Tag Archives: UK play policy

Bring back play

21 Jun

by Maisie Rowe

In this guest blog, originally published in this summer’s edition of the Landscape Journal, Maisie Rowe explains how a recent exhibition highlights how much our attitudes to play have changed – and largely not for the better.

Hardly any other modern concept had a more far-reaching and enduring influence than the Skrammellegeplads’, says Gabriela Burkhalter. She is talking about the ‘junk playgrounds’, which were conceived in Denmark by the landscape architect Theodor Sorensen in the 1940s.

Burkhalter is curator of an excellent recent exhibition, The Playground Project, held at the Kunsthalle, Zurich, which reviews a hundred years of playground design through pictures, books and full-size play installations. Her exhibition contained much to inspire the landscape architect, not least by reminding us what design looked like when it was rooted in theories of human development and the belief that play is a right of the child.

The Playground Project in Zurich. Photo: Annik Wetter

The Playground Project in Zurich. Photo: Annik Wetter

Freidrich Froebel, inventor of the kindergarten, wrote: ‘Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.’ Froebel, Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori were just some of the key figures in a discourse that, by recognising childhood as central to human experience, would put children at the heart of the twentieth-century social project. The design of playgrounds took on artistic and social importance: ‘If childhood is a journey, let us see to it the child does not travel by night’, said Aldo van Eyck, who designed around 730 play- grounds for the city of Amsterdam.

‘the twentieth century was not kind to children’

But despite being described as ‘The Century of the Child’, the twentieth century was not kind to children. Conflict and upheaval devastated childhoods and, while the enlightened pedagogues sought to nurture the innate creativity and spirit of each child, cities blindly privileged the motorcar over the child and sacrificed open space to bricks and concrete.

So playground design was always going to be contentious. From early on, it was beset by a tension between mass delivery of practical municipal play facilities and provision that emphasised deep play and contact with nature. Some of the earliest playgrounds were severe, gymnasium- like spaces provided by reformers and philanthropists to engage slum urchins in purposeful activity, once they were liberated by reform from factory labour. By contrast, the progressive designer C. Th. Sørensen spent time watching how children, left to their own devices, played on waste ground, building dens and damming streams.

‘Sørensen said: ‘They (the children) can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality’

Sørensen’s collaborator was Hans Dragehjelm, ‘the father of the sand-box’. They drew inspiration from the German idea of sand play; in Berlin, in the 1850s, huge piles of sand, called sand bergs, had been provided for children to play with. Dragehjelm set up Copenhagen’s first sand playground but Sørensen took the idea further, says Burkhalter: ‘Sørensen made even more room for the creative moment: the children were given materials and tools to build their own worlds.’ Of his ‘junk playground’, established at Emdrup in Copenhagen in 1943, Sørensen said: ‘They (the children) can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality… It is so obvious that the children thrive here and feel well, they unfold and they live.’

An English landscape architect, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, chanced on Sørensen’s project while on a British Council lecture tour through occupied Europe. Lady Allen came from the class of eccentric, posh-but-penniless bohemians. Enamoured of nature, she spotted that these gloriously chaotic environments – with their dens, ropes, bonfires, gardens and animals – offered urban children freedom, self-expression and an outdoor life.

She wrote: ‘In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities… There was a wealth of waste material… and no man-made fixtures. The children could dig, build houses, experiment with sand, water or fire, and play games of adventure and make-believe.’ Adopting a rallying-cry of ‘Better a broken arm than a broken spirit!’ she reinvented Sørensen’s Skrammellegeplads as ‘adventure playgrounds’.

‘playwork practice evolved into a highly-skilled (but under-valued) profession’

Continental adventure playgrounds are relatively orderly affairs. Small groups of children work assigned plots of land; at Kolle 37 playground in Berlin, children to this day are given 20 nails per session to work with, which they use, re-use or barter. Britain’s adventure playgrounds developed a more anarchic and squalid character – photographs of Clydesdale Road Adventure Playground in the 1950s show children revelling in daubed paint and old sofas – while our playwork practice evolved into a highly-skilled (but under-valued) profession. Sørensen was aware of this contradiction: ‘Of all the things I have helped to realise, the Junk Playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works’. It is curious that this most significant of contributions to landscape architecture should be a sort of anti-design; produced by child-builders with the minimum of involvement by the professionalised adult designer, without aesthetic consideration.

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An adventure playground in 1966. Photo: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

While it is difficult to escape the sense that playground design today has become formulaic, the Playground Project exhibition reminds us that it need be anything but that by describing a wealth of innovative sculptural forms, derived from an array of design practices. The play sculptures of Josef Schagerl and Egon Møller-Nielsen ‘combined the autonomy-based language of modern sculpture with the goals of play and functionality’, according to Burkhalter. Their underlying anti-elitism aimed to encourage public acceptance of abstract art.

In America, Joseph Brown, who was a boxer, sculptor and teacher of architecture, experimented with kinetic works like Jiggle Rail and Swing Ring, while Paul Friedberg and Richard Dattner made the playground itself into an abstract sculptural composition. Their landforms invited children to hide, clamber and interact, but designed out parental hovering. In Italy and France, the radical spirit of ’68 informed the experimental practices of Riccardo Dalisi, Palle Nielsen and Group Ludic, whose spaces were tools of political engagement and subversion. And the architect Aldo van Eyck earned himself a special place in playground design heaven by inserting more than 700 playgrounds into the fabric of the city of Amsterdam between 1947 and 1978, combining playground design with a form of place-making.

And so to the present day, where we face growing evidence that children are spending less and less time playing outdoors. The phenomenon is variously ascribed to parental fears, stranger danger, perilous roads, over-structured leisure time and electronic games; the costs are commonly named as childhood obesity, poor mental health, disconnection from nature and the breakdown of community.

While the true nature and effects of this crisis – if indeed such a crisis exists – are up for debate, negativity surrounding the question of children’s play is leading to a reconsideration of what constitutes a playground.

‘(a)…proliferation of adult-controlled monetised play experiences’.

One expression of this is the proliferation of adult-controlled monetised play experiences. At Westfield, London, Kidzania brings children indoors to try out an array of professions, at a cost of £29.50 per child. The experience is claimed to ‘teach kids essential life skills including financial literacy, team work and independence.’ With 28 UK sites, Go Ape, (£18 per child), enables harnessed visitors to navigate a fixed circuit of high ropes, zip-wires and walkways, suspended from trees. These are terrifically fun days out, but what they offer is not true play, defined in the British playwork tradition as ‘freely chosen, self-directed and intrinsically motivated’. At Go Ape, the activity is neither freely chosen nor self-directed. You cannot choose the sequence in which you use the equipment, nor are you free to go back and do something again (and again). At Kidzania, which conceives childhood merely as preparation for adulthood and rewards the acquisition of specific skills, the activity is not intrinsically motivated.

How do you provide the maximum of space for imaginative play in a constricted space? Architect Asif Khan has tackled this problem at Chisenhale Primary School in east London (his children’s school) by designing an elevated structure which effectively creates more space. Access via a rope or a rope trellis, the space not only offers access to exciting slides, but areas designed for quiet and contem-plation. The structure is clad in heat-treated tulipwood, an abundant American hardwood that combines the sensuality of timber with a smooth surface devoid of splinters and great durability.

Of greater interest to the landscape architect is the fact that practitioners from the fields of playwork and design are questioning the logical basis of the playground itself. Adrian Voce is author of the excellent Policy for Play, which describes the twenty-year campaign to enshrine the right of the child to play in government and planning policy. He told me: ‘Adventure playgrounds responded to the loss of spaces where children could play. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need playgrounds because spaces where children grow up and go about their day would be spaces which they – and their parents – could perceive as safe. Playgrounds condescend to children’s need to play. They make it separate: but is this to keep children safe – or is it to keep society orderly and safe from children? Sadly, however, we don’t live in a perfect world so if it wasn’t for playgrounds, where else would children play?’

‘radical thinking about children in the built environment is coming close to eliminating the playground all together’

Some of the most radical thinking about children in the built environment is coming close to eliminating the playground all together. A cross-disciplinary team, led by Dinah Bornat of ZCD Architects, is using people-counting methodologies developed by Jan Gehl to gather evidence of the extent to which housing design fosters or discourages free outdoor play.

Bornat describes this as a new way of looking at external spaces: ‘In housing schemes that work well, play happens spontaneously. What’s needed is for children to have access to car-free, communal space from their doorsteps. We’re looking at ways in which housing design can enable this to happen.’

The origins of these ways of thinking can be found in the work of the anarchist, urbanist and educator, Colin Ward. In 1979, he looked outside the playground and said: ‘I don’t want a Childhood City. I want a city where children live in the same world as I do… If the claim of children to share the city is admitted, the whole environment has to be designed and shaped with their needs in mind… Every step the city takes to reduce the dominance of motor traffic makes the city more accessible to the child. It also makes life more tolerable for every other citizen.’

We should question our practice. We should make cities playable. But let’s not give up entirely on that playful, sculptural, experimental landscape that is experienced with both body and imagination known as the playground. The design of playgrounds still has plenty to say about the design and experience of all landscape.

Maisie Rowe

10 challenges for the play movement in England in 2016

5 Jan

 

As the New Year gets under way, the seemingly never-ending squeeze on public services, coupled with the perennial under-valuing of children’s play by policy-makers in particular and adult society in general, conspire to paint a gloomy picture for the English play scene in 2016.

It is sometimes hard to see past on-going cuts to front line services, the creeping privatisation of provision and the dearth of serious new initiatives to promote and support children’s right to play in the face of the many barriers they continue to face.

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Will 2016 see growing support for children to play in the streets?

Yet, throughout 2015, there were unexpected but welcome signs of growing support for the kind of government play policy that could really make a difference. Fractured as our movement and diminished as our capacity may be as a result of five years of austerity, the challenge of the New Year is to identify these opportunities, formulate a cohesive response to them and coalesce around a plan to turn them into substantive commitments. Here’s how.

  1. Develop play policy proposals … on the right basis
  2. Solicit wider support within Parliament
  3. Cultivate influential allies
  4. Pump up the volume through sympathetic media
  5. Grow support within the opposition
  6. Support local initiatives and engage local play champions
  7. Build our presence on social media
  8. Engage with national bodies to make them more effective
  9. Lobby ministers and opposition with persuasive proposals
  10. … and plans for how they can be delivered

None of these challenges would be easy in normal times. In the current prolonged period of hugely reduced public spending and the acute scarcity of resources for policy, development and campaigning work, they will be extremely hard to achieve – certainly with anything like the success of the previous decade. It may be that individuals and small groups, each addressing the agenda in their own way and within their own sphere of influence, will be more effective than any kind of national campaign. Over the coming weeks I will discuss each off them in turn and offer my thoughts on how to again secure political commitments to children’s play in England.

Follow this site to receive notification of each new blog.

On a personal note, 2015 saw more than 11,000 visits to the site: a modest figure by mainstream internet standards, I’m sure, but my most widely read blogging year to date.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

Adrian

 

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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