The role of play has been long undervalued in the UK. But play is
an important factor both in children’s learning and development and
as a means of promoting community cohesion. The benefits of giving
children opportunities to play are well documented, but play
provision itself has usually been poorly funded and development has
tended to be ad-hoc rather than strategic.
Recently though there have been welcome signs of change. In 2001
Chris Smith, then culture secretary, committed £200m from the
New Opportunities Fund to the development of play spaces. The
Department for Culture, Media and Sport has recently undertaken a
review of children’s play opportunities. The resulting report,
published on 21 January, recommended that this funding be focused
on areas with the poorest access to play provision, with a major
emphasis on ensuring that disabled children and young people can
enjoy facilities alongside their non-disabled peers.
The Children Fund has also increased funding for children’s play –
over one in four of the first wave of Children Fund projects
provided for improved play and leisure opportunities. The green
paper Every Child Matters also recognised the value of
unstructured and unsupervised activities – otherwise known as play.
The development of children’s trusts and children’s centres should
create opportunities to give play more importance locally, and
promote its value in sectors such as health, transport and
This is all good news for children and play advocates. But one area
lacking in strategic direction is funding. Currently, play
provision is funded from several pots – the lottery (including the
Better Play initiative), Children’s Fund, Living Spaces, English
Heritage and Neighbourhood Renewal. This is usually short-term
project funding. Funding from private developers also provides
money to build play areas but does not provide the long-term funds
needed for maintenance. All this means that play facilities close
because they are not properly maintained.
The lack of strategy in play planning also means that certain
groups of children miss out. For example, in one area there may be
several playgrounds for small children but nothing for teenagers.
They also need somewhere to go, meet friends and hang out. If there
is nothing for them they end up using playgrounds intended for
little ones and no one is happy.
Many areas of national and local government policy affect the play
opportunities children and young people have. Transport links,
housing, school facilities and crime all affect where children can
go. This has two major implications for play providers. Firstly,
local consultation with children and young people and other
community representatives is essential if play provision is to meet
their needs. Often the reasons why children choose to play – or not
to play – in a specific place are not immediately obvious to
Secondly, local agencies and different government departments need
to work together to make sure all children’s needs are catered for.
This requires a strong commitment to joined-up working. The green
paper pushes this approach for other children’s services but it is
still missing in the area of play provision.
A play strategy, like the child care strategy, should have clear,
measurable outcomes. Play opportunities are nearly always provided
at local level, often by people who cannot commit full-time to the
task. A clear national strategy should support local agencies in
their work by providing standards. It should also help them secure
support in government and elsewhere by raising the profile of play.
This is an exciting time for children’s services and there are new
opportunities opening in terms of money and evolving government
policy. What is needed now is a bold and strategic approach.
The Children’s Fund –
First Wave partnerships, Ofsted, Audit Commission and Social
Services Inspectorate, HMI 585, 2003
Tim Gill is director of the Children’s Play Council.