Battle to save pre-school play

Measures in a new manifesto for play are needed urgently if local projects are to be saved, says academic.

For parents with young children, finding somewhere to play outside is high on the agenda of essentials. Yet recent research by the Association of Play Industries found that since 2014, councils have closed 347 playgrounds across England, while the recent Good Childhoodreport by The Children's Society found that since 2009, investment by the government in children's play in England has been reduced from £235m to zero.

This is why policymakers should heed the proposals in the recent Play England A Manifesto for Play, which seeks, among other things, more investment in play opportunities for children (see box). It highlights that this basic essential of childhood is under threat.

Informal community play sessions have traditionally been met in the form of toddler groups in community venues that provide isolated parents with a convenient and friendly opportunity for both them and their children to make friends.

Socialisation and play are vital in the early years for children to develop skills for the future, but it is also argued that this informal peer support is vital for parents who may not have other sources of support in the community.

With the advent of universal children's centres, parents in the most remote communities became accustomed to opportunities to access services for their pre-school children.

In some areas, children's centres provided daily activities and a point of contact for any parent.

However, cuts to local authority budgets have seen a drastic reduction in children's centres over the past five years, significantly reducing the availability of play sessions for under-fives.


  • Create a cross-department cabinet post for children with responsibility for developing a national play policy for England
  • Introduce a statutory duty requiring councils to assess and secure sufficient play opportunities for children in their area
  • Increase funding for councils to provide free, accessible and inclusive play opportunities in their neighbourhoods
  • Fund after-school and holiday play schemes, play in schools and adventure playgrounds targeted in areas of disadvantage
  • Invest in the skills and capacity of the play workforce, including funding for training

Source: A Manifesto for Play, Play England, the Playwork Foundation and the International Play Association England, September 2019

No new investment

Despite the government saying public sector austerity is over, there is no sign of new investment in universal play provision through children's centres.

Faced with this difficult funding landscape, many providers of play schemes are finding it increasingly challenging to provide good quality activities without charging restrictive prices.

One group facing this dilemma is Whippet Up CIC (Community Interest Company, which is providing Woodlands Wonders, a weekly outdoor play and art session in Saltburn for families with pre-school children.

When Whippet Up CIC received a one-year grant for £14,000 from the Ragdoll Foundation, it began working to provide an outdoor play activity that was free for families and included a shared lunch. The main concern was that the activities were child-led and provided access to the outdoors which is so important for children.

Entertaining on average 12 to 15 children a week, the sessions are well received at the Woodlands park. But like many similar schemes, it faces an uncertain future as it comes to the end of its grant.

I have been studying the impact the scheme has for families: parents describe the sessions as like being in another world, a safe place for their children to play, as well as a place of support for them. One parent told me how, in the past few years, they have seen such activities diminish in the community to the point where Woodlands Wonders is the only activity they access for their one-year-old compared to almost daily activities that children's centres provided when her three-year-old was born.

The parents I met were diverse, but all spoke of the importance of the session for them and their children.

Unclear future

What the future holds for Woodland Wonders is still unclear. The Whippet Up CIC team believes it could continue the project for approximately half that amount with some adjustments. Parents have offered to volunteer to keep the session going, as well as contribute to the cost.

The team is keen that this is managed in a way that ensures the sessions continue to provide that sense of sanctuary for all the families. The sense of responsibility to meet the needs of these diverse families is strong.

The Whippet Up group is exploring its options, but it is increasingly looking like to continue the scheme, parents will need to come together and manage the sessions. This could be a viable way forward, but at a personal and financial cost to those parents.

Is it too much to expect that families with very young children are provided with at least one weekly play session in their local community?

  • Fiona Corby is co-author of Taming Childhood; a critical perspective on policy, practice and parenting, Palgrave MacMillan, 2019

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