The Con/Lib government aren’t playing fair by cancelling the playground programme, argues Pat Kane

Michael Gove’s cancellation of the playground building programme last week is no surprise to those familiar with the Gradgrindery of his general educational philosophy, history and Latin lessons. But however unlikely its success, it is worth remembering just what a triumph the programme was for the outgoing new Labour administration.

It is true that when the then children’s secretary Ed Balls announced close to christmas in 2007 that over £200 million was to be earmarked to build 3,500 playgrounds, and then followed it through in the subsequent two years, advocates of play were pinching themselves.

New Labour, with various invocations of a renewed work-ethic for the work-shy and a notoriously exacting measurement culture in education, did not seem the most propitious sponsor of the value and benefits of play; oblique, messy and experimental as play is. Ed Balls did not join up his thinking when he rejected the Cambridge Primary Review in 2009, which showed conclusively that an extended period of kindergarten-style play up to the seventh year was the best developmental start for school children.

But there it was; alongside play initiatives from the lottery fund and echoed throughout the devolved parliaments, a commitment to building playgrounds as a step towards rethinking how we regard the activity of children in our public spaces, town and cities. It’s tempting to say that in a similar way to our shifts on climate change the scientific consensus on the health, the cognitive and social benefits of more play in our lives; both for children and adults, was becoming indisputable.

A staple in the rise of neuro-psychological and biological accounts of human nature over the last twenty years has been the role of play: joyful experimentation, imagining and gaming with others, as the best exercise for the growing human mind. Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood and Stuart Brown’s Play are at the summits of research here. The UNICEF report on children’s well-being in rich countries in 2007, which placed the UK at the bottom of 23 industrialised nations, was an embarrassing wake-up call for a government which had made the welfare of children one of its moral back-stops.

Whatever the determining forces, it was certainly the feeling among the community of play workers and advocates that a line about the legitimacy of play as a key part of human development throughout the life-span had been crossed. Much ingenuity, commitment and invention has been pouring into this area in Britain.

Now this Con/Lib government makes sure it will not let a crisis go to waste, taking the opportunity to brutally shrink the state to pre-new-Labour levels. As a result, the playground building programme goes in its entirety; not even shrunk or trimmed, but dumped wholesale.

If you wanted to find an inch between the Tories and Labour in which to live (and for that matter, any of the left-leaning devolved polities), a play policy for children would be it. Enabling good conditions of play is an investment in the ultimate long-term health and capacities of future citizens, a crucial and dynamic element of the “sure” start promised to children in the UK after the harshness of the Tory years.

Of course, play policy should have been extended beyond childhood to teenage-dom and adulthood. There is too much evidence – ably pulled together by Daniel Pink in his new book Drive – that the most creative and profitable modern organisations ensure “play” time for their employees. A small zone of self-determination increases overall productivity and effectiveness by considerable degrees. Shouldn’t we be socialising our future creative workers to expect a degree of dynamic play in their lives?

 How about that: it turns out that the Con/Lib government doesn’t know how to ensure the social conditions of the future of information capitalism either.

Pat Kane is a writer, musician, activist and play advocate. He is author of The Play Ethic, one half of Hue and Cry and an irrecoverable left-leaning supporter of Scottish independence (but likes Labour lefties like Compass).

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6 Responses to “The Con/Lib government aren’t playing fair by cancelling the playground programme, argues Pat Kane”

  1. Andrew Old says:

    Oh for pity’s sake.

    I’m sure it’s all well and good that children play, but let’s not confuse that with educating them. Children arrive at secondary school not able to write clearly, do basic arithmetic and with rock bottom expectations of behaviour and effort. I can’t see more play as the solution, no matter how many theorists think it’s a good idea.

    And by the way, how did it work out last time play was promoted as a form of primary education?,,106857,00.html

  2. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Andrew, people who make that claim can’t read!

    People seem to think that failure to achieve a level 4 at KS2 means children are illiterate. No, it means they’re a year or two behind what you’d expect, but that they would be able, for example, to read the Sun or Mirror without difficulty (this is assuming they get a level 3, which all but the severely SEN kids do.) If you don’t believe me, read the assessment guidelines.

    If you can, you miserable child-slandering cretin.

    Not that there’s any evidence that play harms the ability of children to learn – quite the opposite in fact – but I’ve had it up to the back teeth with this reductive argument through colossal ignorance crap. Learn what you’re talking about or shut up.

  3. Andrew Old says:

    I said:

    “Children arrive at secondary school not able to write clearly, do basic arithmetic and with rock bottom expectations of behaviour and effort”

    The man calling me names said:

    “People seem to think that failure to achieve a level 4 at KS2 means children are illiterate”

    Ridiculous strawman. I never claimed they were illiterate but I can assure you that a level 4 in English is no sign of being able to write clearly, let alone the other points I mentioned. I am simply judging students against the standard I’d expect if they were learning significant amounts at primary.

    Still, call me names, that will make the problem go away.

  4. Rachel says:

    Never in all my days have I read such prejudiced and opinionate bile as that attached article. I could barely make it to the end.

    I am the School Governor of a primary school that has been rated “Outstanding” by OFSTED. It serves a remote community characterized by acute deprivation. It got “Outstanding” mainly because it takes in kids who are well below average and makes them average – quite a remarkable achievement by any standards.

    Every single child leaves the school either matching their targets or exceeding them. That doesn’t mean they all get level 4 (there are many SEN children) but most who are not SEN do match or exceed this level.

    This school is acutely undersubscribed – not because it is a rubbish school but because middle class parents don’t want their kids hanging out with riff-raff.

    Can I tell you about this “riff-raff”? This riff raff has been taken around the Houses of Parliament, a City Law Firm and the National Portrait Gallery. The feedback we received from each and every one of these organisations was unanimous in their gushing praise of the behaviour and attitutde of the children. OFSTED also rated the behavour and attitude of the children as outstanding.

    These children live in a remote community which has very low levels of car ownership. This means they don’t normally travel very far – and without the support of the school would probably never leave their own remote region. Few houses in the village have big enough gardens to fit a play park into.

    These children have just lost their playpark. Education doesn’t need to be about the 3 R’s versus play. Both can happily coexist – and can feed each other. These children are successfully taught the 3 R’s but they also love learning and their school also helps them enjoy life too.

  5. Graham says:

    Rachel’s response here was the clearest example yet of the sort of message that will bring Labour back to power. Honest, realistic, based on personal experience, with the needs of the people firmly at its core and devoid of the ideological rhetoric that we get from the Tories of whichever government party label.

    They say that opposition is a war of attrition. this sort of message is exactly what our leaders should be ensuring is at the heart of our message. People first.

  6. Andrew Old says:

    “Rachel’s response here was the clearest example yet of the sort of message that will bring Labour back to power. ”

    What, dismissing opposing views as “prejudiced”?

    Didn’t seem to do Gordon Brown any good.

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