Monday, February 8, 2010

National Play Policy?

By Justine Roberts, Principal

KaBOOM! is a playground company with a mission (literally, they are a non-profit): to provide play experiences within walking distance for every child in the country. That is an ambitious goal, and has led them to take on some exciting advocacy projects such as their just released report titled Play Matters: Best Practices in Play.

Wales was the first country ever to adopt a Play Policy. Published in October 2002, the Welsh Play Policy is a public commitment to providing an environment that supports the right to play, and recognizes the value of children’s play. The Welsh government intended this document to serve as a public affirmation of their commitment to children, and an opportunity to create a framework allowing children to be explicitly part of policy discussions.

In 2006 Play England, a part of the National Children’s Bureau and Play Council, published Planning for Play to promote the idea that local authorities should, and could, take responsibility for providing areas for children to play. The authors of this report argue that children at play signals a healthy community and therefore play connects to broader societal goals and priorities. Their report outlines a process for implementing a play policy that will result in more play opportunities. For example, they recommend creating Play Partnerships that include community members, agencies, and organizations; to establish a process for ongoing evaluation and assessment both as a basis for measurable outcomes and as a reflective practice; and to design for operational sustainability. They also identify critical ingredients of successful playscapes such as designing for adventure and providing risk and challenge. Their goal is for children’s needs to be incorporated into planning, design and policy discussions at the local level.

In the USA we do not have a national play policy or statement of children’s right to play. We aren’t even a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But we do have an active citizenry and a non-profit structure that makes it possible for many local initiatives to thrive. This is where KaBOOM!’s report comes in. Play Matters rounds up successful local efforts, and summarizes why they work. In doing so, Play Matters paints a picture of an emerging movement that may be changing the public realm from the bottom up.

At the same time, Play Matters makes the case that city-by-city solutions are not a sustainable long-term plan if we hope to achieve the types of changes that are necessary. They conclude “there is a national opportunity and imperative for play advocates to connect play and spaces conducive to play as part of a solution to. . .broader public priorities, and to help inform policymaking at the federal level.”

All of this is non-trivial. There is a well-documented play deficit in this country, and it is worse in under-served communities than in well-resourced neighborhoods. And there is growing research on the negative consequences of our approach to play. What have been a series of decisions effectively made in isolation of one another have started to coalesce into a grim picture of childhood without enough physical or creative activity, opportunities to rely on ones-self, to take risks and to stretch one’s capabilities. As Jeff Levi, Executive Director of the Trust for America’s Health has written, “Today’s children could be the first in U.S. history to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents.” We are beginning to recognize that play may offer at least a partial solution to the challenges youth face today. But there is more to be done.

Image: Bay Area Discovery Museum "Sea Cave" by Gyroscope Inc.


Megan Fischer, Providence Children's Museum said...

Maria, thanks for pulling together all of these great resources. In Rhode Island, we have recently connected around the issues related to ensuring more time and space for kids' play, and I think we're ready to start impacting local policy!

Justine Roberts said...

That is great Megan. And very exciting to see a children's museum taking a leadership role on this. Museums are a wonderful platform for explaining the power and potential of play, and what a value to add to the community! I would love to know more about who is in the group you are working with - what organizations are at the table and what points of view you have been able to pull together.

Keep us posted on your progress.