Building the case for play: help me fill the gaps

First, I would like to thank everyone who has responded so far to my appeal last month for evidence to build the policy case for play. The material I have received has almost without exception fitted my brief. But there are gaps, so I am putting out one last call for help.

Playday, Bristol City Council

Playday, Bristol City Council

I have a lot of material on school breaktime/recess projects. I also have a fair amount on physical activity, in relation to both school projects and parks and public play areas.

However, I have much less material on other potential benefits (such as other health benefits, developmental and educational benefits, and outcomes around community cohesion or crime reduction). And I have comparatively little information on initiatives and programmes that go beyond the public park, play area or school playground.

Thus far, I have just been looking for quantitative material in the form of academic studies and evaluation reports. I am loosening this a little, and would also be interested in authoritative, positive quotes or statements from people who are in a position to persuade the as-yet unconvinced.

The kind of people I am thinking of are those who have an independent perspective – people who you would not necessarily expect to be supporters of play. At the risk of labouring the point, compare these two statements:

  1. “Townsdale Adventure playground manager says his adventure playground has cut anti-social behaviour.”
  2. “Townsdale chief of police says the local adventure playground has cut anti-social behaviour.”

It is statements like the second that I am looking for. They may well find a place in the final report, especially where they can be supported by quantitative evidence.

So this is a final invitation to submit material that you think may be relevant, and that would help to fill these gaps. And a reminder: there is an overall focus on children’s freely chosen play. Responses by the slightly later deadline of 7 March 2014 would be much appreciated. As before, the best way is to email me – the address is on my Contact page.

A final word

Some people have responded to my original request with dismay, or even hostility (not to me personally, but to the project). This is understandable. Play services are, as we know, suffering drastic cuts. Good, committed people are losing their jobs, ultimately as a result of decisions made by the current Government. Even if some of its members may be having second thoughts, a degree of anger is unsurprising, and justifiable. Though it should be remembered that play is not exactly being singled out.

Criticisms have been made about this project. Some point out that this is hardly the first time in recent years that play advocates have been asked to make our case. Others question the emphasis on measurable outcomes.

I have some sympathy with these views too. It can be frustrating to feel that we are going over old territory. And it is tempting to think that the value of play is surely evident to anyone with eyes to see and ears to listen.

However, I take a different view. While this project may feel like retreading old ground to those of us who have been around for a while, we need to remember that the public policy weather rarely stays settled for long. Governments change. Ministers come and go. Officials and advisers move on. The machinery of government has a poor collective memory.

What is more, the call for numbers does not necessarily reflect a blinkered view of children’s play experiences. Governments are in the business of making a difference to people’s lives. The call for evidence is not really about the value of play per se. It is about the impact of initiatives, programmes and interventions that improve children’s opportunities for play.

It is reasonable for decision makers, when pondering a given initiative, programme or intervention, to want answers to the question “what difference will it make?” As a believer in Enlightenment principles of evidence and argument – and as a tax-payer – I am in favour of the idea that governments take an interest in the impact of their policies and programmes.

It is worthwhile remembering that the play sector has had its campaigning successes over the years. In my view, each step forward our sector has made has involved (amongst other things) diplomacy, compromise and a willingness to engage. If those of us who believe in the value of play do not get around the table with people in positions of power on behalf of children and young people and make our case, no-one else will. And who then will be the losers?

23 responses to “Building the case for play: help me fill the gaps

  1. Hi Tim,

    This is a video so not sure if it’s any good regarding your plea but DC Banks states that the introduction of a shelter and a ball court has reduced anti social calls by 60%

    Best Regards

    Dave Brady

  2. Hello – did anyone send you a link to Frances Kuo? I’ve attached a little bio of her. When I saw her talk she definitely talked about how greening of a neighbourhood made it safer.

    Frances E (Ming) Kuo is a nationally and internationally recognized scientist examining the impacts of urban landscapes on human health. Her research focuses on how the presence of trees, grass, and other natural elements within the settings of daily life supports healthy human functioning in both individuals and communities. Starting in 1993, she led a series of studies on the impacts of green residential spaces on human functioning in inner city Chicago, for which she and her collaborators received the Environmental Design Research Association s Achievement Award. Subsequently, she and her former student Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor began examining the impacts of green spaces on Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD); that line of investigation has yielded both rigorously controlled evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between physical environments and AD/HD symptoms, as well as a large, national study documenting the generalizability of this relationship. Currently, in addition to her AD/HD work, Dr Kuo is investigating positive impacts of schoolyard environments on students academic achievement (as measured by standardized test scores), as well as how residential environments can support active living among older adults. Dr Kuo s work has convincingly linked healthy urban ecosystems to stronger, safer neighbourhoods, lower crime, reduced AD/HD symptoms, reduced aggression, and an array of mental health indicators. Dr Kuo recently completed a review of the scientific evidence for the role of green environments in a healthy human habitat for the National Recreation and Parks Association.


    Shelley Brown
    Parks, Recreation & Culture
    City of Victoria
    Victoria, BC Canada
    P. 250-361-0705 F. 250-361-0723

    • Shelley – thanks for this. I’m familiar with Frances Kuo’s research from my Sowing the Seeds report. I am not aware of any that focuses on play facilities, but her findings are indeed relevant.

  3. Tim, please contact Ben Tawil and his colleague Sue, at Glyndwr. They have some initial research, a rigorous study of the positive effects of different kinds of exercise at playtime on concentration in school. Supported play, came out on top, beating organised sport. If you don’t have contact details, email me.

  4. Hi Tim, you may have seen this quote – but just in case you haven’t (and sorry it’s more on playgrounds and breaktimes) but it is from someone independent of the field. It was in response to the opening of Thomas Deacon Academy (the one built without a playground – and that suggested children did not need breaks as they would be too interested in learning).

    “I am not idealistic about playgrounds; I know they can be rough. But … you hope…that this taste of a wider world will be a safe opportunity to learn how to get on with others…

    You want them to explore the world of chosen friendships – not just tutor groups – and understand how human relationships form and break, how to handle betrayal, conflict and envy, to show generosity and ignore slights… you …hope that in this brief freedom, your child will learn how to be an individual in society, not just a unit in an allocated team or class….Without playtime, these things will not happen during the long school day, and may be lost entirely to children who don’t live close. School will be a workplace, only without the statutory breaks…. ”

    Libby Purves. ‘How did we learn to be so defeatist?’ May 8th 2007, The Times.

    • Ed – thanks for this. I recall the incident (in fact I was pulled into some of the media debate at the time). That’s a great quote from Libby, which could well be of use.

  5. Tim, moved to comment on your ‘final word’ (Is it? Hope not. Hard to believe.)

    First, the point you make that the ‘research’ is not about play per se is obviously correct. And, yes, there really is little choice but to reherase this exercise again (and again, and again…). To the degree that the exercise is not about play as such but about impacts and (dread word) ‘outcomes’ of varied programmes and projects that have the designation ‘play’ attached to them, is the degree to which we are, in effect, in a market place competing (given always and inevitably limited resources) with other projects in the arts, sport and so forth.

    It is almost impossible, both in current and past political dispensations – at least from the advent of Thatcherism – to talk about, and value, things, ‘as such’ – arts, play etc. More the pity for the society we belong to. Ultimately, until politics allows a space to speak about things ‘as such’, sustained progress is, almost logically, impossible.

    It seems to me we simply engage in a series of skirmishes, taking some ground, giving some ground, but no, not making embedded progress. Thus, the Enlightenment faith to which you attest is, well, slightly Panglossian, methinks. My rather dismalist perspective notwithstanding, does not at the same time grant us permission to withdraw from the field. But it is equally important not to restrict ourselves to the limited vocabulary and narrow perspective of instrumentalism. We need to beware of self-censoring ourselves to the extent that we forget how to argue the value of here-and-now immediate experience, and for play as, at the very least, being about freedom and personal agency, and all that implies. I do not for a moment suggest that you have forgotten.

    • As articulate and closely reasoned as ever, Bernard.

      Please forgive this rambling hurried response, dear readers.

      As you might have seen, my comment on Tim’s earlier blog was a soundbite saying, I paraphrase: ‘I’m fed up with being asked for evidence, it seems pointless (I would add thathardly anyone has funded the sorts of research that Tim needs), we aren’t asked to justify breathing or eating”.

      You expressed my concerns about ‘political instrumentalism in the context of globalisation and so on’ to use a crude short hand pointer, most eloquently. Like you I see the defence of, and revitalisation of, the public realm as vital.

      , I’m rambling now so I’ll stop. Your perspective Bernard will be discussed in the Ludic Salon at Eastbourne National Play Conference next week, btw.

  6. Arthur, not sure it’s right to communicate via Tim’s blog – surely there must be some protocols about this, some etiquette. However, I will thank you for you kind words, blush at the thought that ‘my’ perspective shall find a foothold in Eastbourne to which I hear many make pilgrimage; and, finally, immodestly point to where I say a bit more about all this evidence stuff.

    Thanks, Tim for the space.

    • Bernard, you are well-known for diplomacy. I hope that I know Tim well-enough to be correct in thinking he won’t mind. And if he does, I’m sure he will say so. Really all I wanted to do was reiterate my earlier point and agree with yours. To paraphrase Winston, I’m sorry this is a long ramble, I didn’t have time to write a short one!

  7. Pingback: Holding fast: It’s not the evidence that does it | Bernard Spiegal

  8. Reblogged this on Love Outdoor Play and commented:
    If you haven’t already and you enjoy making the case for play, please do get involved.

  9. You might find theme 8: Play and Pedagogy useful in ‘Early Years Policy Advice and Future Research Agendas from BERA / TACTYC. Here is the link

  10. Arthur and Bernard: a final word (not really) on your exchanges above (and I’m fine with debates to unfold and evolve here, so long as they are conducted with a modicum of civility and respect). I too think that there’s a need to think through the value and role of evidence. It’s a big question, and so I plan to devote more space and time to it than I can find just now. But as I said in reply to Bernard’s post, for a taste of my thoughts, and a demonstration of the application of good evidence, check this link out:

  11. Tim – only just been made aware of your call for info to help complete gaps and I think our project has collected some evidence but I am out of office til Monday when I can email you some independent evaluation reports on our Childs Play project – Gill

  12. Pingback: Evidence or not, play policy must be more than crumbs. | Policy for Play

  13. Tim,

    An interesting debate here, which I come to rather late. I just want to remind Bernard, and anyone else reading, that the last “little skirmish” we had resulted in nearly £400m of public funding over five years and a 12 year strategy. This included guidance to local government on exactly how the gains for play were to be “embedded” but the document barely saw the light of day before it was pulled by the new government.

    There’s a temptation to see the Play Strategy’s demise after only two years as just another play sector failure, but that would be a spectacularly self-absorbed view, given the seismic changes that have occurred across public life. If a tidal wave has hit the beach, how you built your sandcastle is really immaterial.

    For what it’s worth, my broader take on the evidence question (reflecting on one of Arthur’s rather nice metaphors) is here

    and my specific contribution to the immediate issue is here


    • Hi Adrian – thanks for the contribution (and apologies for only just spotting it in the WordPress ‘pending’ page). I agree that the play sector’s engagement with the last Government (and, lest we forget, the official opposition at the time) might have turned out quite differently if the global economy hadn’t fallen over.

  14. Pingback: Evidence is vital in making the case for play | Rethinking Childhood

  15. Pingback: On Evidence. On the Political | Bernard Spiegal

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