It’s true, the recent report on play by the All-Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood would have benefited from some judicious editing and organising in terms of structure and length. True, too, that there are points where it veers off in directions that some might feel are not entirely consistent with other points it seeks to make.
But if you’re of a mind that repetition of one’s cardinal beliefs is evidence of their veracity, this may be the report for you. For not a page goes by where one is not reminded that, truly, play is a wondrous thing – as activity; as state of mind; as scourge of obesity epidemics; as generator of formal educational achievement – capable of generating every kind of benefit. No slouch, either, this report, for it takes care to reference the basis of its analysis and conclusions.
Nevertheless, disappointment has been expressed about what is considered a missed opportunity. Adrian Voce, in his considered response to the report, offers a succinct and clear account from this perspective, acknowledging at the same time that there is some good stuff in it.
It’s rather better than that. Put to one side the drafting issues referred to above, and one finds what might be considered a quite remarkable critique of at least some of the fundamental tenets that underpin and generate policy as they affect children and teenagers. In other words, within this report, perhaps without it quite realising, there is an assault on the governing ideas and ideologies that have been accepted and perpetrated over a number of administrations. Unless you believe play can flourish in some sort of ideological vacuum, then this report has done some modest work on your behalf by, at the very least implicitly, offering a counter-view to the by now long-prevailing, restrictive orthodoxies. Note ‘modest’, no claim is made here that the report will have significant political purchase. I’ll say a bit more about this towards the end of this piece.
What I draw from this report is its objection to an over-governed, regulated childhood, one hemmed in by multiple disciplinary regimes where childhood is a project the primary aim of which is to achieve externally generated benchmarks of ‘achievement’, these all conventionally framed – good exam results, good at competitive sports, children basted to be made learning-ready in early-years and then to be further basted for work-readiness.
Play initiatives, well-funded or not, will never be more than partial and temporary ameliorations within an essentially negative environment in the absence of a fundamental change in how personhood and society is conceptualised. So, when a report like this turns up which, at the very least, seems to see this, though perhaps not in the style of an academic treatise or in the idiom of a finely crafted policy document, I’m inclined not to worry too much if it doesn’t unequivocally cry Amen and Hallelujah to the notion that it should have recommended a national play strategy. Actually, its final recommendation is one I’m quite happy to dine out on. I’ll highlight that at the end of this piece.
The report is self-balancing in that, on the one hand, it sees that play can find little or no breathing space if framed by overarching policies and practices that systematically neuter children and teenagers autonomy and free will; and on the other, the report justifies its enthusiastic espousal of the virtues of play because of the benefits it is said to bring, in other words, a thoroughly instrumentalist form of justification.
A few quotes from the report. Do dip in, the gist is clear after visiting but a few:
• “Although it is the duty of adults to create the appropriate opportunities for play, the need for play to be ‘transformed, ‘orchestrated’ and ‘controlled’ is counter-productive to the right to play freely” (this in relation to ‘programmes’ of play in educational settings)
• “…investing solely in sports is by nature, selective…Sport as a standalone solution [to unfitness, obesity] is not reaching them [those not good at or who do not enjoy sport] and may actually be alienating them.”
• “…over a twenty year span, the [early years] curriculum has been increasingly prescribed by governments…professionals have become more preoccupied with monitoring and organising the children than planning for play…”
• “The increasingly didactic nature of early years’ learning relies upon an assumption that this will lead to positive academic outcomes yet…”
• “… a playful approach to learning is beneficial to children…”
• “School playgrounds in former times were…places where adults could control and monitor children’s activities, prioritising strict discipline…Similar controls have been identified as occurring in English schools now…seeking to mould children’s behaviour ”
• “However, mounting opinion suggests that 4 and 5 year olds might not be ready for formal teaching…”
• “Yet competitive school sports are not alone the answer (or even the main component) to the detrimental effects of inactivity. The rigid rules and ritual of school sport…”
• and in opposition to the notion that “providing periods of engaging structured activities [during breaktimes] is the way forward suggests instead that “Breaktime for adolescents is first and foremost an opportunity for social interaction without direct supervision and is clearly their version of ‘free play'”
• in worrying about children and teenagers increasingly restricted capacity to roam unsupervised and unhindered: “A quiet revolution in children’s play has occurred and is unlikely to have been instigated by children who have an inborn urge to push the boundaries and take up challenges. The mainspring of the change to patterns of children’s play is adult fear.”
• “A further factor is societal pressure to maximise children’s opportunities to succeed leading to an increase in parental over-scheduling of them and intensive parenting where they are constantly supervised”
• and clearly thinking this a good thing: “Outdoor play provides an environment that discourages uniformity…”
• “A culture of insecurity compounds an over-emphasis on adult-led activity that can be narrowly didactic…”
• “School[s].. – often backed by goal-orientated politicians and parents – broadcast the not-so-suitable message that..play seems superfluous,..it’s for slackers…”
• “Mayall (2000) uses the term ‘scholarisation of childhood’ to describe the idea that academic learning has crossed into all aspects of children’s lives.”
• “The current dominant concept remains the depressing maxim that children should continue to be seen but not heard. This needs to be addressed and challenged…”
• “An increase in the constant pressure to do things faster, assimilate more information, assume more responsibilities and acquire more skills is causing an unprecedented rise in stress at work.”
• “Segregating children at play by age is an unnatural position…”.
It’s worth noting the status of All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG):
” APPGs are informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament. They are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, though many involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities.”
This particular APPG comprised five Labour MPs; two Conservatives; two Democratic Union Party; one Liberal Democratic peer. At first blush, it seems a remarkable achievement that such a combination of parliamentarians were able to produce such an heterodox analysis. Is this an isolated straw in the wind, a harbinger of a more widespread sense of unease about how we have entrapped ourselves in a limited and limiting conceptualisation of childhood, personhood and our notions of what constitutes a good life? Is a whole bale of straw heading our way? Or not?
Turning now, briefly, to the report’s recommendations. The report starts by noting that “… play is seriously neglected at a policy level.” “There is a dearth of play policy analysts in government; no single ministry holds a portfolio for play…” Hard to disagree.
The report explicitly rejects ‘resurrecting’ a Play Strategy on, as Adrian has pointed out, the fairly un-strategic grounds that apparently such a strategy might be misconceived as having as its focus the building of playgrounds. Go to Adrian’s blog to see his pointed dismissal of this reasoning.
As to its wider, positive recommendation, that “Play to be embedded within a Whole Child Strategy under the aegis of a Cabinet Minister for Children responsible for cross-departmental roll out and co-ordination.” I scratch my head to find objection. Presumably, such a strategy would aim to have a unified, coherent and cohesive value-base, with the aim of generating objectives across departments and activities that are consistent with each other. Whether this can actually be achieved is another matter, but as an in principle position, I find it hard to object.
But whether we are speaking about Whole Child Strategies or discrete Play Policies and Strategies, what ultimately counts is the value-base and world view that inform them. If the current orthodoxies informing current policy and practice prevail, a national strategy of anything may be precisely what one does not want.