Adrian 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 visiting 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.
There 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.