This is new play territory, but the children don't need much initiation. Soon they're playing in the middle of the road, racing with new friends on scooters, flinging Frisbees, kicking footballs or creating colourful chalk drawings.
This vibrant chaos in Charlton, south east London, is the result of one of the latest road closures for children's play. The Playing Out movement was started in 2009 by two Bristol mothers, frustrated at their children's lack of freedom to play outside in their rat-run street. They applied for a road closure order and spread news and advice about the process. Their efforts have led to "play streets" in at least 30 areas.
Government cash to make this growing movement the norm everywhere is one of the Four Asks for Play, an investment wishlist produced this year by the UK Children's Play Policy Forum. The document also called for support for play initiatives in schools, parks and play spaces and staffed play facilities.
While the UK-wide annual Playday continues to raise awareness through community events at the start of August, budgets are tight everywhere. But it is the Westminster government, more than the three devolved administrations, that needs winning over. England's ambitious 10-year play strategy was aborted by the coalition government in 2010 after just two years of delivery, "pulling the rug out from under the feet of every play team in the country", according to former Play England director Cath Prisk.
This policy vacuum thrust the sector into the firing line of cuts, reducing councils' spend on play by 39 per cent between 2010 and 2013, according to a CYP Now investigation. But England's dismantling of play policy is in stark contrast to developments in the other three UK countries (see box, p24). Wales has gone the furthest, by becoming the first country in the world to place a statutory duty on councils to secure play opportunities, while the Scottish and Northern Ireland governments have both made play national priorities.
Colin Powell, manager of Wrexham adventure playground Gwenfro Valley Integrated Children's Centre, believes Wales's new "play sufficiency" duty gives playworkers "more ammunition for their bow". His deputy Theresa Burling says it has "lifted the spirits" of the workforce. "Other children's professionals no longer look at me daft when I tell them I'm a playworker," she adds.
Play Wales director Mike Greenaway says it has led to cross-departmental discussions within local authorities "that wouldn't have happened before".
"For many officials, the discovery that their decisions can have an impact on children's play, and often unintended consequences, has been a revelation," he says. "People who never saw themselves as part of children's play now see themselves as involved."
The excitement about new play-centred policy in Wales and Northern Ireland is tempered by frustration about the shortage of funding to translate it into more play opportunities. But Scotland's developing play strategy has run alongside a programme of investment to increase play organisations' resilience in the tough economic climate. Inspiring Scotland's £4m GoPlay scheme and £2m successor scheme Go2Play has helped 41 projects expand free play among five to 13-year-olds in disadvantaged areas over the past six years, and to measure and communicate impact. This has enabled Go2Play-supported schemes to lever in an extra £1.4m in grants. Also benefiting were eight play ranger schemes, a model which Inspiring Scotland is expanding nationally.
"When we heard there would be money allocated to play, it was like the heavens had opened," recalls Melodie Crumlin, chief executive of Possibilities for Each and Every Kid (Peek), which provides play rangers in Glasgow. "The play sector has always struggled, because many people didn't really see play as important to children's development, or as a means of bringing communities together," she says. "But that's definitely changing now. It's fantastic."
There is frustration south of the border about the government's failure to put in place a policy framework for play despite mounting evidence of its benefits to children's physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Tim Gill, whose evidence review The Play Return formed the basis of the Four Asks, describes these as a tactical move, borne from growing realisation that the "prospects of the government deciding to invest in a play strategy for play's sake are close to zero".
The Four Asks were designed to show a cash-strapped government how investing in play projects can meet multiple objectives like improving health, education, strengthening neighbourhoods and preventing crime. "There are lots of successful projects in the Four Asks areas, but not consistently implemented and not widespread," says Play England programme development manager Steve Chown. "They're the initiatives that need to grow."
Street play investment
The Department of Health (DH) has invested in street play, providing more than £1m over three years from 2013 to a partnership led by Play England, enabling Playing Out and London Play to support residents in getting more streets closed.
The government says this investment shows it does recognise the benefits of play. "We know physical activity can have a wide range of social and psychological benefits and play is an invaluable part of family and community life," says a DH spokeswoman.
But she adds the government is concentrating on wider strategies to boost children's wellbeing.
"We are committed to giving every child the best possible start in life, but we do not want to dictate how, when and where they play," she says. "Instead, we're focusing our efforts on tackling social injustice so that all children, regardless of background, have the opportunity to reach their full potential."
Organisers hope the findings from a Bristol University evaluation of street play will convince the government it is worth further investment.
In the meantime, play has a strong champion in the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, whose reports over recent months have highlighted the need for it to be recognised and resourced as a key contributor to children's health.
Plans for a national obesity framework by the end of the year could be an opportunity. "The APPG wants to steer this framework," says committee member and Play England trustee Neil Coleman. "We want it to cover all aspects of children's wellbeing and fitness, and that should include play."
But there is frustration in England that play has been reduced to piggybacking on government priorities when children's right to play is enshrined in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Dawn Jennings, manager of Crumbles Castle, one of 12 surviving staffed adventure playgrounds in Islington, views the decimation of services like hers in some areas as a breach of this right. She gives short shrift to the "zimmer frame" bars in the neighbouring unstaffed playground, which she says are ignored in favour of her site's opportunities for climbing, building campfires and using tools. "The stuff we do here means young people can play with risk-taking, take control of the space and make their own choices," she says.
Northern Ireland Playboard chief executive Jacqueline O'Loughlin says her organisation is trying to move ministers away from "KFC" (kit, fence and carpet) fixed playgrounds as a standard model of play provision. "We feel we have more than enough of those," she says. "We want them to understand that it's more about natural environments and to enhance children's appetite for challenge and risk. The resources local authorities currently have in fixed play equipment, in installation and maintenance, would be better used if they invested in people. That's a big shift."
But the number of playworkers is dwindling. CYP Now's investigation last year showed 62 per cent of councils with fewer play staff than in 2010. Chris Martin, playwork convenor for the community youth and playwork section of Unite, says his research suggests playwork is now delivered largely by part-time staff and volunteers in small voluntary organisations reliant on competitive council commissioning or grant funding.
Lesli Godfrey, UK strategic lead for playwork at SkillsActive up until last August, says shrinking budgets are reducing demand among organisations and individuals for playwork training, aggravated in England by a change in childcare regulations, removing the need for professional qualifications among out-of-school club staff. Playwork's national occupational standards are being reviewed, a UK-wide process expected to lead to a new suite of qualifications next year. But "whether people will pay for them is another matter", says Godfrey.
Nevertheless, momentum is growing to get play and playwork resourced and recognised again in England, with ministers now facing pressure from the Children's Rights Alliance England (CRAE), parliamentarians and a mobilising play workforce.
In a report to the UN this month, CRAE accused the government of undermining children's rights, recommending "play policy and strategy is reinstated as a ministerial responsibility" and play provision made a statutory duty. These demands will be echoed in a report by the APPG for a Fit and Healthy Childhood, setting out the case for a new cross-cutting play strategy for England. Meanwhile, a steering group led by Play England founding director Adrian Voce is working to establish a new organisation to strengthen the voice of playworkers.
Tim Gill believes the seeds of hope for resourcing play lie in grassroots campaigning. Playday on 5 August is a good start and so is the street play movement with the potential to "reach hundreds of thousands of children in the next few years", he says.
Meanwhile, in Charlton, it's back to reality as children are hustled back onto the pavement and their artwork hosed off the road. Facebook is soon buzzing with testimonials and mum-of-two Lydia Wharf is among many singing the scheme's praises. "It's putting children in the neighbourhood at the centre of things, making them feel safe, valued and happy," she says.
Play workforce in numbers
10,800 volunteer playworkers in the UK in 2010
168,000 people employed in playwork in the UK in 2010
91% of playworkers were female
69% worked part-time
44% of the play workforce had no playwork qualification
49% held a Level 3 qualification or above
50% of all playwork organisations were in the voluntary sector
Source: SkillsActive's State of the Sector Report 2012
State of play in the four UK nations
Scotland's first national play strategy was published in June 2013, followed by an action plan four months later, setting out plans for improving play opportunities in the home, at school and nursery, in the community, and strengthening the sector.
Key elements include play training for teachers and ensuring neighbourhoods provide a range of play opportunities as part of a national "place standard".
Councils are expected to draw up play statements covering the strategy's four domains and guidance is being produced to help put this into practice. Government-funded play strategy co-ordinator Deborah Hay took up her role at Play Scotland last month.
Play is also one of eight key priorities for the Early Years Collaborative, a multi-agency quality improvement programme involving national advisers helping local organisations test and roll out new ways of improving children's outcomes.
"These things combined are very effective levers," says Play Scotland chief executive Marguerite Hunter-Blair. "If we can get all of that right and deliver against it, this could have a greater impact than a statutory duty on play."
Last year, the Northern Ireland Executive announced children's play would be its seventh "signature programme" as part of its Delivering Social Change agenda.
The programme aims to get every child in the country playing more, every adult valuing play more and every community actively supporting play. It will be implemented via a new 10-year Children's Strategy from 2016, currently under development.
PlayBoard Northern Ireland is pushing for the strategy to include an outcomes framework to enable services to be measured according to how well they facilitate children's play. Chief executive Jacqueline O'Loughlin says the "mood music" for play is "very good", although funding is a constraint.
In 2013, the executive announced £1.6m for play over the next three years, but investment has been slow. "Our role now is trying to move government from written words and promises to implementation and delivery," says O'Loughlin. "We still have some way to go."
Groundbreaking legislation in Wales places a legal duty on every local authority to assess and secure sufficient play opportunities for children in their area. The duty to assess play opportunities came into effect in November 2012, and the duty to secure them in July last year.
Councils are expected to map local playspaces and assess them for play value, consult children on the play opportunities they want, include play assessments in the planning process and assess the sufficiency of the play workforce, producing play action plans every three years.
Last year and this year, the Welsh government announced allocations of £1.25m and £1.5m respectively for local authorities to spend on priorities in their action plans, such as mobile play equipment, training and improving the accessibility of play spaces. However, only a last-minute injection of £400,000 last October prevented Play Wales from closing, after it missed out on a £1.4m play grant. The new money is linked to helping local efforts to promote play until March 2016.
Labour's 2008 10-year play strategy committed £235m for 3,500 new or refurbished play areas, new adventure playgrounds in 30 "pathfinder" areas and multi-agency training to make neighbourhoods more play-friendly.
But by 2011, this policy framework had been abandoned by the coalition government, and funds cut for infrastructure to support playwork. Twelve members of SkillsActive's 13-strong playwork unit, which had produced a strategy to strengthen and develop the profession, were made redundant.
In June 2010, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg had announced play would be among the priorities of a childhood and families taskforce, chaired by the Prime Minister. But nothing more was heard. Three years later, the Cabinet Office's Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd requested evidence on the benefits of play, which led to Tim Gill's review The Play Return.
Currently, no minister has responsibility for children's play. But after five years of a policy vacuum, there is a sense of momentum again with calls from the Children's Rights Alliance for England and MPs for a new strategy and statutory footing for play.
Impact of play
Play Wales director Mike Greenaway says the sector has rarely had sufficient funding to research the impact of play "possibly because people see children's play as the science of the bleeding obvious".
In his report The Play Return, Tim Gill acknowledges the patchiness of hard data, but highlights several projects with compelling evidence.
- Learning The PlayPod scheme run by Children's Scrapstore Bristol provides scrap material to schools alongside training for school staff. A 2012 evaluation showed nine out of 10 primary heads said it had helped children's learning. All agreed it helped with inclusion, creative play, staff and children's self-confidence, risk management and problem solving.
- Physical activity A Bristol University evaluation of the Department of Health-funded street play project, published this year, showed children spending 30 per cent of their street play time in "moderate to vigorous physical activity", compared with five per cent of time at home.
- Volunteering The Get Involved in Play programme, delivered by the Play England-led Free Time Consortium and funded by the Cabinet Office's Social Action Fund, shows investment in play can be a catalyst for large-scale volunteering. The 18-month project from 2011 recruited more than 47,000 volunteers in adventure playgrounds, parks and other play projects, creating 1.2 million play opportunities for children.