In this adapted version of an article originally published in the International Journal of Play, Adrian Voce places the establishment of the Playwork Foundation in its historical context, and suggests that such a vehicle for practitioners is an essential development if playwork is to overcome its current challenges
Playwork is an approach to working with children in inclusive, open-access spaces, ideally free of charge, within services that depend to a large extent on state funding. The inexorable squeeze on such resources since 2010 is therefore the unavoidable context for our work, as it is for so much public and voluntary sector activity in the age of austerity. The recent announcement of Watford Borough Council to close the town’s only two adventure playgrounds, and the redundancy of yet more playworkers, is just the latest such attack on our field, and sadly will not be the last.
Originally, as it emerged on the adventure playgrounds of the 60s, 70s and 80s, playwork was a local, grass roots response to the growing need of urban children to have their space to play protected and supported within increasingly dense, spatially deprived inner city neighbourhoods. Voluntary action would lead to fundraising to employ staff and acquire tools and other resources, but sustainable finance needed longer-term funding streams and although many of the adventure playgrounds in which playwork developed were – and still are – independently managed by local charities, they have long depended upon local authority grants and (more latterly) contracts for the lion’s share of their usually meagre funds.
“Playwork services have rarely been a high priority for local authority funding in their own right”
Rarely a high priority for local authority funding in their own right (Cole-Hamilton and Gill, 2000) and with no proper statutory basis, playwork services during the 90s tended to become increasingly overshadowed – and in many cases annexed – by the National Childcare Strategy, as the government made a priority of subsidising not just nursery schools for the children of working parents, but before and after-school care for their primary-aged children too.
Thus, playwork eventually became part of the growth in state provision for children and families that had its apogee in England in the New Labour Government’s Every Child Matters policy (HM Treasury, 2003) – although it was not until the subsequent Children’s Plan (DCSF, 2007), and its promise of a national play strategy, that ministers fully embraced the principle that ‘enjoy and achieve’ did not simply mean doing well at school. The devolved Welsh government had by this time already adopted a rights based national play policy that would lead in time to a ground-breaking statutory play duty on local authorities.
“Brown (2008) … hailed a ‘moment of optimism’ for the play movement”.
In the Foundations of Playwork, Brown (2008), noting the arrival of the national Play Strategy (DCSF/DCMS, 2008), which ‘for the first time in a government document … saw importance given to the role of playworkers’, and no doubt reflecting also on the developments in Wales, hailed a ‘moment of optimism’ for the play movement. As a pioneer in higher education for this emerging profession, he will have been especially encouraged by the Play Strategy’s commitment to create 4000 new playworkers, including ‘a core of professionally qualified new graduate leaders’ (DCSF, 2008b).
There were reasons to be cheerful, too, about the ‘Play Pathfinder’ programme which was to create 30 new staffed adventure playgrounds within top-tier local authorities, whose key strategic staff would also be trained and challenged to develop the crosscutting local play strategies that would aim to transform the public realm for children by embedding playwork perspectives within the planning and commissioning processes for both children’s services and playable, child-friendly public space (DCSF, 2010).
“playwork was in the vanguard – in England as it had also been in Wales – of the movement that led to the adoption of this ambitious vision by the national government”
The Play Strategy was a 12-year plan, underpinned by an initial investment of £235m for the first three years, to ensure that every neighbourhood in England offered ‘a variety of supervised and unsupervised places for play, free of charge’ and that the wider public space was welcoming, safe and attractive for children and their play. The influence of the fixed-equipment playground sector notwithstanding, playwork and its allies were in the vanguard – in England as they had also been in Wales – of the movement that led to the adoption of this ambitious vision by the national government, and had the strategy been sustained for its full duration, could look forward to the prospect, as Brown had anticipated, of becoming an increasingly important part of the children’s workforce.
How things have changed. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England (2015) has reported that ‘children’s play has been a casualty of the austerity drive (as) councils have disproportionately targeted play services for cuts, with many long-standing services and projects closed and the land redeveloped’. CRAE attributes this decline – which it very conservatively quantifies as an overall reduction of 54% in funding for play by local authorities between 2010-14 – directly to the Conservative-led coalition government abandoning the Play Strategy after barely two years, and dropping play from ministerial portfolios altogether for the first time since the early 80s.
“UNCRC (2016) has decried the ‘withdrawal of a play policy in England and the under-funding of play’ across the UK.”
Apart from the large scale reduction in services that these figures represent, the Cameron government, as CRAE also notes, has ‘withdrawn recognition of playwork in out-of-school care’, leaving many children effectively in school – or under equivalent ‘arrangements’ – for up to 10-hours a day. Since CRAE’s report, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2016) has itself decried the ‘withdrawal of a play policy in England and the under-funding of play’ across the UK.
Where this leaves playwork, certainly in England, is without the policy, funding or regulatory frameworks that create the demand for it. The unexpected Conservative victory of May 2015 augured no respite, whatever the Children’s Play Policy Forum (2015) may have hoped for in the way of ‘support for staffed play provision to test social prescription models for … health and well-being initiatives’. Whether the new government of Theresa May will signal a sufficient change of economic policy to offer some respite, or even hope, to the beleaguered play sector remains to be seen, but there will not be many in our field who view the coming, Brexit-dominated months and years with eager anticipation. Only seven years after Brown’s ‘moment of optimism’, playwork, in England at least, would appear to be in something of an existential crisis.
How should we respond? This was the question earnestly put by the independent researcher and theorist, Bob Hughes and the late Professor Perry Else, when they invited others in the field to a summit at the University of Sheffield Hallam in the summer of 2013. Hughes and Else called their meeting ‘The Argument for Playwork’ and suggested that our main problem was that we had not yet conveyed – or possibly even fully-formed – a cohesive and convincing narrative of what playwork is for, what it can do for children, or why this should be important to society.
“…the meeting in Sheffield wondered whether the greater hindrance to playwork’s survival might be not so much the lack of an agreed or convincing story to tell, as the absence of a proper vehicle through which to tell it”.
Coming from two such leading lights, men who had each done so much to define playwork as an emerging profession, this was a sobering reflection. When not debating the relative merits of evolutionary, developmental and socio-cultural perspectives on play, much of the two-day event was spent considering this credibility gap. Others at the meeting in Sheffield, however, wondered whether the greater hindrance to playwork’s survival might be not so much the lack of an agreed or convincing story to tell, as the absence of a proper vehicle through which to tell it.
Dating back to Lady Allen’s pioneering work of the 50s and 60s, playwork was central to the broader movement for children’s right to play in the UK that eventually led to the big policy advances of 1998-2008. Included in these were the establishment of a vocational training and qualifications framework and higher education courses in playwork, but in spite of this, there has not been a sustained practitioner body since the profession first began to emerge.
In England, the various national play bodies, culminating in Play England in 2006, had seen themselves as advocates for children’s right to play in its broadest sense, as defined by article 31 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. Staffed provision was just one among several areas of public life and public services where advocates sought to influence change in favour of children’s right to play (Play England, 2006).
Furthermore, until very recently, the national play agencies in England have tended to be part of larger organisations, with broader remits than children’s play, such as the National Playing Fields Association or the National Children’s Bureau (NCB). Even the development of a recognised training and qualifications framework – which many saw as the key to defining playwork as a profession – while relying heavily on input from playworkers (or playwork trainers and service managers), was led not by an emergent professional body but by an employer-led agency, Skillsactive, licenced by the government to standardise workforce development for the sports and outdoor leisure sectors.
An attempt in the 2000s to create a practitioner-led national body for playworkers – in part to give playworkers themselves a greater voice in this activity – was short-lived. The Playworkers Association, founded in 2002, discovered that what its members most needed from organised action was pressure for better terms and conditions. It consequently joined the Community and Youth Workers Union en masse. When CYWU merged with Unite the Union, this led to the creation of a playwork convenor there and the Union now campaigns against government cuts to playwork services and jobs (Unite the Union, 2013). Skillsactive (2013), for its part, has launched the Register of Playwork Professionals: to reassure parents: that ‘staff are appropriately qualified’; to regulate their adherence to National Occupational Standards; and to ensure their maintenance of on-going professional development.
Photo: Meriden adventure playground
All things being equal, unionisation and a national register of qualified practitioners could each be seen as milestones in the progression of playwork towards better recognition; steps, perhaps, on the way to its full professional status. Yet, especially in the context of the scarcity of funding and the absence of policy or regulatory drivers for services, each of these developments must be considered in the context of the greater challenges: not how to accredit qualified playworkers, or secure them greater rewards, but how to make the case for their very existence.
This logically leads to another big question: who is best placed to make that case? Neither the professional register at Skillsactive, or the playwork membership at Unite the Union, are ultimately governed by practitioners (or advocates, or trainers) of playwork. One of the conundrums of the English play and playwork movement has been its failure to take control of its national vehicles and thus, ultimately, of its own destiny.
The Children’s Play Council (CPC), which transformed into Play England with the injection of strategic lottery funding in 2006, was never an independent body, operating instead as an alliance of other agencies, convened and hosted by one of its original members, NCB. As CPC, and then Play England, became increasingly successful, NCB took ever-greater control. When Play England then asserted its independence, voting to become a separate charity in 2010 (whilst a £15m lottery grant, partially awarded for the purpose, still had a year to run), NCB resisted: fearing, no doubt, for its own future after losing several government contracts. It would be a further four years before a hugely diminished Play England was able to announce its full independence from NCB, the lottery millions dedicated to the creation of a strategic, long-term support and development infrastructure for sustainable play provision (BIG, 2006) long since dissipated.
first priority emerging from the discussions was for any new body to be ‘fully independent of other agencies, owned by and accountable only to its members’.
When the Sheffield summit convened by Else and Hughes led to a series of open meetings to consult on the need for, and the viability of a potential ‘new vehicle for playwork’ it is perhaps, then, no surprise that the first priority emerging from the discussions was for any new body to be ‘fully independent of other agencies, owned by and accountable only to its members’. The need to agree and communicate a clear and cohesive narrative of playwork also featured highly, as did consistency with the established Playwork Principles. But what the playwork community most seems to want from a national body is a representative, collective voice: raising the status of playwork, campaigning for it and influencing policy that would be conducive to its growth 95 per cent of those responding to a survey by the steering group formed to develop the idea thought such a body were needed, while 96 per cent said they would join it.
With such a mandate, albeit couched in some strong caveats – most particularly that any new body should add to and not undermine or compete with existing national bodies in any of the home nations – the work to create a vehicle for playwork continues. Unlike the years culminating in the Play Strategy of 2008, there is now no government (or indeed any other) funding for such a venture and the work is therefore slow, dependent upon the spare time of people working elsewhere. It is progressing, nevertheless, and there is a strong sense that if the lack of financial or infrastructure support is the early price to pay for independence, then it will be a price worth paying.
Leaving aside the embryonic development of a new, independent vehicle for playwork – a small, as yet barely flickering light amidst so much gloom – there is another, perhaps even more pertinent sense in which the state of playwork in 2015 may not be as fragile as the policy and services landscape would paint it. This has to do with the playworker’s role as advocate for children’s play and the influence that this has, which may now be seen far beyond the adventure playground, and in many places other than the UK.
Although playwork’s origins go back several decades earlier, it was the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of 1989 that galvanised the movement to seek proper public support for its work: to pressurise government bodies to act and make resources available. According to the UN itself, the CRC ‘marked the transition from addressing children’s immediate needs through charity alone … towards advocacy (for) systemic change for the realisation of (their) rights’. The Playwork Principles demand that playworkers, as well as making space and supporting children in their play, also ‘act as advocates for play when engaging with adult led agendas’. They assert that ‘the primacy of the play process should inform this advocacy in the policy, strategy and training arenas’.
“advocacy work by the playwork community is a consistent and important thread throughout the development of play policy, not just in the UK but internationally”.
This advocacy work by the playwork community is a consistent and important thread throughout the development of play policy, not just in the UK but internationally. The distinguished academic of children’s rights and children’s geographies, Professor Roger Hart (2015), describes playwork as the ‘uniquely British profession that understands children’s daily lives out of school – their play, their culture and the spaces that best afford it – better than any other’. Who better than playworkers, then, to advocate for children’s right to play?
It is no accident that much of the work leading to the UN’s General Comment on Article 31 (UNCRC, 2013) was done by British academics (Lester and Russell, 2013), steeped in the playwork tradition. Playwork is currently inspiring a revitalised play movement in the US (Leichter-Saxby, 2015) and Australia (Armitage, 2015). Playwork projects are having an impact in troubled places of the world as diverse as Romania (Brown, 2012) and Iran (Milne, 2015); and seeds are being sown across several Eastern European countries through the Volunteers in Playwork (VIPER, 2015) project of the University of Gloucestershire’s Playwork Partnerships,
Closer to home, the pioneering legislation of the Welsh Government, placing a statutory duty on local authorities to assess and provide a sufficiency of play opportunities for their children, is relying to a large extent for its implementation and evaluation on methodologies and criteria developed by the playwork community, which, as in England, was also at the heart of the campaign to secure the policy that made it possible.
The playwork voice is an alternative one to the ‘dominant discourse,’ (Lester and Russell, 2008) wherein improving the child’s future life chances, as measured through long-term projections of her earning capacity or health and disease patterns, is considered the primary, sometimes the sole, objective of child policy, whilst the child’s ever-present, deeply instinctive desire to be freely expressed, to ‘play and to dream’ (McKelway, 1913) is at best trivialised, at worst conceived as a pathology.
Our experience as a community of practitioner-advocates working, as far as our national collective efforts in England have been concerned, within (or ‘under the aegis’) of organisations happily aligned to that prevailing paradigm is perhaps analogous to the experience of many children. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to champion the alternative. If we can maintain a perspective on the current challenges that places them within the context of a global downturn and a political response to it that is depriving whole swathes of the public and voluntary sectors of oxygen – not just us – we may find that when there is again sufficient air to breathe, the world will be more receptive to our cause than it has ever been. The Playwork Foundation is conceived to enable us to be ready, when that time comes, to take best advantage of it.
Note: This article is written in a personal capacity and does to necessarily reflect the views of the Playwork Foundation.
 Perry Else broadly defined good play provision by the ‘Three Frees’: 1) it is free of charge; 2) it offers freedom of choice; and 3) children are free to come and go. The Big Lottery Fund adopted these rules of thumb as the headline criteria for eligibility under its Children’s Play Programme in England (2006-11).
 Uncalled for by the playwork community or by Play England, which led the lobby and would have preferred a more gradual period of investment based on the pathfinder pilot studies of how best to adopt new design criteria (Play England, 2008), the first phase of the strategy included £1m for every top-tier authority in England to build a total of 3,500 new play areas by 2010-11. The scale – and timescale – of this capital investment, the Playbuilder Programme, as well as itself being rather too hurried to allow for the innovation that was called for, also tended to overshadow other, arguably more important, strategic elements such as the Playshaper Programme, which aimed to embed play principles within planning, traffic, housing and other key local authority functions.
 A closer reading reveals that this figure is derived from the only 32 councils who responded to a Freedom of Information request – and of these three had reduced their play spending to zero. A more accurate figure for the reduced spending on play – including all those authorities who presumably do not even have anyone left to field the enquiry – is therefore likely to be considerably higher
 See, for example, Hughes’ Evolutionary Playwork (2001) and Else and Sturrock’s ‘Colorado Paper’ (1996).
 Play England, like its predecessor, the Children’s Play Council, was not, in fact, an independent charity but operated ‘under the aegis’ of the National Children’s Bureau until 2014, when it finally acquired full independent status.
Big Lottery Fund, 2006, Children’s Play Initiative Initiative https://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/global-content/programmes/england/childrens-play
Brown, F. And Taylor, C., Eds, 2008, Foundations Of Playwork, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Brown, F, 2012, Playwork, Play Deprivation, and Play: An Interview with Fraser Brown, American Journal of Play, volume 4, number 3.
Children’s Play Policy Forum (CPPF), 2015, 4 asks For Play (campaigning pamphlet), London: CPPF.
Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), 2015, UK implementation of the Convention On The Rights Of The Child: Civil society alternative report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, England, London: CRAE
Cole-Hamilton, I. And Gill, T., 2002, Making The Case For Play, London: Children’s Play Council.
Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 2013, Article 31: General comment no. 17 on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts, adopted 17 April 2013, available from: http://www2.ohchr.org
Department For Children, Schools And Families (DCSF), 2007, The Children’s Plan: Building Brighter Futures, London: The Stationery Office
Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) / Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (DCMS), 2008, The play strategy, London: Crown Copyright
Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), 2010, Embedding the play strategy, London: Crown Copyright
Hart, R., 2015, in Voce, A., Policy for Play, Bristol: Policy Press.
HM Treasury, 2003, Every Child Matters, London: Crown Copyright
Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2010) Children’s right to play: An examination of the importance of play in the lives of children worldwide. Working Paper No. 57. The Hague, The Netherlands: Bernard van Leer Foundation
McKelway, A, 1913, Declaration of dependence by the children of America in mines and factories and workshops assembled, in H.D. Hindman, 2002, Child labor: An American history, New York: M.E. Sharpe
Milne, J. (2015) An adventure playground for Halabja: Halabja Community Playground Project, Northern Iraq, in Journal of Playwork Practice: Second issue.
Leichter-Saxby, M. and Law, S. (2015), The New Adventure Playground Movement: how communities across the USA are returning risk and freedom to childhood. Available from http://popupadventureplay.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/the-new-adventure-playground-movement.html
Lester, S and Russell, W, 2008, Play for a change, play, policy and practice: A review of contemporary perspectives, London: Play England
Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group (2005), The Playwork Principles, Cardiff: Play Wales/Skillsactive.