Wordplay Into Real Play

I am one of those who do not believe in the economic trickle down effect: the historical evidence worldwide against this optimistic theory is too persuasive, however much I would like to believe otherwise. But the trickle down effect of ideas is a different matter.

In India it is obvious that the ideas of the Rig Veda and other sacred texts have found their way into the nooks and crannies of human consciousness, social relationships and personal beliefs and action. Likewise it seems to me pretty clear that the much more recent cynicism of the philosopher, Bertrand Russell has already seeped into British ways of thinking.

You can try this sort of analysis yourself. (To be honest, it’s a nice sort of theory but impossible to prove in a satisfactory way: one of the best examples is Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Capitalism.)

The purpose of this column, you may be relieved to know, is not to debate economics or philosophy, but to attempt to trace how all the thinking and writing about the importance of play in the lives, upbringing, development, health and relationships of children (“wordplay”) is beginning to find its way into “real play” (policies and action) in the little corner of London called the Borough of Redbridge. (In case you were unaware, this is where Mill Grove is situated.) If you were to look back through the six years of In Residence columns you would find that play is one of the recurring themes or leitmotifs.

More than one of these columns have been hugely influenced by the ideas and writings of Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten movement with its emphasis on play, music and dance. You would probably also have come to know that play is one of the most vital components in our life together at Mill Grove, and essential, in our view, to the healing process. But what about progress in the Borough: how far has it got in the trickle down from wordplay to real play?

Such trickle down seems to depend on getting the right people and policies together at the right time and pursuing your goals single-mindedly. There has been a lot of talk and research about play in the United Kingdom over the past two or three years, so the time seems right.
What about the people and the policies? When the Government encouraged the setting up of a Children’s Fund in each local authority, it issued some guidelines about how the money should be spent, but there was room for local flexibility. So in Redbridge we chose to make play our over-arching theme, arguing that it was “children’s business”, and what they wanted most of all. We tried to make sure that every project and proposal commissioned and supported by the Fund built some form of play into its life and work.

As the Redbridge Children’s Network – an association of voluntary organisations concerned with the welfare of children – began to grow it developed a vision statement and safe play was one of its main themes.

Then the Children’s Trust idea came along, and it adopted the Network’s vision statement with a few variations. Next came the Children’s and Young People’s Plan and guess what? Yes, play was by now in everyone’s minds.

The Children’s Fund Group commissioned a major research study of children’s views on play, together with their suggestions for improvements. It produced the first embryonic map of the Borough from the point of view of children with specific reference to play. The map is made up of photos and comments.

Within a few days of the launch of the report (done by the Centre for Children and Youth at the University of Northampton, August 2005), there was the launch of the Redbridge Play Association. A librarian hearing what was going on suggested that the libraries should be seen as one of the resources for the development of play and play facilities. Extended schools are beginning to be seen as key resources for children and families in neighbourhoods with excellent facilities indoor and outdoor. Pre-school nurseries are being reminded that many started life as “pre-school playgroups”!

It’s obviously too early to say how things will pan out. There is the big question of finance for any changes, and the uncertainty about how this (children’s) agenda will find its way into the (adult) strategic plan for the Borough, and Local Area Agreements about funding. My sense is that in years to come we will look back and see the things that I have described as milestones in the progress of the play agenda.

Why am I so optimistic, in a Borough not known for its flair, daring or imagination? Two reasons: first, children themselves are becoming active participants and agents in the process; second, there is momentum building up. A few weeks ago the Children’s Network held its very first conference with the title, Towards a Child-Friendly Borough. And children were among the conference participants. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that play was high on this agenda too, I guess.

So there are some signs to suggest that we are moving beyond word play, and designing policies that will open the way for real play. I will keep my eye open for evidence that this is happening. And you will be among the first to know when I discover it! Meanwhile it would be really interesting and encouraging to know what is happening around the world. If you could spare the time to let me know I would be delighted.

Keith J. White lives and cares for children and young people in Mill Grove where his family has lived for four generations.
Since 1899 it has been a family home where children unable to live with their own parents have been welcomed

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