Tag Archives: Playing Out

As lockdown eases, what children, families, AND teachers now desperately need is a great Summer of Play – but who will provide it?

23 Jun

The cautious optimism among play advocates in recent weeks, that the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to a fundamental re-evaluation of what is most important for children, their families, and communities, was given a cold reality check on Sunday, when the UK’s most progressive mainstream newspaper, the Guardian/Observer, dedicated its entire editorial to an 8-point ‘manifesto for children’ without once mentioning their need to play. It is an illustration (again) of how lowly children’s own priorities are within the national debate about what is best for them.

At the start of the lockdown nobody was too surprised, in the circumstances, that the government’s response to an open letter from more than 40 play researchers, practitioners, and advocates asking for ‘clear advice’ about outdoor play, merely reiterated that we all must ‘focus on preventing the spread of Covid-19 (and) protecting the most vulnerable in society’. When the government’s only other stated priority was ‘offering support to those impacted by social-distancing, including companies and employees’, it was clear that the sudden constraints on space and opportunity for children to play was not going to be even a secondary issue for ministers.

‘There is little evidence that children’s profound need to play has received any more consideration. How lowly their own priorities are within the national debate about what is best for them’.

Now, as we move towards a substantial easing of the lockdown, these fears are born out. Children’s profound need to play has received little or no consideration from the government.

Researchers concerned

Some eminent researchers, including the ‘Play First’ alliance, have expressed serious concerns about the effect that a lack of play opportunities is having on children’s mental health, and called on the government to ease lockdown ‘in a way that provides all children with the time and opportunity to play with peers, in and outside of school … even while social distancing measures remain in place’. Others have specifically called for a nationwide plan to repurpose residential streets for play during lockdown and beyond.

The four national UK play organisations have endorsed a report from the Play Safety Forum calling for the government’s approach to be ‘urgently reviewed’ on the basis that the current policy ‘completely ignores’ the benefits of outdoor play to children (especially at a time of stress and uncertainty), while the risks of infection are ‘very low’.

Strong words

These are strong words, and necessarily so. The government in Westminster has indeed ignored children’s play as a policy issue ever since it first came to power on 2010, in spite of long recognising it as such. Having abandoned the Play Strategy for England, it believes local authorities should make their own policies for play, but has starved them of the cash that most of them would need to do anything meaningful, at the same time as deregulating both planning and childcare in ways that relegate children’s play to the status of an optional extra.

‘For children the overwhelming priority is playing with their friends’.

Now, however, would be the moment to think again. Millions of parents, teachers and children are stressed, tired and seriously unhappy after a full term-and-a-half trying to keep up with the curriculum via variable on-line platforms and ad hoc home-schooling, without receiving any of the ‘softer’ benefits of being part of the school community. For children this overwhelmingly means playing with their friends.

The government has announced a ‘Covid catch-up’ package for primary and secondary schools to support children returning to school in September to recover lost ground, and has also said that providers running holiday clubs and activities for children over the summer holiday will be able to open ‘if the science allows’ (although the guidance on this seems to be delayed). The relative importance attached to these two measures? £1 billion is allocated to the former, zero to the latter, which is conceived primarily as a service to parents – who will no doubt have to cover the cost themselves. For many, many children – the same children for whom the £1b catch-up fund is designed – this will mean summer play schemes are unaffordable. In turn, many independent providers will be unable to operate – which puts an additional pressure on schools, just as they need the mother of all breaks.

A play recovery fund

The answer is obvious. A discreet ‘play recovery’ fund should be established, in consultation with the play and playwork sectors, to enable non-school based holiday play schemes to be offered free of charge in the areas that will need them most. And the government should also talk to Playing Out, its network of street play activators, and the growing number of local authorities who now support temporary street closures for play, to consider an expanded national programme of street play sessions over the summer.

Some will think such an idea cavalier: that children’s outdoor play is simply too random and chaotic to observe any kind of public health protocols, even with the distancing requirements relaxed. But even if the Play Safety Forum’s persuasive risk-benefit assessment is disregarded, the government should know that the playwork field is highly professional, and always resourceful. Whatever the safety measures might need to be, no one will be better at engaging with children to follow them than playworkers.

Playwork responds to the crisis

For a field seriously depleted after 10 years of austerity, deregulation, and (in England) policy neglect, the field rallied well to respond to the crisis – in spite of some of its fundamental tenets seeming completely untenable in a public health emergency that demands distance, isolation, and regimentation. Playwork practitioners and advocates have offered timely guidance on how to sustain play opportunities through the lockdown, including playing at home. Adventure playgrounds have reached out to offer relational space and support to communities whose physical playgrounds were closed, and some practitioners have given new meaning to the term face-to-face playwork by taking it to the online platforms with which we are all now so familiar.

Play England and the great playwork theorist, Bob Hughes, have set out some wise words and good practical advice on ‘Play after Lockdown’. But first, in this time of national crisis with families desperately needing a break before a return to the new normal –many of them unable to go away because of increased job insecurity or unemployment – the country needs the play sector to step up and do what it does best: give our kids space and support to have a good time. From within the billions that this terrible pandemic has cost the economy, is a few million for a well-deserved and badly needed Summer of Play, too much to expect? At the very least, the Observer should include it in its manifesto.

Adrian Voce

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

 

 

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