Ben: Take us back to the beginning of your play sufficiency journey.
Karen: When we first started our Play Sufficiency journey both Jen and I were development officers for Active Leeds. Active Leeds’ physical activity ambition as a city is for Leeds to be a place where everyone moves more every day. Active Leeds is part of Leeds City Council and through project funding from Sport England delivers a project called Get Set Leeds Local, which takes a place-based approach to enhance health through activity in priority areas identified as experiencing multiple economic and health inequalities. Our roles were strategically positioned within the local council and Active Leads, with the overarching aim of orchestrating systemic change and working in partnership with residents and associated professionals within communities to bring about change.
Six communities were earmarked as priorities in the Get Set Leeds Local initiative, we refer to these as priority areas. Jen and I were actively engaged across these priority communities, employing a place-based, co-production approach to catalyse movement/physical activity within these areas. Our work was dynamic, constantly evolving in our understanding of what a place-based approach entails and the way that manifests in our service offer. It’s an approach that has synchronies with play sufficiency in that we develop responses collectively with communities through a process of co-production. Children and young people are a priority group across all the communities we work with and so play is an issue we care about. We came to understand from community interactions that play was often overlooked but could be a pivotal mechanism to stimulate movement.
Mike: Play Sufficiency should be a population health priority but even before you came to play sufficiency as a possible approach to improving movement and physical activity opportunities you had begun to see that play was a key issue for residents in your priority areas.
Jen: As Karen described, our conversations frequently revolved around play, particularly with children and families. The importance people placed on play was impossible to ignore. There was a longing for spaces that were conducive to play, a yearning for accessible time and space where children and their families could spend time playing. However, all too often our involvement in local projects that aimed to influence play was met with challenges, often stemming from a lack of consideration for play in broader or strategic planning. For example, there are many services that interact with spaces in a variety of ways that have a significant influence on children’s opportunities to play. However, plans for funded projects rarely factored in issues concerning children’s play. Play was seen as limited to services whose work focused on designated and destination play, leisure and recreation spaces, rather than a wider focus on enabling children’s play in and around the public realm as a part of day-to-day life for children. That’s not to say there hasn’t been fantastic work in Leeds on play – the previous play officer galvanised support for play and brought partners together to focus on play in Leeds by producing a Leeds Commitment to Play. All of the work on play to date has highlighted that we do have community organisations and council teams that are keen to embrace the opportunity to be more playful and child friendly.
Mike: It sounds like thinking about and planning for play should be a mainstay of strategy and intervention targeted at children and families, health and wellbeing but was actually a bit of a blind spot.
Jen: We had lots of anecdotal accounts and conversations with children and families, but these didn’t seem to hold much evidential weight. This was disheartening but felt sort of emblematic of a broader neglect of the importance of play at a strategic level. I think the commitment was there in 2019 with Leeds Commitment to Play being supported by the Executive Board, but the vacant Play Officer post meant that this wasn’t coordinated at a strategic level. Play Sufficiency really helped to fill this gap by catalysing partnerships and putting the voices of children and families front and centre of strategic discussions. (read our Introduction to Play Sufficiency here.
Our numerous experiences relating to play, to children and families, through engagements with practitioners and policy initiatives led us to recognise the potential for something truly transformative around play. Yet affecting change felt like a real uphill struggle. As part of our work in Seacroft and Killingbeck (a priority area) we had developed a close working relationship with Naomi Roxby-Wardle, the Children, Youth and Family Strategic Development Manager for the LS14 Trust and this revealed she had experienced similar issues. Emma Bearman, of Playful Anywhere another close colleague, also engaged in innovative small play projects and advocacy work, she too experienced and recognised the same constraints/barriers and need for play.
The onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the lockdown experience that created further raised the importance of play. Naomi and Emma, along with an organisation called Seagulls Paint initiated the Mini Playbox project, aimed at providing play resources to children grappling with lockdown challenges. Active Leeds part funded the project which gained real traction across the city. Although Naomi had intended for this to be a hyper-local project involving families in Seacroft, it snowballed into a city-wide project which took several variations over the three lock downs. The result was 30000 mini playboxes and play bags being delivered to children across Leeds between 2020 and 2021. That project along with other work and the context of lockdown really generated a much greater focus on well-being and mental health. The Mini Playbox project elevated the status of play: there was a concerted effort to deliver food and medicine to those in need and – with the Mini Playbox project – we also saw this focus on ‘delivering’ opportunities for play. This led to us thinking slightly differently about children and the value and role of play in their lives and to be able to prioritise play and well-being.
Ben: It sounds like multiple experiences and associations were coalescing toward play as an innovative response. It must have been exciting and frustrating in equal measure. Play sufficiency as an organising principle can help focus policy, strategy, action and people, but how did you get people on board, there is no compulsion to engage with play sufficiency in England in the same way there is in Scotland and Wales. (Read more about why playful communities are better for everyone here)
Jen: As lockdown restrictions eased, and as a part of our experiences of it, we were even more motivated to champion play and find a way to affect change. Emma Bearman connected our experiences with Ludicology’s work, leading to a meeting to discuss the principle of play sufficiency, its assessment, benefits, and how it would support us in affecting change. The concept of play sufficiency is simple, more children playing more of the time who are satisfied with the opportunities available to them. However, the practices involved in that process encompass complex assessments and partnership practices and require collective and multi-disciplinary responses. Play sufficiency is about more than parks and playgrounds. It was clear that working toward satisfactory opportunities for play would include highways, health services, education, housing, and planning. It demanded a holistic, transformational change. Meetings with Ludicology solidified our commitment to this approach. We needed a proper, systems change approach that would bring partners and key stakeholders together, which would generate the place-based research evidence needed to identify need and support the development of recommendations and action plans. So, we went with a clear rationale and proposal to commission Ludicology’s Knowledge Transfer Play Sufficiency package and were successful in gaining funding for Leeds’ first Play Sufficiency assessment.
Ben: We were so pleased to be able to work with you. Meeting with you two, Naomi and Emma in those early exploratory meetings, your motivation and eagerness to learn and influence was tangible. It’s been a great process too, certainly from our perspective, how’s it been from yours?
Jen: It’s certainly been a journey marked by challenges and triumphs. From putting in the funding bid to the Get Set Leeds Local Fund, to forming an implementation team and navigating the complexities of the emerging play-sufficiency partnership. We’ve had to cope with disruptions due to COVID-19, but have also been able to build an understanding of the specific context of play for the priority areas and develop some wonderful relationships with most commonly willing and supporting partners. We were lucky that in the earliest months when we were still presenting the concept/assessment to people, hoping they would be happy to help in one way or another, we had some early adopters. Sarah Priestley (Culture Programmes, Leeds City Council), Sally Hall in Public Health and colleagues in Strategic Planning got it right from the beginning and have worked tirelessly to bring play sufficiency to the forefront in any engagements with partners they have had.
Karen: Our work with Ludicology provided the resources and support needed to implement a play sufficiency assessment, detailed methodology, quantitative play satisfaction survey, qualitative research workshop research tools and session plans, project action plan etc. The play sufficiency assessment though is done by us, or more accurately by the Play Sufficiency Implementation team. That team consists of core members from Active Leeds and Naomi from Fall into Place.
Jen: As we delved into the tasks of phase one, our understanding of play sufficiency grew. We engaged in three parallel processes during this period, policy analysis, aiming to develop a clear understanding of the place of play in strategy, policy and initiative across the city council. Mass participation in play satisfaction surveys for parents and children across our six priority areas to help us understand some of the broad contributory factors of play sufficiency and to identify variations on a locality basis in play sufficiency. The survey results helped us identify target areas for the qualitative research. Finally, we worked really hard to try and bring together professionals from across the city council to form a play sufficiency partnership. This was an incredibly intense work period, but we developed a comprehensive understanding of the policy context and factors contributing to play sufficiency.
Karen: The play satisfaction surveys helped us gain a picture of locality satisfaction levels, this helped us to identify specific schools in each of the priority areas to target for qualitative research with children. The catchment of these schools aligns with the postcodes registering various degrees of satisfaction. We identified six schools across six priority areas for research and approached them, hoping to engage them in the project. It was crucial to target a range of localities with different satisfaction rates. Where things seem to be working well, qualitative research can help us determine what specifically contributes to higher satisfaction levels. The same is true for localities with lower satisfaction levels. Surveys help us pinpoint areas for qualitative research, and qualitative research helps us identify factors contributing to increased satisfaction with opportunities for play and which factors appear detrimental to levels of play sufficiency.
We had anticipated that engaging schools would be straightforward due to our existing good relations. However, this was a miscalculation. Schools were emerging from significant disruption caused by the pandemic, with a major focus on ‘catch-up’. We requested schools to allocate a Year Five class for one lesson a week over a three-week period for research workshops. Many schools were hesitant or slow to respond due to competing demands. Eventually, we secured engagement from all the necessary schools, but it took much longer than expected.
Mike: Any tips for others hoping to deal with this aspect of the work more efficiently?
Karen: It’s vital to understand your school’s cluster in any area, the schedule of cluster meetings, and the right contacts for school-related work. Schools needed to grasp the value of play for children and the research’s potential benefits for the area. We needed to ensure we got the school’s buy-in as to what play sufficiency is, and what made it different to other bits of research. It became clear it was important not to gloss over this, as schools were under lots of pressure, and it was helpful for them to understand the wider benefits their children were contributing to for the city. Once they understood, most were eager to participate.
Ben: The research workshops with children were only one aspect of the community research, what else did you do?
Karen: We did focus groups with parents and carers and focus groups with practitioners who provided services within the community. In total, we conducted research with seven primary schools, two alternative education settings, and one high school. Over 50 hours were spent listening to children. We also held six parent focus groups and five practitioner focus groups. We also did community spatial audits, so we had a really good understanding of the environment. This really helped us empathise in conversations with children, parents and carers and practitioners. We had enough of an understanding of the environment that when people spoke of a place positively or negatively, we were able to use that knowledge to dig deeper into the topic/or issue. It has also meant we can think in detailed and specific ways about what kinds of responses, adaptations or interventions might work in any particular context. That last point is the real benefit of hyper-local research like this, you get a real feel for what might work where and for whom, what might be needed to create conditions that support play sufficiency.
The revelations from our qualitative research with children were profound. Discussing play, sheds light on its intricate ties with various facets of their lives. From poverty, community layout, traffic dynamics, and school experiences, to housing development, health, and well-being, the interconnectedness was evident. It shed light on children’s real lived experiences and surfaced things unknown before the research such as caring responsibilities, and the permissions and constraints to play and roam, as it turns out, play is a linchpin, a central tenet around which multiple policy domains can rally.
Mike: It sounds like even before you have completed your first assessment you are saying that it has begun to have an influence. Can you give any examples?
Jen: One example is the ability to use evidence gathered through the play sufficiency assessment to link between what people want and need and the overarching city agenda.
For example, Leeds City Council is committed to reducing poverty and health inequalities, this aligns well with our findings from research with children, parents, and practitioners. Quality play is crucial for children’s and families’ quality of life and well-being. When play opportunities are accessible close to home, children and families use them and don’t experience them as an economic burden. Research tells us that playing as a routine part of daily life gets children moving, by association, their parents and carers too, from this there are direct physical activity benefits but also multiple socio-emotional, health and wellbeing benefits too.
Karen: The development of the play sufficiency partnership was challenging to initiate but was well worth it. Once started, and as people began to engage, new opportunities arose. In one locality, partners were already seeking funding for some play provision for children. As a result of their involvement with the process, they began to think differently. This led to us collaborating with them to adapt their plans somewhat. We were able to be the link and share the insight that children, front-line practitioners and parents had shared, to help shape how the money for the new play space is utilised to best meet the needs of the community. They are now in the second stage of a significant funding bid that likely better reflects children’s desires than their initial plans. This was work we hadn’t planned to be involved in, but when research presents such an opportunity, it’s hard to decline.
So, while planning and Gantt charts are valuable and key to successfully implementing our full assessment, it is essential to seize opportunities as they arise. This approach is key to play sufficiency’s success because local groups working in communities need to see the relevance, as do policyholders and the wider city council.
Jen: Ah, that’s a perfect link to this example. When we began the process, as I said I was working with Active Leeds. Through the play sufficiency assessment, we engaged partners and conducted primary research in communities. As a result of their involvement in the play sufficiency partnership and seeing the assessment process unfold and the evidence it’s generated, the value of play was really reinforced as a legitimate outcome. Cllr Fiona Venner (Executive member for Children Social Care and Partnerships) is a passionate advocate for play and Play Sufficiency. The Children and Families leadership team recognised the need and value in prioritising the recruitment of a Play Strategy Officer in the Child Friendly Leeds team to embed play in strategic plans, policy and practice; to develop our award-winning play street initiative; to coordinate play enabling grants and to review our existing Leeds Commitment to play. The job description emphasizes a continued focus on Play Sufficiency. I am now the play strategy lead for Child-Friendly Leeds, a position that may not have existed without our dedication to the play sufficiency process. Play also came out as a strong priority to children and families through a city-wide consultation to find out what would make Leeds a better city for them to grow up in. Their feedback was grouped together to form our 12 wishes: Wish number 2 is all about children having safe spaces to play. We’re delighted that this is now also a priority in the refreshed Children and Young People’s Plan.
Karen: Engaging individuals in the play sufficiency partnership and the associated training has been foundational. It has significantly promoted play sufficiency and fostered understanding across professional domains and policy portfolios. Early adopters in children and young people’s services and health have been instrumental. These officers quickly recognized a gap in our overarching children and young people’s plans and health and well-being plans, which previously said little about children’s play. Now, they do. Those officers who received training then champion play sufficiency amongst their networks extending the reach of the initial training. It’s still early days, but we’re already observing changes.
Jen: Because we were researching with children in communities, we influenced the type of equipment installed in a local park. It was really powerful to have the voice of young people articulating the type of provision they wanted and what was really important to them. Parks and Countryside took this feedback from children onboard and pushed the boundaries to what might usually be in a local park in this type of area. This experience highlights the importance of hyperlocal research evidence and challenging established mindsets. Officers have acknowledged this approach as a success.
Karen: Once people understand the principle and the data we’ve generated, they often have an “aha” moment. They begin to see the relevance of their work and how the data can inform it. For instance, a housing manager recognised that small shifts in practices could make spaces around high-rise accommodations more inviting for children to play. She’s now advocating for these changes across various housing and planning meetings, bringing a fresh perspective to the process. This shift underscores how play is everyone’s responsibility. When there are advocates and champions across policy domains, more can be achieved than when play is solely seen as a task for the children and young people’s team.
Jen: One of the things about play sufficiency is that it has its own lexicon. It comes with a set of conceptual tools or frameworks. It adopts a specific construct of childhood, play, and spatial justice. All these elements form a play sufficiency narrative that differs from the dominant box in which children and play typically reside. The essence of play sufficiency is partnership, it fosters collaboration and drives positive change. Reflecting on our early days, rallying support for play sufficiency was an uphill battle. But having built support in some really key departments and as understanding deepens, people have really started to get on board, they can see the potential, it’s exciting.
We’re starting to grasp the range of factors across various policy domains that influence children’s and families’ experiences of play. This understanding helps us determine what conditions we might want to create in neighbourhoods to improve the play experience. When we talk to the officer responsible for the city’s ambition, who is brilliant, by the way, we can reel off quotes from children or parents in different localities that speak to their experience. This approach elevates play from being something often overlooked to something of strategic importance. It’s crucial for people working at the policy and strategy level to see how this is relevant to affecting change and how it can manifest at the policy and strategy level.
Karen: We’ve been on a journey and we’ve been guiding people on this journey with us, targeting them from the beginning and picking them up along the way. Some might take time to join the journey to recognise that play can’t exist in a silo. It’s a task for the entire city. It’s about how we, as a city, can make a difference. Even without writing a report, things are starting to happen. What you’re doing is causing a ripple effect in people’s worlds, reminding them of play and children, and helping them see how children are experiencing things now and the factors influencing that. So even now, when policies are being written, someone, somewhere, even if it’s not us, is championing the inclusion of children and play.
Mike: You start to see that the process of play sufficiency is equally as important as the end result of the assessment don’t you? That said you are nearing completion so what have you left to do?
Karen: Well we’ve analysed the data from phases one and two, developed interim findings and draft key priorities, we’ve shared those through two events for officers, policyholders and practitioners. Those events were really well attended and the work was well received. Following that we’ve conducted focus groups with strategic leads across professional or department domains. We were uncertain about how they would go and had some preconceptions about how seriously we would be taken or how receptive these individuals would be to discussing their work areas with us and their peers. But we brought people together to chat about play, and they were quite candid about their current efforts and challenges. They also acknowledged that without a clear policy position on play at the highest level, it was challenging to make it a strategic priority. We found that some areas were already doing a lot to support children’s play opportunities, but they hadn’t realized it. They hadn’t understood that actions taken for tangential issues were also improving conditions for playing. Those focus groups helped people see their valuable contributions, giving them wins they didn’t know they were achieving. I believe these focus groups probably generated even more buy-in to the play sufficiency process and created more ripples of conversations in the daily work of all those officers who participated.
We have now analysed the data from those focus groups and refined the draft priorities further. We have held a consultation event around those priorities and the generation of associated actions. We have also held a focused action planning event with members of the play sufficiency partnership. We will take our play sufficiency report to the City Council Executive Committee on the 13th of December this year. We hope this is only the start of our journey, a big thing for us will be getting play sufficiency embedded as part of city-wide strategy.
Ben: You obviously can’t publish your final report before it goes to the Executive Committee but what were your draft priority areas you used for the final aspects of the assessment?
Karen: The strategic priorities are still draft and will undergo further refinement, but they will likely be around the following issues:
Priority 1: Secure sufficient time, space and attitudes towards play in educational settings.
Most children didn’t rate playtimes in schools highly. Since schools are places where children must have playtimes, they should be excellent. Improving school playtimes would influence a vast number of children. It also doesn’t affect curriculum time, so it doesn’t impede the teaching timetable. However, it likely has benefits for the classroom and curriculum time. The research also showed that one school had much higher play satisfaction than others, providing an example of where things are working well.
Priority 2: Create streets that are safe, welcoming and encourage children’s play.
Traffic volume, speed, and parked cars significantly influence children’s play experiences. Children and their parents should feel safe playing in the streets around their homes. Enabling street play would make a significant contribution to play sufficiency.
Priority 3: Improve the variety of spaces available for play for all age groups within close proximity of children’s homes.
Priority 4: Improve access to nature-based play environments.
We need more designated play spaces. These don’t always need to be fixed equipment play areas. Children need a variety of spaces offering different affordances, such as gardens, playgrounds, wilderness spaces, and tarmac areas.
Priority 5: Celebrate and enable parent and carers permissions, confidences and skills for children’s play.
Permission to play out with friends was something both parents and children recognised was key to play sufficiency
Priority 6: Improve the perception of teenagers and their opportunities to play and hang out.
This broad area recognizes that children want to be valued in society. They want to play out, be included, and have friends to play with.
Priority 7: Growing a play workforce of adults whose work impacts on children and their play.
The research showed that children felt that play opportunities in various settings weren’t good enough. Practitioners also felt they lacked a sufficient understanding of play.
Priority 8: Secure sufficient time, space, design and attitudes to play for children with protected characteristics.
Children with protected characteristics can face additional challenges accessing their right to play. Targeted efforts are needed to ensure these children can experience play sufficiency.
Priority 9: Facilitate the cross-council endorsement of play sufficiency and embed key principles within Leeds City Council departments.
Ensuring play is represented in the city’s ambition and the Leeds Local Plan is crucial. Having these strategic drivers will be key to influencing effective change at the local level.