Today – the 27th annual Playday – sees the publication of my evidence review, entitled The Play Return: A review of the wider impact of play initiatives. As reported on the BBC website this morning, the report summarises the measurable impact of initiatives to improve play opportunities.
A number of policy reviews of play have been published by play advocates in recent years, based on a mix of qualitative and quantitative evidence, theoretical arguments and authoritative assertions. These have concluded that playing leads to a wide range of interconnected beneficial outcomes for children.
The Play Return, commissioned by the Children’s Play Policy Forum (CPPF), adds to this body of work by reviewing the extent to which claims about the benefits of play are borne out by empirical evidence of the impact of on-the-ground interventions. It also looks at benefits that extend beyond children themselves and into their families and the wider community.
The rationale for this focus is that it moves into territory that policy makers are likely to be interested in. To quote from the report: “It takes the debate on from discussions about values and theories and into the realm of real-world impact. Hence it helps to give a more empirically grounded view of the difference that initiatives, programmes and policies could make.”
Four types of intervention are reviewed: improving opportunities for free play in school break times, unstaffed public play facilities, supervised out-of-school
play provision and street play initiatives (with a focus on children of school age). The Play Return draws four conclusions about the impact of these initiatives.
- Play initiatives lead to improvements in children’s health and well-being, and are linked to a range of other cognitive and social developmental benefits. While the evidence is strongest for play in schools, it is reasonable to expect that they will also be seen in other similar contexts.
- Families and communities also benefit from play initiatives – and want action to improve them. For example, play initiatives generate high levels of volunteering and community action.
- Play initiatives are associated with inter-related benefits across a range of health and developmental domains. These benefits need to be thought of as a whole rather than in a piecemeal fashion.
- The strength of the evidence base means that the improvement in opportunities for play should be regarded as a valid outcome in its own right.
The decision to focus on measurable outcomes has prompted a lively debate here and in other places. The Play Return does not directly engage with these broader philosophical and ethical issues, although it does flag up the debate to readers.
The Play Return also acknowledges the limitations of its focus on the measurable. To quote US sociologist William Bruce Cameron: not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. (And no, that is not a quote from Einstein.)
An advance copy of The Play Return was sent to Nick Hurd, the former Cabinet Office minister whose interest triggered the project. His response encouraged the CPPF to engage with officials within the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health. CPPF has also brought the report to the attention of Nicky Morgan, following her appointment as Secretary of State for Education.
Time will tell whether these initial responses lead to anything concrete. If the report does make a difference – in times that are challenging for both national agencies and play providers – it will be by opening doors: by persuading those decision makers who are as-yet-unconverted to take play more seriously. To take just one example, public health policy makers should find a compelling case that when it comes to physical activity, outdoor play should be given as much attention as sport or physical education.
I would welcome your reactions here. I would also value feedback in the weeks and months ahead about any doors that may have been opened.
Acknowledgements are due to the Children’s Play Policy Forum for commissioning the report and for giving feedback on drafts, to Play Scotland for layout and design, and to the Association of Play Industries for funding the project. Needless to say, the views expressed in it are mine and not necessarily theirs.