For children, playing is the adventure
A new pilot project in England, funded by the government sponsored national sports agency, aims to use ‘play as a springboard into sport’. In this first of a two-part blog, Adrian Voce explains why such support is a mixed blessing.
The announcement earlier this summer, by Play England and partners, of their new Sport England funded pilot project, Adventure into Sport – ‘using play as a springboard into sport’ – has been met with some mixed reactions from play professionals.
On the one hand, some much-needed resources for children’s play services are overdue. The sector has suffered a major downturn since the peak years of 2004-10 (Voce, 2015) and, although no longer monitored since the coalition government abandoned the national play strategy in 2010, there is plenty of evidence that both staffed adventure playgrounds and unstaffed play areas have been badly hit by austerity – with more cuts still to come (Children and Young People Now, 2017).
Absence of play policy
Play England itself has been as badly affected as many front line services, with the absence of a government play policy in England making it very difficult for the national body to secure substantial or sustainable funding to replace the central contracts it lost in 2010. Few will begrudge either they or their partners the opportunity this project represents: to survive another year in a difficult climate.
On the other hand, the implication that play provision is only worthy of funding if it can demonstrate how it is a gateway to children’s participation in sport, will be a bitter pill to swallow for play advocates. Adventure playgrounds (the focus of this project), in particular, have been at the cutting edge of playwork since the practice was first conceived and this new initiative will seem like a retrogressive step to many in the field.
It is true that all sport begins with play. Hand-eye coordination, gross motor skills and physical prowess are each developed by children from infancy upwards through their instinctive, playful engagement with the world. Equally, toddlers and pre-schoolers first develop their love of games, taking risks and rising to challenges when they are allowed the space to play.
The benefits of play to children’s health and wellbeing are well documented (Lester and Russell, 2008); not least in the way that it is a vital contributor to their physical activity levels (Department of Health, 2011). Given its ubiquity, the exact causal relationship is difficult to prove, but there is no doubt that children given enough space and opportunity to play are much more likely to be fit and able to enjoy sport than those who do not (Lester and Russell, 2008).
However, seconding children’s play to the supposedly more important outcome of their engagement in sport and physical activity overlooks that playing for its own sake is a child’s right. It may also have the effect of perverting or ‘adulterating’ – at a policy level – what is a deeply instinctive set of behaviours. Children’s play does not conform to adult norms. Only a small number of the recognised play types (Hughes, 2002), for example, could be described as necessarily ‘energetic’ or physically active. Privileging these over others is to interfere with a complex evolutionary process (Burghardt, 2005).
The second part of this blog can be read here
Photo: Tiverton Adventure Playground, by Adrian Voce
Burghardt, GM, 2005, The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
Children and Young People Now (2017). All to play for, June 2017: Haymarket Press
Department of Health (2011) Start Active, Stay Active: A report on physical activity from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officers. London: DH
Hughes, B, (2002), A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types (second edition), London: PLAYLINK
Lester, S, & Russell, W 2008, Play for a Change: Play Policy And Practice: A Review of Contemporary Perspectives, London: National Children’s Bureau, 2008
Voce, A, (2015) Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right, Bristol: Policy Press