The cautious optimism among play advocates in recent weeks, that the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to a fundamental re-evaluation of what is most important for children, their families, and communities, was given a cold reality check on Sunday, when the UK’s most progressive mainstream newspaper, the Guardian/Observer, dedicated its entire editorial to an 8-point ‘manifesto for children’ without once mentioning their need to play. It is an illustration (again) of how lowly children’s own priorities are within the national debate about what is best for them.
At the start of the lockdown nobody was too surprised, in the circumstances, that the government’s response to an open letter from more than 40 play researchers, practitioners, and advocates asking for ‘clear advice’ about outdoor play, merely reiterated that we all must ‘focus on preventing the spread of Covid-19 (and) protecting the most vulnerable in society’. When the government’s only other stated priority was ‘offering support to those impacted by social-distancing, including companies and employees’, it was clear that the sudden constraints on space and opportunity for children to play was not going to be even a secondary issue for ministers.
‘There is little evidence that children’s profound need to play has received any more consideration. How lowly their own priorities are within the national debate about what is best for them’.
Now, as we move towards a substantial easing of the lockdown, these fears are born out. Children’s profound need to play has received little or no consideration from the government.
Some eminent researchers, including the ‘Play First’ alliance, have expressed serious concerns about the effect that a lack of play opportunities is having on children’s mental health, and called on the government to ease lockdown ‘in a way that provides all children with the time and opportunity to play with peers, in and outside of school … even while social distancing measures remain in place’. Others have specifically called for a nationwide plan to repurpose residential streets for play during lockdown and beyond.
The four national UK play organisations have endorsed a report from the Play Safety Forum calling for the government’s approach to be ‘urgently reviewed’ on the basis that the current policy ‘completely ignores’ the benefits of outdoor play to children (especially at a time of stress and uncertainty), while the risks of infection are ‘very low’.
These are strong words, and necessarily so. The government in Westminster has indeed ignored children’s play as a policy issue ever since it first came to power on 2010, in spite of long recognising it as such. Having abandoned the Play Strategy for England, it believes local authorities should make their own policies for play, but has starved them of the cash that most of them would need to do anything meaningful, at the same time as deregulating both planning and childcare in ways that relegate children’s play to the status of an optional extra.
‘For children the overwhelming priority is playing with their friends’.
Now, however, would be the moment to think again. Millions of parents, teachers and children are stressed, tired and seriously unhappy after a full term-and-a-half trying to keep up with the curriculum via variable on-line platforms and ad hoc home-schooling, without receiving any of the ‘softer’ benefits of being part of the school community. For children this overwhelmingly means playing with their friends.
The government has announced a ‘Covid catch-up’ package for primary and secondary schools to support children returning to school in September to recover lost ground, and has also said that providers running holiday clubs and activities for children over the summer holiday will be able to open ‘if the science allows’ (although the guidance on this seems to be delayed). The relative importance attached to these two measures? £1 billion is allocated to the former, zero to the latter, which is conceived primarily as a service to parents – who will no doubt have to cover the cost themselves. For many, many children – the same children for whom the £1b catch-up fund is designed – this will mean summer play schemes are unaffordable. In turn, many independent providers will be unable to operate – which puts an additional pressure on schools, just as they need the mother of all breaks.
A play recovery fund
The answer is obvious. A discreet ‘play recovery’ fund should be established, in consultation with the play and playwork sectors, to enable non-school based holiday play schemes to be offered free of charge in the areas that will need them most. And the government should also talk to Playing Out, its network of street play activators, and the growing number of local authorities who now support temporary street closures for play, to consider an expanded national programme of street play sessions over the summer.
Some will think such an idea cavalier: that children’s outdoor play is simply too random and chaotic to observe any kind of public health protocols, even with the distancing requirements relaxed. But even if the Play Safety Forum’s persuasive risk-benefit assessment is disregarded, the government should know that the playwork field is highly professional, and always resourceful. Whatever the safety measures might need to be, no one will be better at engaging with children to follow them than playworkers.
Playwork responds to the crisis
For a field seriously depleted after 10 years of austerity, deregulation, and (in England) policy neglect, the field rallied well to respond to the crisis – in spite of some of its fundamental tenets seeming completely untenable in a public health emergency that demands distance, isolation, and regimentation. Playwork practitioners and advocates have offered timely guidance on how to sustain play opportunities through the lockdown, including playing at home. Adventure playgrounds have reached out to offer relational space and support to communities whose physical playgrounds were closed, and some practitioners have given new meaning to the term face-to-face playwork by taking it to the online platforms with which we are all now so familiar.
Play England and the great playwork theorist, Bob Hughes, have set out some wise words and good practical advice on ‘Play after Lockdown’. But first, in this time of national crisis, with families desperately needing a break before a return to the new normal – many of them unable to go away because of increased job insecurity or unemployment – the country needs the play sector to step up and do what it does best: give our kids space and support to have a good time. From within the billions that this terrible pandemic has cost the economy, is a few million for a well-deserved and badly needed Summer of Play, too much to expect? At the very least, the Observer should include it in its manifesto.
This blog was first published on policyforplay.com