwood, 1968b). She believed planners must prioritise play space in new developments, ring-fencing budgets for it ‘so that children and their parents can feel they belong to a community that is intimate, where they can meet and chat with their neighbours’.

‘The suggestion that playwork has a mandate only to engage in policy affecting staffed services, while others “speak for play” in the broader sense, is a dangerous one’

Playwork, which can trace its origins directly back to the work of Lady Allen, has had a hard time of it under austerity, but it will be important in the campaigns to come that it is not marginalised. The suggestion that playwork has a mandate only to engage in policy affecting staffed services and the skills of their workforce, while others ‘speak for play’ in the broader sense, is a dangerous one that risks not only further decline in the profession itself, but the annexation of play policy by those outside this tradition. It was striking that none of the CPPF’s ‘4 Asks’ mentioned playwork.

It is part of the playwork principles that ‘playworkers act as advocates for play when engaging with adult led agendas’ and that this role ‘should inform the development of play policy, strategy, training and education’. The London Adventure Playground Association, (chaired in the 60s by Lady Allen herself); LAPA’s successor, PLAYLINK; Fair Play for Children; London Play; Play Wales; the Children’s Play Council; and many local play associations, have each embodied this principle by drawing on their playwork experience, with its unique insights into how to best support children’s play, to advocate for play beyond the playground. Support for playwork development, as an important part of the children’s workforce, must be part of any new play policy; but equally important will be that other areas of the policy are informed by the playwork approach. Each of these objectives require that playwork, more than ever, needs its own national body.

It was 35-40 years before Lady Allen’s clear-sighted vision for crosscutting planning, not just for play space but playable public space, was adopted, first by the Mayor of London (2005) and then the national government (DCSF, 2009). It was more than five years after CPC called for a national play strategy (Cole-Hamilton and Gill, 2002), that Ed Balls made his announcement in the House of Commons. We are used to the long haul.

‘both the children’s rights’ and the improved outcomes’ arguments for serious play policy, are actually stronger than they were seven years ago’.

Yet, since the Play Strategy was abandoned, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013) has issued a comprehensive framework for government action on play, General Comment 17, and, as Tim Gill’s Play Return suggests, even if play provision is primarily viewed in policy terms as instrumental to other aims, it is a good investment. Set against the hugely less conducive economic climate, both the children’s rights’ and the improved outcomes’ arguments for serious play policy, are actually stronger than they were seven years ago.

If this seems like pie-in-the-sky, it is worth noting that some of the most ambitious calls for play policy from the next government have come not from any of the different play sector groupings, but from Parliamentarians. The All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Health Childhood, chaired by Baroness Floella Benjamin, has called for a new national play strategy and for the statutory play sufficiency duty now in place in Wales to be extended to England. The seriousness of the APPG and its aims are evident in its recent establishment of a working group on play to further research and develop these proposals. A report, endorsed, as the name suggests, by MPs of all parties (a list now potentially considerably longer after our letter), is expected in the summer.

This activity should tell us that, while many precious spaces and services have gone, the issue of provision for children’s play has not itself disappeared from political debates about what kind of society we want, and what role government should play in it. Losing the resources that enabled us to make the argument in quite the way that we did in 2000-2007 – consulting widely, building that valuable consensus and using the media to amplify our message – may have made it harder to do so again, but perhaps it is within Parliament itself that we must now build the alliance to hold the new government to account for a proper policy and strategy for play.  If Labour manage to pull it off tomorrow, do not be surprised if this time it takes considerably fewer than 40 years, or even five, to get a response. If they do not, I fear the policy game, for now, will be up.

Adrian Voce

Correction, 7 May 2015

The originally published blog incorrectly stated that seven years elapsed between the Children’s Play Council’s call for a national play strategy and the Labour government’s announcement that a Play Strategy would be part of its new Children’s Plan. The period in question was, of course, five years (2002-7). It just seemed longer!

References

Cole-Hamilton, I. and Gill, T. (2002), Making the Case for Play, London: Children’s Play Council.

DCSF (2007), The Children’s Plan – Building brighter futures, London: The Stationery Office.

DCSF (2010), Embedding the Play Strategy, London: The Stationery Office.

Hurtwood, Lady Allen of, (1968), Planning for Play, London: Thames and Hudson.

Lammy, D., Minister for Culture (2007) ‘Making space for children – the big challenge for our public realm’, Thinkpiece, London: Compass

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.

National Playing Fields Association, Children’s Play Council and PLAYLINK (2000), Best Play: What Play Provision Should Do For Children, London: NPFA.

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