By the time you read this you should know that you need a play strategy. I’ll take that knowledge as my baseline position and not trouble you further about the formal reasons. Instead, consider: what is a strategy?
A strategy is simply a tool, an implement for doing something. A tool, however, comes to life only in action, in the hands of a tool-holder. A feature of tools is that they can be used either well or badly, competently or incompetently. Much depends on the toolholder: their understanding of what they are doing, what they wish to achieve, and their capacity to choose the right tool for the job. Sometimes, of course, probably more often that dull-eyed management speak allows us to admit, one doesn’t need the ‘right’ tool for the job, sometimes make-do implements will fulfil the task at hand and help you to get on: who, for example, has not used a knife as a screwdriver, or an iron bar as a hammer; or a word in a pub instead of a formal meeting?
What’s the point here? This: much will depend on you, the strategy makers. Guidance tend to focus on the technical aspects of strategy making - the tools said to be required to undertake the task: form a working party here; get a play champion there; consult anything showing signs of life. In practice, however, the play champion may not be that knowledgeable about play, but nevertheless be deeply committed to enhancing the quality of children’s lives; the working party may be populated by the unwilling dragooned into acting-out notions of ‘partnership’; and the consultations may simply reinforce everything we are trying to avoid. The result: play strategies empty at the core because they have not addressed fundamentals. PLAYLINK has seen a number of these.
Alternatively, there are play strategies with rich content but which are belied by what is happening on the ground, where words and actions are but passing acquaintances. At least here, however, the tool is potentially available for use.
What’s required are committed, adept tool users who combine clarity about aims with nous about how to get there. So, to make a difference you need people with certain qualities – distinct from technical skills – and a process that aims from the start to tackle fundamentals.
The qualities are easily enumerated. They include: courage, commitment, scepticism, jargon-averseness, resilience, play value-based. That latter quality is fundamental but useless in practice if not combined with the others.
Which leads to the core question: what should a strategy aim to achieve? From PLAYLINK’s perspective it is this: to affect a radical transformation in the way play is understood and provided for in shared public space, designated play spaces, school and out of school. Those are the terms on which we engage with authorities that wish to develop a play strategy and policy.
That formulation contains a key difficulty. Radical transformation critically depends on changing people’s understanding of play – or perhaps returning them to it. It is no surprise, then, that every authority we have worked with has as a key objective promoting change in the public understanding of play. Without that change, children’s entitlement to play will be fulfilled in woeful play settings, their experiences hedged in by institutional fears of negligence claims and parental complaints.
You will have noticed the implicit paradox: change occurs over time, you are devising a strategy now. Which is why strategy development must be understood as a process that itself explores and challenges common misconceptions. It does not take that much time. But it is something qualitatively different from a mechanistic approach too prevalent in strategy development.
Put simply, if there is no consensus about what is meant by play, and what that understanding entails, then a technically good and effective strategy becomes, perversely, a vehicle for delivering the wrong answer, consistently and widely. Strategy and policy development, therefore, must be understood and structured to be part of the process of change.
This understanding highlights a potential weakness, particularly perhaps in respect of play - arts and culture are other such areas - where there is the ever present temptation to hitch the play-wagon prematurely to other agendas and priorities.
Whatever the merits of Every Child Matters, Community Strategies, Open Space Strategies and the rest – there may be many – a play strategy and policy must first speak clearly in its own terms, establishing what it means by play and what that understanding entails. Put simply: ‘know thyself’ before you venture forth into the glad new world of partnerships and notionally joined-up strategies.
This is not about turning one’s back on the world outside play. To the contrary: it is inviting that outside world onto your territory – your value-based understanding of play and what follows from it - to share and debate that understanding, but not to dilute it. So, an examination of the relationship between risk and play and its practical consequences is essential, as is exploring what a quality play environment might look like and the radical consequences such an understanding entails for all forms of provision. In doing this you are creating the conditions for a more widespread, informed, nuanced understanding of what play means and the consequences that follow, whether in school settings, playgrounds, parks or the local street.
The approach suggested above runs counter to the tendency too often encountered – not only in play strategy development but, for example, in cultural strategy development – where the starting point is taken to be a review of every other strategy to see how to ‘fit in’. This approach makes as much sense as believing that one can construct one’s own belief system simply by reference to everyone else’s.
A play strategy and policy process is obliged to promote and articulate its values and understandings, and formulate for itself the criteria by which provision for play will be judged. Once that is clear and established then, armed but friendly, collaborative not simply acquiescent, one is ready to venture forth with confidence. For battles and manoeuvres await you aplenty and it helps to know that the ground upon which you stand is solid and that your friends in other services and sectors are not simply available in fair weather.
Our experience has been that, whether in Housing or in Planning, whether in schools or in Parks, and, yes, even in Health and Safety, there are people willing and eager to engage with a subject - play – that is more in people’s minds and closer to their hearts than we sometimes allow. Our responsibility, at this unusual moment of potential opportunity, is to speak clearly about what we really mean by our own shared and universal four letter word – play.
The Children’s Play Council is leading the attempt to devise national performance indicators for assessing local authority performance on play. This is a good thing.
Care must be taken, however, to ensure that doubts about the utility of national PIs are properly explored. Our shared desire that play should be a government priority must not at the same time prompt a rush to premature judgment about PIs capacity to yield in practice beneficial impact.
As we should know, benefits come with costs, and though there are risks in not having play PIs, there are risks associated with having them too. The recent Lyon interim report on the future role of local government offers a salutary caution:
‘the current system of delivering to national standards, driven by central government in a variety of ways including targets, inspection… appears to have some drawbacks in terms of confusion and complexity. This might hinder effective service delivery and choice at the local level, as well as producing inefficiencies. Such pressures may also divert local government from its strategic place-shaping role.’
The play sector is now the recipient of welcome but unaccustomed largesse, prompting a flurry of activity as new organisational structures are created with consequential movement of key personnel. We are in flux, and perhaps a little nervous to be taken seriously. In pursuit of our aim of making play a government priority, we must beware of becoming breathless enthusiasts of received opinion, merely reciting the questionable orthodoxies of this or that management theory. Doubt here does not impede progress, but is its precursor.
We have proposed a set of negative criteria against which play PIs might be tested. We suggest that ‘places for play’ performance indicators should not:
Above all, local initiative must not be stifled.