Play away

Play is defi nitely back on the agenda with a big boost of Lottery cash. KEITH HASSELL looks at what the future holds

The sight of pre-teen children playing on the streets or even in playgrounds unsupervised is so rare in many parts of the country as to have passed into folk memory. But, thankfully, the
next few years may see this reversed.

A head of political steam has been building in England behind the cause of children’s play provision since the publication of Frank Dobson’s review Getting Serious About Play in January 2004, and the approval of its recommendations a year later by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Then last spring came the promise of money to deliver the vision. The Big Lottery Fund agreed to give district councils £155m over the next 18 months to fi nance play projects – applications can be submitted from this month and the first awards will be given this autumn. A minimum of £200,000 per council is available, but some deprived areas can tap into project money worth £2 million (see Pots of Gold).

Tim Gill, the writer and consultant who is responsible for many of the ideas in the Dobson review, is upbeat. He says the BLF money provides a fantastic opportunity. “It is our chance to
change the way children are seen in British society.”

Jan Cosgrove, director of Fairplay, which campaigns for children’s play, agrees: “It is unprecedented money for children’s play,” she says – although also points out that it is not a lot when
compared to the amount given to the arts and sports.

Play is an inherent part of childhood – “nature’s training for life” – as former prime minister David Lloyd George once said. The Dobson review defi ned play as “what children and young
people do when they follow their own ideas and interests in their own way and for their own reasons”.

But there are many barriers to realising this conception of play. Children often express these as: fears for their safety, especially from bullying; traffi c; dirty, boring or run-down play areas and
parks; lack of choice; and lack of access. Parents, meanwhile, fear “predatory adults” and keep their children closeted. And Gill insists too many adults “want to ghettoise children or even remove them from public spaces altogether”.

The result? Physically and emotionally-stunted children.

Councils have compounded the problem, says Gill: “Local authorities in particular have given children’s play little attention – including when they have built schools and developed health

The Children’s Play Council (CPC) was given £168,000 by the Big Lottery in September last year with the remit of helping councils win BLF grants. “We want to see projects work across departments – including housing – so all departments have a co-ordinated approach to how and where children should play,” says the CPC’s director Adrian Voce.

The chief medical offi cer advises that children and young people should achieve a total of at least 60 minutes of at least moderate-intensity physical activity each day, and Gill argues that studies show that unstructured play is better at achieving this than organised sports.

The type of play projects that will be considered for BL awards vary from the adventure playground to the mobile bus, and everything in between. “But the best projects are those that the kids like the most, ones that enable children to have daily access. There is too much emphasis on showcase parks that are OK for a Sunday day trip. I would like to see the money spent on local, accessible, challenging projects,” says Voce.

“It is no accident that children hurt themselves  when playing – they are supposed to. We need to manage the risk. If we remove it, the evidence suggests they will go and play somewhere else – like the railway embankment next to the play area.”

Gill agrees about the need for play to challenge children. “The projects have to take a mature and balanced attitude to risk and safety. Local authorities in particular need to look hard at this
and not surrender to pressure to make a place completely safe. ”

By 2008 a whole raft of play projects should be up and running in England. But what happens when the funding runs out? “Often post-lottery syndrome sets in whereby the funding from lottery sources is not followed through and the projects fail. A permanent funding regime is crucial otherwise local authorities find it easy to fi nd other more pressing things to spend their money on,” says Cosgrove.

Gill believes making sure that schemes are successful will be key to their survival: “The play programme needs to aim high and get practical successes so local people will kick up a stink when councils refuse to pick up the tab because people see them as vital to the health of the community.”

There is room for further optimism with the launch of Play England last month after BLF granted CPC a further £15m over fi ve years to set up nine regional centres in England.

Their task will be to assist local authorities to draw up their Children and Young People’s Plans with voluntary sector partners and submit applications to the BLF.

Voce says: “CPC is a policy, advocacy and research organisation, and Play England takes it to a strategic body championing children’s play. Its job will be to secure greater political  commitment, more public awareness, and a change of attitudes in communities towards the way children’s play has to be considered as a strategic priority,” says Voce.

Cosgrove wants the status of Play England upgraded and entrenched. “Play England must develop into an organisation like the Arts Council or Sports Council,” he says. Given that children account for 20% of the population and as Lloyd George once said, “the right to play is a child’s first claim on the community”, is this too much to hope for?

London is home to 1.61m children and young people under the age of 18. The Greater London Assembly estimates London’s child population will grow by about 200,000 between 2004-16.

Where are they all going to play? Adventure playgrounds in London – often providing the best mix of play experience – have fallen from around 150 to just 80 over the past 15 to 20 years.

But plans are underway to reshape play provision in the capital. Tim Gill advises the mayor on setting planning standards for play provision. He says: “London is ahead of the rest of the
UK in terms of policy and planning – certainly at a regional level.”

Making London Better for All Children and Young People, the mayor’s children’s and young people’s strategy, published in January 2004, sets out the mayor’s belief that all children should be able to play in their local neighbourhoods.

In mapping the future they could do worse than look closely at Somerford Grove Adventure Playground, opened by Haringey Play Association in spring last year after 18 months’ work and
funding from Sports England. Most importantly, it is designed and built in consultation with local children.

Haringey Play Association consulted with children from the local primary and secondary schools on the types of services they would like to have. The children and young people were taken on trips around London to see different sorts of play and recreation facilities, and encouraged to respond with their opinions through writing and drawing. The children also built a scale model of the area to be developed.

The children’s design incorporates some of the more traditional adventure playground features such as swings and climbing platforms. There are natural features such as a pond
and a stream, rare and interesting trees have been planted and den-building opportunities abound.

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