Do parents hold the key to Play England’s future?

Blackpool rollercoasterAdrian Voce’s recent departure as Director of Play England is also a point of departure for the organisation that, in its previous guise, I used to run. Play England has been on one hell of a roller-coaster ride, as Adrian will be the first to agree. When I left the Children’s Play Council (as was) in 2004 it had five staff. Three years later, the newly-formed Play England employed around 45 people. By early 2010 this had risen again, to peak at some 75 staff. As I write, Play England has around 14 staff, most of whom are part-time.

The best place to start assessing Play England’s impact is to look at what has changed for children and their play opportunities as a result of its work. The obvious point to note is that it was thanks to sustained, effective lobbying by the Children’s Play Council/Play England (amongst others) that such significant sums of public and lottery funding were committed to play. These were first, the massive (for play) £155 million Big Lottery Fund Children’s Play Initiative, then the even more massive £235 million government play strategy. England-wide, the two national initiatives have led to over 30 new staffed adventure playgrounds in disadvantaged areas (with significant additional funding to over 50 existing projects), hundreds of play ranger and holiday schemes and over three thousand new or revamped play spaces – not forgetting training and qualifications in playwork for thousands of previously un- or under-qualified staff in school age childcare and play settings. The Government investment also included an ambitious Play Shaper professional development programme for those that shape the spaces that children grow up in: planners, transport managers, police, parks and youth services, even councilors and local MPs.

Every town and city in England has seen the difference made by this unprecedented investment. In my area of London, one site – Skelton’s Lane, in one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods – stands out. Skelton’s Lane draws large numbers of children and families every week to its naturalistic landscaping and unique equipment, which echoes the vertiginous timber-framed structures beloved of adventure playgrounds.  This award-winning site is now a regular stopping place for international visitors. There are at least half a dozen other sites in my area I’d be happy to take Lloyd Park natural play spacevisiting families to – including one low-cost play space at Lloyd Park made with reclaimed trees and timber, which shows the potential for ‘natural play’ to move well beyond the cliché of randomly placed logs and boulders around off-the-shelf play equipment.

This is a legacy that any charity’s chief executive should be proud of. In his last public statement as Director, Adrian generously attributed his recent honour to ‘Other Buggers’ Efforts.’ However, as leader he deserves great credit for his vision and leadership, and for sticking to the task through both boom and bust. Play England may not have reversed the decline in children’s opportunities for play. But it without doubt helped make their lives better than they would otherwise have been.

Some feel that Play England grew too big, and became too closely enmeshed in the cogs of government delivery. I can see that this is a possibility, and with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to point out the value of at least a few eggs in other baskets. However, no-one should underestimate the challenges of working alongside a major government initiative.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers and its aftermath stopped the play strategy dead. Indeed since the downturn, many play projects have suffered terribly as a result of the Coalition Government’s cuts, including some of those created through the strategy (though whether they would have fared any better under a government of a different political hue is a moot point).

Equally sadly, the government has also scrapped the ongoing evaluations. So we may never have a good picture of the difference made by these programmes. One glimpse came from the 2009 government-funded Tellus4 survey [pdf link] of over 250,000 children aged 10 – 15. This revealed an impressive, if not staggering, nine point rise in children’s satisfaction with their local parks and play areas (from 45 to 54 per cent). The report’s authors suggest this may well have been at least in part a result of the investment.

Chart showing satisfaction with play areasThere is another story behind these figures. Play England has also helped to raise the level of play literacy of the country as a whole, especially through Play Shaper, and also its support for Playday. The word ‘inspirational’ is overused, but surely it is warranted in connection with Playing Out, a grassroots campaign that aims to reclaim streets for play. I have mentioned them here before. This movement has only emerged because local parents are so committed to play that they are willing to take collective action in their own streets. This in turn has happened because many more parents today appreciate the value and importance of giving their children rich, engaging play offers and opportunities.

Cath Prisk has now taken the reins at Play England. She knows the organisation well, having been in senior positions there for three years. With a big fundraising task ahead, and also plans to become a charity independent of the National Children’s Bureau, Cath has her work cut out. However, in my view, her biggest challenge is not internal but external: building a strong, grassroots campaign that mobilises parents, in numbers.

Some may baulk at this, fearful that public understanding of children and their play is still too low. I am more optimistic, and also more realistic. For too long during the 1990s and 2000s, the Children’s Play Council/Play England, and the wider play sector, largely by-passed parents, instead concentrating on making its case directly with decision-makers. While this was understandable, and in keeping with the spirit of the age, it simply will not work today.

In these turbulent times, no progressive movement will make any headway unless it can show mass support. Survey after survey shows growing parental concern about children’s health, well-being and quality of life. So there is every reason to be confident that a rallying cry for free play – like the one given over the weekend by hundreds of academics, authors and experts – will be echoed by parents in their tens of thousands. Such a movement would have the power to truly realise the vision set out almost 20 years ago in the Children’s Play Council’s guiding document, the Charter for Children’s Play.

18 responses to “Do parents hold the key to Play England’s future?

  1. At the TASP (The Association for the Study of Play) Conference earlier this year, I asked an American professor who was presenting about establishing the playworker in the US, “With the meager number of play workers in the US and government funding at every level being cut to the bone, why don’t you redefine your role as training the sliver of stay-at-home parents who agree with you philosophically. Even if that’s 1% of parents, they would dwarf the number of play workers we’d ever get in the US.”

    He liked the question, but he didn’t have a good answer. Instead, he made a comment about how parents are obstructing playworkers efforts. Yes, that’s true of many parents, I replied, but there are many others who are in perfect philosophical alignment with playworkers.

    I just don’t believe that the “Play movement” will go anywhere unless parents are leading it, front and center. If the current wave of budget cuts hastens that realization among professionals in the play field, that’d be a blessing in disguise.

    I’m an activist parent who’s mobilizing lots of other parents to make free play happen. Right now, we get close to zero support from play professionals.

    I’ve written about this in the following article:

    Childhood Can’t be Change Without Parents’ Help

    • Mike, nice to see you here. I recall reading your post – a telling exchange. While it’s by no means universal, many playworkers here in the uk are suspicious of parents. Some doubt that anyone other than playworkers ‘get’ play. Like you I think that’s both wrong and unhelpful.

  2. I am writing this in Hong Kong where we (Common Threads and Playright) have developed two levels of playwork training – the first level specifically targets parents. This Certificate course has now been run successfully several times in HK and there has been a great response from parents, both in wanting to attend and also in being able to put the ‘playwork philosophy’, as Mike puts it, into practice with their children. ‘Playwork’ is often presented as a ‘service’ or a ‘setting’, but for me it is a methodology, a way of behaving, and my current doctoral research is based on constructing a model of what that ‘behaviour’ looks like in practice from 60 years of playwork literature. Having a distinct, measurable model of practice is crucial in being able to advocate for play in playwork terms – and to enable ‘the play movement’ to move away from saying ‘come and play here – our space is special!’ to being able to articulate a coherent argument for play without borders. The ICPS (International Certificate in Playwork Skills) has demonstrated that this can be achieved with parents in HK, and next week we’ll find out if it also works in Manila.
    So Mike – there’s hope yet! And Tim, just for the record – no, I don’t think PlayEngland should be ‘leading the charge’ towards parents. PE were set up for a specific task which they have now completed. They might need the support of parents for their own legitimacy, but the grass-roots ‘play movement’ does not need any national organisation in order to talk to parents, we’ve been doing that for years!

    • Hi Shelly, thanks for the comment, and good to read about your positive work in HK – hope you’re having fun out there. I think a national play movement is essential (alongside local ones). Sounds like you don’t? I also think PE is best placed to lead that movement. I don’t see any other credible candidates.

  3. Hi Tim and Shelly and Mike

    I agree that parents are key. I don’t agree that Play England were set up for a specific task which they have now completed. I think that one of the most important legacies of the Play England project so far, has been about changing the way that people – in particular parents – think about play.

    This was about showing what is possible and moving away from fixed ideas about fixed equipment to consider how we create a more child-friendly public domain. We now have vastly improved playgrounds in my local area – like many across the country – that children and families enjoy every day. This is a huge tribute to the work of Adrian, Play England and the many local authorities who delivered playbuilder and pathfinder programmes.

    We are just at the beginning of the process of changing hearts and minds about play, and a national organisation for play that reaches out to parents is vital to take this forward. Play England and the play sector both face massive challenges in the years to come. So we all need to work together whether we are parents, playworkers, trainers, or all of the above, to support each other and to support our national organisation for play.

    Nicola Butler, Hackney Play

  4. Tim – for me, being the ‘last man standing’ isn’t neccessarily the same as being the best qualified for the job! And I think that the question of whether there should be a national organisation for ‘play’ is too complex for a simple ‘yes or no’ answer. The field of playwork (and its predecessors) has a long history of national organisations popping up with great hopes and (relatively-speaking) great budgets, and then folding, usually accompanied by much acrimony and tragic waste of energy…I would say that one of the reasons for ‘failure’ is the lack of clear objectives, and before the next lot turns up, there is much discussion to be done about some ‘fundamentals’ (such as, for example, the difference between ‘play’ and ‘playwork’…). PE did (as far as I know) what it set out to do – it spent the government’s money. That ship has now sailed and the money has gone. It was never set up to spearhead a mass movement for play – and if that bit passed me by and it was, then I think it would be fair to say that in five years they didn’t make a very good job of it (less than 1,000 members at its peak I think?). There appears to be no clear objectives to replace the money and so trying to turn that particular ship around now must be like trying to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg. I don’t wish failure on anything which has the potential to do good things for children, but the value of any organisation whose primary objective is its own survival has to be questionable in my view. And Nicola – I’m not denying that some really good work has been done on the ground and that the spadework to leverage the money for this wouldn’t have happened without people like Tim and Adrian making the case at government level. My question is whether people on the ground now really need an enfeebled national organisation to ‘support’ them in doing what they’ve been really good at doing for the last 60 years. It seems to me that if they did, after five years PE should have been at its strongest ever, not its weakest. (Sorry for length of posting – as I said, it’s complex!)


  5. Have ‘people on the ground’ been ‘really good’ at working with parents for the last 60 years? I’m afraid that one’s passed me by in a lot of quarters.

    I didn’t say we needed a national organisation to ‘support’ us. I said that we need to support each other and support our national organisation!

    ‘Support’ is a two way process.

  6. Hallo everyone, a fiery debate and one that is probably being reflected around the country. Can I first say that I am saddened that the posting from Mike included ‘zip’ support from playworkers. Not sure what happened there Mike but if you’re anywhere near Bristol do pop in to Scrapstore and let us know what you’re doing. We are very interested in parental engagement in play albeit we haven’t yet had the chance to follow in Shelly’s footsepts here in the UK, and I support Tim’s view on this. I believe that for many reasons parental engagement is the future.
    Regarding Play England I would suggest that as we are about to launch a new business plan and are striving to become an independent organisation, then there is everything to play for so to speak. Our sector is being dramatically challenged which places greater emphasis on the need for profiling, proving and engaging at all levels. PE therefore has a major part to play and is more likely to be essential as a consistent beacon for play and point of reference for parents and practitioners in the coming years as conditions continue to be challenging.
    Jeff Hill ceo Children’s Scrapstore, PE board member.

  7. Having just got back into circulation after three wonderful days in Brittany, I have just caught up with Tim’s Blog and the above conversation and I thiink that I must make a few comments.

    First, as ever from the elderly, a bit of history. The BIG injection of money into play followed years of lobbying from the sector, which, as well as the Children’s Play Council, included the Children’s Play Policy Forum and Fields in Trust (NPFA as then was) and Playlink (as then was), also supported by the Association of Play Industries. This grouping first established the four Contracts from the previous Conservative Administration and then engaged with Chris Smith, resulting in the pledge of £200 million, which led to the formation of Play England. This is, I believe, is extremely important as we are now back in a stiuation where the whole movement, as well as parents, must work together if we are to put play back onto the Govenment Agenda.

    Second, the establishment of a sustainable, independent voice for play was within the remit of Play England (PE) and the NCB under the terms of the BIG funding and I hope that Shelly was just having a bit of a dig when she suggested that the work was done! Far from being done, it has only just begun! However rather than be seen as failure I agree with Tim and think that the achievements of PE over the past five years have been brilliant.

    My third point is that the importance of parents in the next round of influence is not new. It came out clearly in the last round of PE consultation and is at the top of the PE Agenda (although as Jeff says we are currently trying to help write a new business plan). However, personally, I do not believe we can give up lobbying Government, I will not lie down under the Coalition’s steam roller, we do have to get up and develop a new strategy, rekindling old friends, listening to the sector and trying to engage with this administration. The cause of the Charter is too important not to be lobbied for at the highest level as well as with parents.
    Rant over,
    Robin Sutcliffe

  8. Robin – just wanted to say that I was certainly not ‘having a dig’ – there was a five year contract to spend money and that ended – hence ‘job done’. As for ‘history’ – well, I was there when Chris Smith issued his challenges, I was there at the launch of PE, but more important than personal experience, in my view, is to take a longer look back and learn from similar situations with national organisations in the past. It seems to me to be a great waste of time and energy to keep reinventing the wheel when the history of our own field tells us so much – and yet time and again it gets ignored by ‘new’ people with ‘new’ ideas and precious little of the ‘institutional knowledge’ which could and should benefit children. This last point by the way is also not a ‘dig’ aimed at anything or anyone – just a general point about the need for a ‘reality check’ about where we’re at at the moment from a historical perspective. I realise I come at all this from a completely different angle, having spent the last three years knee-deep in the playwork literature, and my intention in posting was simply to try to raise a different perspective in the debate. Safe to say, I won’t be doing that again in a hurry!

  9. To crack the England-centric debate for a moment let’s not forget that we have four national play organisations (five if we include Súgradh) and all of them have taken a different route on priorities and even style of working. And that’s a positive thing, not only because it demonstrates very clearly the diversity of the playwork sector and stops us being boring but also because it gives a chance to learn from each other’s successes and, dare I say it, failures in terms of direction.

    No organisation can do everything and must choose a limited focus in a sea of issues (do you like that?) and it makes sense to re-focus from time to time whilst not losing that essential central message. Play England has an opportunity to do that and I don’t envy being in the position of choosing direction as history shows us that someone, somewhere in the playwork sector ain’t going to be happy with it.

    I could name a few issues to concentrate on for the next five years or so which I think might be beneficial to the cause but the research/evidence route and gaining the ear of government would not be amongst them. Spending pots of money would not be on the list either. Not because I don’t think we need any of those (in the English context particularly) but because we have done them to death in recent years and it’s time to step back. These, and other issues, are still important but need to be put on the slow burning, continuous back-burner for a bit. What we need is something we could all get our teeth into, which truly supports what is already happening on a more local basis, which would result in children being able to experience playing more, and which forms a continuance to what has come before it.

    Personally, I’d stick focus on a greater ‘Freedom to Play’ effort: not making more playgrounds, or more policy, or more playworkers even, but more ‘freedom’ – something which may result in more playgrounds, more policy and more playworkers but that’s not the central point. You could argue that this has been the thrust for the last few years but I would disagree – the intended result maybe, but not the thrust.

    If we go down that route and do the ‘how do we remove the barriers to’ exercise then parental pressures/concerns/misconceptions/misunderstands/getoffmystreet/nimbyism seems an obvious one for me. Parents have huge influence over the day-to-day lives of not just their own children but also others living in the neighbourhood both by doing and not-doing – if only they had knowledge/support/empowerment to do so. Local and regional play organisations have always done this but even here the national focus of recent years has subtly changed the way many have gone about this. A national campaign focussing on a local issue and in support of local organisations seem an ideal mix.

    I’m with Tim on this one – ‘parents’ would be top of my list as issue no.1 to increasing a ‘Freedom to Play’ if only by enabling parents to say, “Oi! Put that bloody thing down and go outside and play for a bit.”

  10. Lots of lively debate on this key issue for Engand’s play scene. Thanks to all contributors so far – and more comments welcome. I won’t say too much more, as I had my main shout above the line. Shelly – I want to reassure you that your views are appreciated. Others clearly disagreed with you, but I didn’t detect any lack of respect.
    Interested to read your thoughts Marc. There is certainly a growing interest in children’s everyday freedoms – look at Sustrans with its Free Range Kids campaign. I agree Play England should be adding their voice strongly to this agenda, but think it also needs to support practical initiatives that help parents – including play spaces and services. Absolutely agree on the need to focus more on local action, though. All politics is local, as the saying goes.

  11. Sandra Melville

    For the record, ‘Play England’ was originally conceived of as a project of the Children’s Play Council with a view to getting a government backed national play strategy. At the moment I was invited to take the chair of the organisation, we were persuaded that the relationship between the work of CPC and that then falling under the PE project was causing confusion. So in 2008, members voted to change the name of CPC to
    ‘Play England’ to embrace all of the work. Play England is therefore the guardian of the original mission, as expressed in the Charter for Children’s Play, and inheritor of the tasks to which CPC had set itself.
    The history of the CPC has been one of continuing developmment, Having started as a small grouping of national voluntary organisations concerned with children’s play, membership categories have been enlarged to broaden the scope of our debates and increase the authority of the organisation. I beilieve we all started with a focus on those working with children in play settings as the quickest and most effective way of improving what was on offer to children. We then began to address other professionals who, through their work, had the ablity to impact negatively on the places children played for example in parks and green spaces.
    It is hardly surprising that the recent consultation among members and supporters about upcoming priorities for Play England has thrown up the need now to address parents given that high levels of anxiety about their children’s security, and the fact that they are gatekeepers to their children’s experience, can together have such a negative impact on play opportunities. Parents are also voters and could mobilise considerable influence on decision making in a number of areas that would improve play opportunities for children .
    None of this means that other strands of the work will be abandonned. It does mean that Play England will be seeking new collaborations and new ways of working in pursuit of its mission.

  12. I have never met a play worker, or a parent, I have never met Play England or a play company, any more than I have met a motorist, a cyclist or a dog owner. I have children, I work with children, I have a bike, a car, a dog, my own company and I share membership with others in Play England.

    If we have a common view that children need more play in their lives and a vision of how things might be, I wonder how useful it is to categorise what we call ourselves or each other?

    History, from trade unions to civil rights, proves that together we are stronger and are more likely to bring about the social changes we strive for, so it seems to make sense to have a collective national voice and Play England seems to be the best foundation to build on.

    I am not sure what the new Play England will look like once it becomes fully independent from NCB or how we can get it to survive and grow, and I don’t know how we can shift society so that free range childhood is as important as free range chicken-hood, but I expect that with a bigger more diverse membership we will find more ways of creating change at every level from ‘putting that bloody thing down and getting outside’ to regaining political support and commitment.

  13. Please excuse my ignorance; I’m afraid all of the ins and outs of this debate are slightly beyond me. I’m here, as a learning officer on a countryside property trying to get kids outdoors and trying to explain to parents that their kids won’t suffer from getting a bit mucky. So, my only question is to Michael … love the “Free range childhood” title, is it a common phrasing or have you just come up with it? Can I use that in promoting my outdoor Fenland School?

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