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thirteen - ‘Everyday adventures?’ • Austerity brings an end toplay policy in England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 March 2022

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Summary

To anyone able to accurately read the political runes, the premature end of the Play Strategy after only two of its planned 12 years could have been foretold even before it was launched in 2008. However, contrary to appearances since 2010, the prospects for a serious Conservative government play policy, before the financial crash of 2007, had been surprisingly good.

On succeeding Tim Gill as director of the Children’s Play Council in 2004, I was granted a meeting with the Conservative Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, whose comments about us on Radio 4 had been so dismissive. After a slightly tense introduction, he eventually acknowledged that his characterisation of us was illinformed and promised he would do what he could to help sow the seeds for a more enlightened approach from his party, before cutting the meeting short to rush off and vote.

The Conservatives, in opposition, then had not had much to say about children’s play until a letter appeared in The Daily Telegraph in September 2006 (Abbs et al, 2006). Earlier that year, former head teacher Sue Palmer (2006) had published a book about what she termed the ‘epidemic of misery’ in the children of affluent developed nations. Palmer examined the big statistical increases in the numbers of children and young people with mental health, behavioural and eating disorders, and the rising levels of pupils classified as having additional needs in school. She suggested that these modern childhood ailments were the result of human evolution not being able to keep up with the pace of technological advances that had so changed the way that we live. Simply, modern life – including the radical reduction in children’s freedom to roam and to play – was, according to Palmer, making them unwell.

Over a hundred academics, writers and medical experts signed the Telegraph letter endorsing Sue Palmer’s diagnosis. It called for a closer examination of the quality of children’s lives, saying that they were increasingly tainted by overexposure to electronic entertainment, lack of play space and the emphasis on academic testing in schools. ‘[Children] still need what developing human beings have always needed’, it said, including ‘real (as opposed to junk) food, real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives’.

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Policy for Play
Responding to Children's Forgotten Right
, pp. 125 - 136
Publisher: Bristol University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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