This is a short piece I wrote for Play Today, the regular journal of Play England, the advocacy charity for children's play (original PDF is here).
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Pat Kane, 'Swings and Roundabouts in Whitehall', Play Today, Issue 72, Spring 2011
These are tough times for those trying to guarantee the grounds of play for children, adults and communities. Michael Gove’s cancellation of the playground building programme last year (though a brutally stripped-down version has survived) came as no surprise to those familiar with the Gradgrindery of his general educational philosophy, all history and Latin lessons. In the light of this, it's worth remembering just what an unlikely triumph the programme was for the previous administration.
It is true that when the then children’s secretary Ed Balls announced close to christmas in 2007 that over £200 million was to be earmarked to build 3,500 playgrounds, and then followed it through in the subsequent two years, advocates of play were pinching themselves.
New Labour, with various invocations of a renewed work-ethic for the work-shy and a notoriously exacting measurement culture in education, did not seem the most propitious sponsor of the value and benefits of play; oblique, messy and experimental as play is. Ed Balls did not join up his thinking when he rejected the Cambridge Primary Review in 2009, which showed conclusively that an extended period of kindergarten-style play up to the seventh year was the best developmental start for school children.
But there it was; alongside play initiatives from the lottery fund and echoed throughout the devolved parliaments, a commitment to building playgrounds as a step towards rethinking how we regard the activity of children in our public spaces, town and cities. It’s tempting to say that in a similar way to our shifts on climate change, the scientific consensus on the health, the cognitive and social benefits of more play in our lives - both for children and adults - was becoming indisputable.
A staple in the rise of neuro-psychological and biological accounts of human nature over the last twenty years has been the role of play: joyful experimentation, imagining and gaming with others as the best exercise for the growing human mind. Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood and Stuart Brown’s Play are at the summits of research here. The UNICEF report on children’s well-being in rich countries in 2007, which placed the UK at the bottom of 23 industrialised nations, was an embarrassing wake-up call for a government which had made the welfare of children one of its moral back-stops.
Whatever the determining forces, it was certainly the feeling among the community of play workers and advocates that a line about the legitimacy of play as a key part of human development throughout the life-span had been crossed. Given such positive support and signals, much ingenuity, commitment and invention has been pouring into this area in Britain.
The Coalition has made sure it will not let a crisis go to waste, taking the opportunity to brutally shrink the state to pre-new-Labour levels. As a result, the playground building programme goes in its entirety; not even shrunk or trimmed, but dumped wholesale.
If you wanted to find "an inch in which to live" (as the great 60's play advocate Richard Neville put it) between the Tories and Labour - and for that matter, any of the left-leaning devolved polities - a play policy for children would be that inch. Enabling good conditions of play is an investment in the ultimate long-term health and capacities of future citizens, a crucial and dynamic element of the “sure” start promised to children in the UK after the harshness of the Tory years.
Of course, play policy should have been extended beyond childhood to teenage-dom and adulthood. There is too much evidence – ably pulled together by Daniel Pink in his new book Drive – that the most creative and profitable modern organisations ensure “play” time for their employees. A small zone of self-determination increases overall productivity and effectiveness by considerable degrees. Shouldn’t we be socialising our future creative workers to expect a degree of creative play in their lives?
There might be some wriggle-room for play advocacy in the Coalition's big idea of the Big Society. According to one of its theorists, Jesse Norman, the "active, creative self... fizzing with possibility" is at the core of its vision - a citizen aspiring towards "mastery, autonomy and purpose", and expressing that through free voluntary activity.
Yet this glowing civic vision runs into the wall of a brutal deficits-justified contraction in public sector budgets. And as any playworker would tell you, the anxiety and fear which mass redundancy will generate are the least likely circumstances for such a playful, active self to flourish.
The Labour government managed to join up the dots between play, well-being, health and employment. Facing the contradictions and confusions of the current government, play advocates must take a deep breath and restate the case for the power and potential of play. The game, as they say, is worth the candle.