Ludicology

What makes it possible for local authorities to deliver on the Play Sufficiency Duty?

Wednesday May 5, 2021

Wendy Russell talks about the latest research project into the Welsh Government’s Play Sufficiency Duty that she did with Mike Barclay and Ben Tawil from Ludicology and Charlotte Derry from Playful Places. This article is a slightly extended version of one that appeared in Play Wales’ magazine ‘Play for Wales’, issue 56, autumn 2020.

Whilst this article is an extended version of the original, it still only scratches the surface of what the research found, and if this interests you, we strongly recommend that you read either the summary or the full report. You can read the summary report of the research on the Play Wales’ website, and you can email them info@playwales.org.uk for a copy of the full report of this and previous research studies.

Many thanks to Play Wales for permission to reproduce this amended version.

A bit of background

This research, carried out over the autumn and winter of 2019, built on three previous research studies into the Welsh Government’s Play Sufficiency Duty, two in the early days of the Duty (published in 2013 and 2014) and one more recently looking at where things were at six years on from the first submission by local authorities of the Play Sufficiency Assessments (published in 2019).

The Duty requires local authorities to carry out a Play Sufficiency Assessment every three years, together with an annual action plan. Assessments have to consider nine ‘Matters’ that help to gather information on the extent to which children have sufficient opportunities to play or not. Some of these consider demographics (including children with diverse needs and protected characteristics), some the availability and accessibility of designated supervised opportunities, parks, playgrounds and other open spaces. Others look at policy issues, community engagement, information and training and qualifications.

Sufficiency of opportunities to play does not only refer to intended and designated places to play: the statutory guidance makes it clear that children should also have opportunities to play out in their neighbourhoods. In our research studies, we have approached this as a matter of spatial justice for children, who are often seen as ‘out of place’ in public space.

Given this, our first three research studies framed the Play Sufficiency Duty as a matter of paying attention to the conditions that support children’s ability to find time and space to play in their everyday lives – in neighbourhoods, in the institutions of childhood and in designated play spaces. Across all the studies, we have used and developed a number of ‘conceptual tools’, which are briefly introduced here.

First, the idea of collective wisdom recognises that there are multiple ways of knowing about how space works, both across professional domains and in terms of children’s expert wisdoms, their very different ways of knowing about their everyday lives and local spaces.

Second, we have used the terms account-ability and response-ability to refer to ways of accounting for (recording, reviewing, sharing information) and being responsive to children’s ways of finding time and space for playing (reflecting on habits and routines, making changes).

Third, we have drawn on a framework from geographer Ash Amin that he used to describe ‘the good city’, and which we have adapted to explore good spaces for children. The framework has four registers: repair (keeping systems and infrastructure in good repair and ensuring they do not unnecessarily exclude children); relatedness (partnership working, connectedness and appreciating difference, particularly children’s different relationships with space and time); rights (as held in common rather than individually; children’s right to participate in and shape neighbourhoods and to participate in cultures of childhood); and re-enchantment (paying attention to the things that make life worth living: for children this largely means playing).

A change of focus

For this latest research study, we changed the focus a little. So, instead of looking at the conditions that support children to play, we looked at the conditions that support local authorities to take actions in support of children’s opportunities to play. What is it that supports or constrains local authority actions to assess and secure sufficient opportunities for children to play?

These conditions are affected by a whole range of factors and circumstances (people, knowledge, experience, relationships, policies and their interpretations, funding, organisational culture, research, physical landscapes and so on – and, of course, unexpected events like pandemics). Each situation is different, so drawing generalised conclusions may not always be helpful. Given this, we decided to take a particular approach to the use of examples. We included 26 ‘report cards’ (example included) of specific actions taken to support children’s play and the conditions that supported these to be enacted. Most are from Welsh local authorities, but some are from elsewhere, based on the desk research. These examples are not intended as ‘best practice’, and many would not be replicable without adaptations that take account of and are responsive to local circumstances. In a way, each example can stand only for itself, showing the messy and contingent details of the unique contexts, processes and people involved. Yet, taken together, we can see patterns in the conditions that enabled them to be realised. This allowed us to propose some broad key messages about the conditions that support local authorities to take actions to secure sufficient opportunities to play.

Key messages from the research

Our findings point to five headline conditions that can support local authorities to take action to secure sufficient opportunities for children to play:

  • ensuring policy alignment with, and promotion nationally and locally of, the Play Sufficiency Duty;
  • having the right people in the right place at the right time with sufficient authority, capacity, capability and consistency to lead on implementation of the Play Sufficiency Duty;
  • ensuring a consistent and dedicated source of funding for ‘doing’ Play Sufficiency;
  • collating and generating existing and new information, including research and ways to share this information;
  • developing and maintaining an openness to possibilities – organisational cultures with the flexibility to respond to opportunities that arise.

These headline conditions underpin 13 recommendations. We are really pleased that many of these recommendations have been included for discussion in the current Ministerial Play Review under way in Wales, particularly the principle of play as a matter of spatial justice, funding issues and improved policy alignment.

What did we do?

There were three strands to our research. We started out with some desk-based research identifying international examples of actions taken in support of children’s play, both at policy and practice levels. We used this to help plan the second aspect, which involved focus groups with three very different local authorities (Cardiff, Conwy and Monmouthshire) to explore the actions they had taken and the conditions that supported those actions. We also worked with a panel of experts (Dinah Bornat, Tim Gill, and Keith Towler) who advised on the research and commented on the report.

The local authority focus groups included people working at strategic and frontline delivery levels across three interrelated professional domains:

  • policy, advocacy and knowledge exchange,
  • the built and natural environment,
  • children’s and community services.

Below, we say a bit more about each of these domains and how we came to the headline findings reported above.

Policy, advocacy, knowledge exchange

This domain includes the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of play sufficiency work at both national and local level that, although seemingly remote, are inherently interwoven into more direct actions to support children’s play. They include policy development and implementation; strategic partnerships that operate at a sufficiently senior level to make a difference; and a range of forms of knowledge exchange practices including research, advocacy, conferences, professional development, education and training.

At national level, we found that there is a need for more alignment of national policies through explicit references to the Play Sufficiency Duty in other Acts, Measures and policy instruments. Given the strength of evidence of play’s contribution to physical and mental health and well-being, the Play Sufficiency Duty offers a powerful and significant assets-based and preventative contribution to realising the aims of a number of Welsh statutory instruments, particularly the Social Services and Well-being Act (Wales) 2014 and the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015. Play is what children do if given the chance; it is their way of creating their own health and well-being.

We also suggested that more use could be made of the Integrated Impact Assessment process to show how proposed national policies might affect children’s ability to find time, space and permission to play. These impact assessments can include specific Children’s Rights Impact Assessments.

There is also a need to promote the Play Sufficiency Duty itself, and its statutory nature, at local and national levels in Wales.

The research also highlighted the importance of the work of national and local third sector advocacy and infrastructure organisations. The loss of the regional play associations in Wales has been keenly felt and the pivotal role of Play Wales in helping create and maintain conditions for local authorities to deliver Play Sufficiency cannot be stressed enough. This is embodied in the experience, expertise and commitment of Play Wales’ staff and the willingness of Welsh Government to work with them.

At local level, the statutory requirement for local authorities to work in partnership across professional domains has been a really powerful enabler, perhaps one of the biggest strengths of the Play Sufficiency Duty where it has worked well. Successful examples involved committed individuals who had the motivation, passion, experience, knowledge and authority to instigate, inspire and maintain partnership working. This suggests that effective investment in Play Sufficiency, in the form of a consistent national funding stream, means giving Play Sufficiency Leads the time (both hours allocated and the length of time for development work to show results), position (conferring the remit, authority and ability to make decisions and influence decision makers) and permission (an organisational culture of being open to experimentation) to do this, echoing the need for children to have sufficient time, space and permission to play.

Developing specific local policies aligned with the Play Sufficiency Duty can aid practitioners to work in ways that support children’s play, as can formally and explicitly embedding partnership working into the authority’s processes. Examples of this include developing a policy framework enabling practitioners to adopt a risk-benefit approach (see the example report card), or a strategic commitment to ensure suitable cross-departmental representation throughout the play sufficiency process.

Opportunities for cross-professional training, playwork qualifications and other forms of knowledge exchange have been significant enablers of effective partnership work.

Finally, in each of our three case study authorities, research with children led to actions to support children’s play. This included using creative methods with children exploring their relationship with their everyday spaces, for example, map-making, photographing significant spaces, walkabouts, focusing on the micro-detail of very specific neighbourhoods. There is ample evidence of the generic issues that support or constrain children’s play; these methods help adults to pay attention to the specifics of this space at this time for these children, enabling specific responses.

The built and natural environment

The right to time, space and permission to play are enshrined in both Article 31 of the UNCRC, the right to play, and Article 15, the right to peaceful assembly. Research with children on their relationship with neighbourhood environments reveals how economic interests dominate in the built environment, often excluding children from the public realm. Much of this comes down to cars (moving and parked). The dominance of car use has resulted in children (and adults too) being removed from public space. Children are removed for their safety, but also the configuration of roads, public transport and fears means that car owners use cars more than other modes of transport including active modes. This withdrawal makes public space less inhabited, increasing adult fears for safety. This is why we talk about children’s right to play out as a matter of spatial justice: children have a right to participate in everyday life through being out in public spaces playing. A just organisation of public space supports children’s right to play.

There is a growing body of research and practice supporting child-friendly cities, housing design and streets that shows the value of creating access to safe, nearby spaces and limiting moving and stationary traffic. Although the focus is on cities, many of these principles apply also to smaller settlements. On average, roughly a third of the Welsh population live in rural areas (settlements with a population under 10,000), with that figure much higher in some areas. There is less attention paid to rural childhoods than to urban ones, and this needs to be addressed.

Research on children’s freedom to roam shows a decline over decades. Nevertheless, if conditions are right, children’s preference is for playing out. Many initiatives that support children’s freedom of movement are closely linked to those supporting active travel.

Designated playgrounds and parks are a significant part of children’s play lives. We found several examples of more creative approaches to designing for children’s play, supported by a growing number of resources, including Play Wales’ Community Toolkit on designing and managing play spaces.

Children’s and community services

The research considered actions that have been taken across a broad range of children’s and community services in support of the Play Sufficiency Duty. All these are set against the overall context of ten years of austerity measures that have seen children’s services facing significant funding cuts and many closures.

The influence of playwork on and the contribution of playworkers to the development and enactment of the Play Sufficiency Duty nationally and locally cannot be overstated. Those with playwork backgrounds and/or remits have repeatedly been instigators or enablers of actions, pulling people together, developing collective wisdom, facilitating and developing responses to research with children, promoting the value of Play Sufficiency both nationally and locally.

Health and well-being are at the forefront of Welsh Government policy for schools, offering clear synergies with the Play Sufficiency Duty. Our research found several examples of initiatives to improving play times in schools, but less success with attempts to open up school grounds out of school hours.

There is potential for youth workers to contribute to securing sufficient opportunities for older children to ‘play’ (even though they may not call it that). The intention in the Youth Work Strategy for Wales to map youth work provision, including transitional provision (pre-11 years old) offers clear links with Play Sufficiency Assessments and action plans.

Finally, there is a growing interest within the cultural sector to understand and support children’s play within museum and gallery institutions and in heritage sites.

Closing thoughts: the principle of sufficiency

This whistle-stop tour of our research shows what is possible when the right conditions are in place for local authorities to support children’s right to play. Wales is to be congratulated both for its bold, radical and innovative legislation and for the cross-sectoral partnerships that recognise how children’s right to play is a matter for any profession whose work affects children’s ability to find time, space and permission to play. At the heart of all this is the principle of play sufficiency, an ongoing collaborative process of paying attention to the conditions that support children’s play and working to maintain and enhance them.

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