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Playing the game: Children's right to play freely

Play England is on a mission to ensure children can exercise their right to play. Sports Management finds out about the charity’s next stage of development 

by Helen Andrews | Published in Sports Management 18 Apr 2016 issue 118
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Play is a human right and seen as crucial for children’s participation in sport in later life / shutterstock / paolo bona
Play is a human right and seen as crucial for children’s participation in sport in later life/ shutterstock / paolo bona

Of the basic human rights set out by the United Nations, the right to play might be one of the less well known ones – but it does exist. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 31, states that children have the right to relax, play and to join in a wide range of recreational activities.

Play England aims to fulfil this pledge in the UK, by raising awareness about the importance of play. It lobbies government and pushes for policy changes to recognise and plan for children’s play. Working with national partners and other organisations, it runs campaigns and projects promoting play and publishes evidence-based publications on play matters.

Steven Chown, programme development manager for Play England, says the charity’s work covers a wide range of areas. “Our board of very active trustees campaign for better play sites for children and young people throughout the UK,” he says. 

“We provide policy guidance to the government, partner with relevant forums to publish resources and briefings to support the construction and implementation of local play sites and deliver nationwide programmes that encourage outdoor play.”

Street Play
One of Play England’s most popular programmes is Street Play. Working alongside three partners (the University of Bristol, Playing Out and London Play), the programme aims to support local residents and local authorities willing to close streets temporarily to allow children to play outside. 

“We’re working with about 33 local authorities who have regular street closures,” says Chown. “This programme is particularly popular in Bristol and Hackney in London. We’re also working with local partners in Tyneside, Leeds and Nottingham.”

Play England is currently collaborating with the University of Bristol to publish an evaluation of the Street Play project in the next few months. Researchers from the University of Bristol are involved due to their continuing exploration into the importance of physical activity to children’s health – and environmental barriers to such activity.

For example, as part of a study titled PEACH (Personal and Environmental Associations with Children’s Health) project, the researchers investigated activity levels of children in different land cover types (green space or not) and the association between GPS-measured time outdoors after school and physical activity.

“In our new evaluation paper, the University of Bristol is using its methodology – measuring GPS data and accelerometers readings – to record the physical activity levels of children who take part in the Street Play project and those that don’t,” said Chown. “Our new findings tell us that children are more active as part of the Street Play project than when they are not part of it.”

Playbook
In 2008, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport commissioned Play England to write a guide for creating successful play spaces, titled Design for Play. 

Eight years on, a new edition of the guide has now been written and is due to be published later this year. The content focuses on case studies of play sites created using the previous edition’s guidelines. 

“The original guide was a major game changer in terms of updating ideas on how children’s play areas can be catered for. It focused on what it is that children want to do when they play and how to enhance the natural elements of a play space to allow young people to be active. With more than 40,000 downloads as a free resource, plus a large hard copy distribution, this guide was incredibly successful for park and open space development,” said Chown.

Funding
Unlike other national bodies such as Play Scotland and Play Wales, Play England stopped receiving core grants directly from central government in return for policy guidance, research and advice in 2011. Now, Play England relies on funding for its projects from the Department of Health – which has announced £2.1m of grants over the next three years, to go to a number of bodies including the charity.

In 2015, the charity received grants that totalled £371,000 – £150,000 of which was used directly by Play England to support its projects. The remaining sum was split between Play England’s project partners for the delivery of its programmes.

In January this year, the English Federation of Disability Sport consortium received a £4.5m grant from the charity called Spirit of 2012. Play England is part of this consortium and will thus receive a portion of this sum. The grant’s aim is to get people active across 18 UK locations as part of an initiative titled Get Out & Get Active.

At Play England’s AGM in February, the trustees concentrated on ways to secure future funding for both its own activities and those of the organisations that look to Play England for support. 

“While lots of people understand the need for children’s play areas outside, it often doesn’t translate into investment,” said Chown. “As a national organisation, this provides us with a challenge.” 

Challenges
Play England encounters obstacles from a number of sources, including the sports sector.

“The argument of Play England is simple,” said Chown. “If you want to encourage participation in sport, children need to be able to play. Obviously in children’s early years they learn to be physically literate through play, which allows them to develop skills, competence and enjoyment of being physically active – before adults can think about children participating in sport. Play is crucial for children’s participation and enjoyment of sport.”

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