• Opinion
  • September 19, 2018
  • 11 minutes
  • 1

Toying with our children — why play policy needs an urgent rethink

Opinion: Play is a vitally important but sadly neglected area of public policy

This opinion piece was written by Adrian Voce OBE. He is president of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities and author of Policy for Play – responding to children’s forgotten right (Policy Press, 2015). 


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.

Play is not simply exercise

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

Although play is notoriously difficult to define, some things are broadly agreed across play studies. One is that play is characterised by children being in control. Another is that there is a wide range of play types, not all involving vigorous physical activity, and 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 almost any other activity, including most sports, this is precisely because they are free to express themselves, 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.

Seeing play as primarily a form of physical activity and way to raise exercise levels can lead to programs and services that inhibit the all-important element of choice. A study from Canada warns that such an approach can end up 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”.

This is important, not least because, as Longfield points out, playing is vital not just for children’s physical health, but for their mental and emotional health too — not to mention its key role in creativity and development.

Any policy response must be careful not to make the ancient, instinctive impulse of children to play purely instrumental to addressing obesity. This will tend to lead to programs that are more about sport than play — great for sporty children, but missing the point that if we simply allow children time and space to play as they want they’ll get all the exercise they need.

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 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.

“Playing is vital not just for children’s physical health, but for their mental and emotional health too”

Supervising large groups of children and supporting their opportunities to play requires a set of skills and knowledge quite different from those required in classrooms. Until the early part of this decade, such a role was increasingly the domain of trained and qualified playworkers — bringing both the permissive, enabling and pastoral quality of care, and the necessary in-depth understanding of play environments.

Today, out-of-school provision for many children is more about day care — a convenience for parents and employers — than about time and space to play. Any investment in extending provision must be accompanied by a new look at regulations and an accompanying workforce strategy.

A need for national leadership

The societal trends contrary to play highlighted in the commissioner’s report — “busy lives, busy roads, fewer communal spaces” – are not new. Ten 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 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 safe, child-friendly neighbourhoods, where children are attracted to daily outdoor play with their friends — and their parents feel confident letting them.

This 10-year strategy was abandoned after only two years, under the coalition government’s austerity measures; children’s play as a policy issue in England has been sidelined since.

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

So, the third note of caution in welcoming what is a generally strong report is around leadership and drivers for change. The report recognises the complex, crosscutting nature of the issue when it recommends that local areas should include play in strategic plans. Yet, in reality, without a national policy framework or dedicated funding stream for children’s play, many local authorities, in these still straitened times, will ignore such advice.

Similarly, the commissioner’s report rightly points to the key role of parents, but it offers them little in the way of support.

The most effective initiative in supporting children’s play over recent years has been a parent-led campaign. Playing Out, begun 10-years ago by two mothers in Bristol, has galvanised a new street play movement that is inspiring advocates around the world and yet struggles for funding in the UK — in spite of its growing network of local street play activists.

Playing with the future

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.

“Play is a vitally important but sadly neglected area of public policy”

But if any government is serious about tackling the issue, it will need to provide 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.

Any fresh approach to policy should take a serious look at the proposals from the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group reporting on children’s play. It has called for a cabinet minister for children, not just education, and for a new national strategy for play. And it has called for the UK government to emulate Wales, which now requires local governments to plan for all children to have a “sufficiency” of opportunities to play.

“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).

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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