Tag Archives: play policy

These 10 policy steps could give children back the freedom to play

5 Oct

Public anxiety about children’s excessive use of digital media and computer games has reignited the debate about ‘battery-reared’ children. Adrian Voce argues that the retreat from real-world, outdoor play began before the ubiquity of tablets, smartphones and social media. Policymakers should be focussing on how the built environment and public space responds to children’s need to play.

Eight years after the abandonment of a national play strategy for England, children’s play has again come under the spotlight. Commentators and public figures, including Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, and Health Select Committee chairperson, Sarah Wollaston MP, have commented on the phenomenon of “battery-reared” children and how this may be connected to the childhood obesity epidemic and the rising incidence of poor mental health in young people.

Such commentary reflects a growing public anxiety that sedentary, screen-based entertainments have come to replace real-world play as the predominant leisure activity for children. Others fear that social media has become more significant to many young people’s friendship groups than spending physical time together.

While such anxieties may or may not be justified in themselves, the decline in children’s outdoor play began long before the digital revolution; its causes lie more with changes to the built environment and public space than in the screens children turn to when they are denied access to it.

“The decline in children’s outdoor play began long before the digital revolution”

Children need no reason to play; it is simply how they enjoy being alive and express who they are. Scientifically, though, there are very good reasons for it.

Playing promotes positive feelings and is crucial to children’s resilience and emotional development. Because they are in control, it enables children to learn how to navigate the world, encounter and manage risk, be adaptable and resourceful, make choices and build relationships. Play is a key to attachment, creativity, motivation and self-confidence. The fact that it also involves more physical activity than most sports is incidental.

Most parents know that children need a good amount of space to play, and the freedom to enjoy it; that a child playing in the right outdoor environment is a child fulfilled. Parents don’t need public health data to tell them that after playing out with their friends, children come home exercised and contented, ready for a healthy meal and a good night’s sleep.

“Parents are increasingly reluctant to let children play out unsupervised”

Nevertheless, parents are increasingly reluctant to let children play out unsupervised. The challenge, then, is to understand why, and to address these barriers and concerns. Solutions should be bespoke to each community, but there are some common themes and principles. Here, not as an exhaustive list, are ten suggestions for play policy.

1) Stop blaming parents

Parents’ permission is key, but changes in parenting practices alone can’t account for the decline in play opportunities. Whatever else we want for our kids, we firstly need them to be safe from serious harm. With road traffic accidents still a major cause of death to young people, and rising levels of air pollution and violent crime, the reluctance to let children outside unaccompanied isn’t simply paranoid parenting. It is up to public policy to reassure parents that their children will be safe.

Then there is the disproportionate emphasis on formal education, exams and structured “enrichment activity”. It is small wonder if many parents have forgotten that not everything a child needs to learn can be “delivered”.

2) End the domination of traffic

Pedestrianised areas, home zones and play streets should be the norm for urban communities. Where this is not deemed possible, the 20mph speed limit, while helping to reduce road traffic fatalities, is still too fast for children to play outside. For residential streets this should be reduced to 10 mph or less, with more shared space to remove the default right of way for vehicles.

3) Support and promote street play

Redesigning streets will take many years and significant capital investment to implement to scale, but temporary street closures are an affordable short-term measure  — closing off roads to traffic and encouraging children to make use of local space. Local authorities should designate named officers to provide such support, and work with community groups and parent volunteers to grow the number and frequency of regular street play days. The UK’s Playing Out network demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach, but it will take public policy to scale it up.

4) Design for play

The play sufficiency principle pioneered in Wales should be embedded into the planning and design principles for public space, housing and the wider built environment. Recent research by ZCD architects, including the Mayor of London’s design advocate Dinah Bornat (also a Playing Out volunteer) shows how. Policymakers and planners in London and beyond should be studying her report.

5) Integrate playable space throughout the public realm

Space to play should not be defined by fences, safety surfaces and standardised equipment, but integrated throughout a liveable, intergenerational landscape that includes unplanned space that children can populate and animate with their play. Valuing and responding to children’s play in the conception and design of public space is vital — including supporting their participation in such projects wherever possible.

6) Build adventure playgrounds

In dense urban environments, traditional adventure playgrounds are a tried-and-tested solution. They should be bespoke to each community and staffed by qualified playworkers, with their uniquely child-centred and permissive approach. Such spaces have evolved over several decades in some of the world’s busiest cities, to become recognised by many researchers as the ideal form of dedicated play space, but they are under threat from short-termism and austerity; their numbers in decline since the crash. Enlightened policy would protect those that remain and set out a programme to enable more to be built.

7) Ensure daycare is good for children, not just parents and employers

For many children in the modern world, traditional play time — after school and in the holidays — is spent in day care. Until deregulation by the Coalition government, these services were run by qualified playworkers and had to include playable outdoor space. Creating child-friendly neighbourhood space will do little for the children who spend up to eight hours a day in school and childcare, but reintroducing appropriate standards and a qualified workforce to after-school and holiday services would provide them with the play opportunities they need.

8) Open up school grounds for neighbourhood play

Schools are by far the greatest recipient of public funding for children and yet are massively under-utilised as community assets, being gated and out-of-bounds for all who do not attend, even when school is out. School grounds, if not school buildings, should be made available as playable community spaces, especially in neighbourhoods with limited access to green or open space.

9) Develop safe routes to schools, parks and play areas.

Mobility is vital: child-friendly, “playable” neighbourhoods have safe, accessible and familiar routes to give children the connectivity that adults take for granted. More cycle lanes, footbridges, subways and off-road footpaths joining children’s homes to suitable spaces are a start. Animating those spaces with playable designs, community art and landscape features would transform most neighbourhoods for children.

10) Adopt a national strategy for play, and make local responses a statutory duty

Many of the suggestions I have outlined are within the remit of local government, but others are dependent on national policy too. Education, planning, public health, law-and-order and transport each have a bearing on decisions that can either constrain or enable children’s play opportunities. The final suggestion then is that a cabinet minister — perhaps a secretary of state for children — must be given overall responsibility for strategic, cross-cutting play policy, to lead and coordinate cohesive changes across each relevant sector, and at all levels and in each respective department of government. This should include legislation similar to the Welsh play sufficiency duty. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013) has made clear that children’s right to play is a responsibility of government under the 1989 Convention; requiring legislation, planning and funding as necessary. The time is ripe for the UK government to take that responsibility seriously.

The Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa famously said, “if a city is good for children, it will be good for everybody else”. The child-friendly city begins on every child’s doorstep. The policy challenge is making it easier for children to cross that threshold and go out to play.

Adrian Voce

An edited version of this article was first published by apolitical.co

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Policy for play needs an urgent rethink

19 Sep

Photo: M. Conway

Responding to a welcome report from the Children’s Commissioner on the need to do more to support children’s play, Adrian Voce says leadership – and a new long-term plan – must come from government.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has called for play to ‘make a comeback’ as a key to combatting the increasingly sedentary lifestyles that mean today’s children are ‘the least active ever’, with profound consequences for their health.

Of course play has never really gone away. Children will play in all but the most constrained or distressed circumstances; it is in their nature. A deeply instinctive impulse, integral to our developmental and evolutionary processes, children’s play will be a part of the human story for as long as our species exists.

What Longfield is rightly commenting on, in her report, Playing Out, is the radical diminution, over recent decades, of the space and opportunity for children to play as fully and with as much freedom as they need – and the absence, since 2010, of any meaningful policy response. She is right to be concerned, and advocates will welcome her call for play to be put back on the policy agenda, perhaps with just three caveats.

The first is that to conceive of children’s play as primarily a vehicle for their physical activity, runs the risk of designing interventions to favour certain types of play over others. This may be more damaging than it sounds.

Play is not simply about exercise

Although it is notoriously difficult to define, some things are broadly agreed across the wide range of play studies. One is that it is characterised by children being in control. Another is that there is a wide range of play types, not all of them involving vigorous physical activity, and that children derive most benefit from being able to move in and out these at will.

“Given space and permission, children will tend to exercise more in playing than almost any other activity, including most sports”

While it is true that, given enough space and permission, children will tend to exercise more in playing than in almost any other activity, including most sports (Mackett and Paskins, 2008), this is precisely because they are free to express themselves as they will, following their own often random and spontaneous agendas. As any parent or teacher knows, children are naturally energetic; left to their own devices, in the right environment, their innate ebullience is all the motivation they need to use their bodies to the full.

Yet seeing play as primarily a form of physical activity – and increased opportunities for it therefore as a way to raise exercise levels – can lead to programmes and services that inhibit the all-important element of choice. A study from Canada (Alexander et al, 2014) warns that such an approach can have the effect of narrowly defining play in a way that disregards much of its real nature, ‘reshaping meanings of play for children (with) unintended consequences for their wellbeing’, by privileging future the outcomes of play over the immediate benefits of playing for its own sake.

This is important, not least because, as Longfield points out, playing is vital not just for children’s ongoing and future health, but for their here and now mental and emotional wellbeing too  – not to mention its key role in their creativity and development. Any policy response must be careful not to make the ancient, instinctive impulse of children to play, purely instrumental to addressing the current obesity crisis. This will tend to lead to programmes that are more about sport than play – great for sporty children, but missing the essential point that if we simply allow children the time and space to play as they want, they will get all the exercise they need, as an incidental benefit to its true purpose: the simple enjoyment of being fully alive.

Workforce investment

The second caveat to the ‘Playing Out’ report is that although there is a strong call for greater investment in play services ­ – after-school centres, holiday play schemes, adventure playgrounds and play rangers – it does not mention the regulatory framework for such provision, which has in recent years seen the need for standards, including a trained and qualified workforce, virtually abandoned.

Supervising large groups of children and supporting their opportunities to play requires skills and underpinning knowledge quite different from those required in the classroom. Until the early part of this decade, such a role was increasingly the domain of trained and qualified playworkers – bringing the permissive, enabling and pastoral quality of care, and the in-depth understanding of play and play environments that is needed. Without the playwork approach, out-of-school provision for many children is more about day care – a convenience for parents and employers – than it is about their time and space to play. Any investment in extending provision must be accompanied by a new look at regulations, and an accompanying workforce strategy.

The contrary societal trends highlighted in the commissioner’s report – ‘busy lives, busy roads, fewer communal spaces’ – are not new. 10 years ago the phenomenon of ‘shrinking childhoods’ in the UK gave rise to the most serious attempt yet by national policymakers to address children’s need for space to play.

The Play Strategy for England (2008) was a bold plan, not just to increase the provision and raise the quality of dedicated play spaces, but to embed within long-term policies for planning, housing, traffic and open space, the need for children to live in safe, child-friendly neighbourhoods, where they would be attracted to play outside with their friends on a daily basis – and their parents would feel confident enough to let them. This 10-year strategy was abandoned after only two years, as part of the coalition government’s austerity measures; children’s play as a policy issue in England has been sidelined ever since.

“The most effective initiative in supporting children’s play over recent years has been a parent-led campaign”

The third note of caution in welcoming what is a generally strong report is therefore to do with leadership and drivers for change. The report recognises the complex, crosscutting nature of the issue when it recommends that ‘play provision should be strategically planned as part of each area’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment’, yet it does not acknowledge the reality that without either a national policy framework or a dedicated funding stream for children’s play, many local authorities, in these still straitened times for the public sector, will ignore such advice.

Finally, the commissioner’s report rightly points to the key role of parents but offers them little more than a reference to some ‘child-centred apps to help encourage children to do more’, and her own ‘Digital 5-a-Day Guide’. In fact, the most effective initiative in supporting children’s play over recent years has been a parent-led campaign that owes very little to digital media or official guidance

Playing Out, begun nearly ten years ago by two mothers in Bristol, has galvanised a new street play movement that is inspiring play advocates around the world and yet struggles for funding in the UK, in spite of its rapidly growing network of local street play activists.

It is not just the temporary street closure model that makes Playing Out so powerful. What makes it so potent (and the reason I agreed to become an associate board member of this not-for-profit) is that it is a parent-to-parent network. Having used the same name for her report – and highlighting in it the model they have pioneered – it would be good to see Anne Longfield’s report leading to some sustained support for this organisation and its work.

A need for leadership

The Children’s Commissioner has shone a much-needed light on a vitally important but sadly neglected area of public policy. For policymakers to continue to ignore it will be to the long-term detriment of generations of increasingly screen-bound children. But if this or any future government is serious about tackling the issue it will need to provide both leadership and sustained commitment to a long-term vision for a genuinely child-friendly world – a vision that engages parents and children themselves in its realisation.

An All Party Parliamentary Group reporting on children’s play has called for a cabinet minister for children, not just education, and for a new national strategy to address the play challenge. It has also called for the UK government to emulate that of Wales, which has placed a statutory duty on local government to plan for all children to have a ‘sufficiency’ of opportunities to play. Any fresh approach to policy should take a serious look these proposals.

‘Play on prescription’ may be an imaginative contribution to the obesity strategy, but the universal need for children to have time and space to play on a daily basis needs a strategy in its own right.

Adrian Voce

 Adrian Voce is an associate board member of Playing Out CiC and a board member of the Playwork Foundation. This opinion piece is written in his own right.

An edited version of this article first appeared on apolitical.co

 References

Alexander, S, Frohlich, K, & Fusco, C (2014), ‘Playing for health? Revisiting health promotion to examine the emerging public health position on children’s play’, Health Promotion International, 29, 1: 155

Mackett, R and Paskins, J, (2008), Children’s physical activity: The contribution of playing and walking, Children and Society, 22: 345-7

 

 

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.

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