Ready, Steady, Play!: A national Play Policy was first published by the National Childrens Office of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in March 2004. It is Irelands National Play Policy document. The document provides a framework for future development. It deals with a range of different issues, including, guiding principles; the development of a play infrastructure; safety and public liability insurance; funding arrangements; and, suggests a partnership approach between all stakeholders like the community, voluntary, statutory, and private sectors.
It has eight objectives. First impressions are that this is not simply an aspirational dream but an actual plan setting out responsibilities for implementation and putting down target dates for the implementation of the plan. Simply put, the policy document is about creating better play opportunities for children by increasing public play facilities thereby improving their quality of life. The policy document is divided into five sections. The first provides a context for developing a play policy vision. The second section deals with childrens play in Ireland today.
The third section outlines the challenges and solutions. The fourth deals with implementation and monitoring and the final section sets out an action plan with eight specific objectives.
Summary of the Policy
The policy document came about when almost 2,500 children were involved in the consultation on the National Children’s Strategy. They were asked a number of questions about the country in which they lived: was it a good place to grow up in; what was good about it; and, what would make it better? Their responses indicated that play and recreation where an important ingredient in their recipe for a quality life. They complained about how they had few places to play; how adults often stopped them playing; and how adults failed to grasp the significance of play in the eyes of children.
Adults were also consulted but, surprisingly, they failed to indentify the importance of play to children. Accordingly, it could be said that the process provided an admirable example of how consulting with children can yield unexpected and rewarding results. It also proved the importance of listening to children and not just assuming we know what they want, or worse still, what is best for them. It was the children here who identified a gap and contradiction in public policy. The publication of Ready, Steady, Play! provided the first step in closing that gap. The eight objectives consisted of giving children a say in designing play policy; raising an awareness of the importance of play; developing child-friendly
environments to meet the play needs of children; maximising the range of public play opportunities available, particularly in disadvantaged areas; improving the quality and safety of play areas; providing proper training and qualifications; developing partnerships to fund opportunities; and, to improve, monitor and evaluate play areas and opportunities.
Ireland was one of the first countries in the world to produce a detailed national policy on play. Acknowledging at the time that previously childrens play had not been given the priority or attention it deserved, the Government of the day, the Fianna Fail led coalition, said it wished to honour commitments it had made in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the National Childrens Strategy (2000) and the Programme for Government (2002). The policy document was drawn up under the direction of Brian Lenihan, Minister of State with Responsibility for Children and then introduced by Michael Martin, the then Minister for Health and Children. The government acknowledged that one of the key messages of the policy was that children should be consulted on issues that affect them. The document pointed out the importance of play and the various reasons why play was changing in Ireland. At the time, Brian Lenihan, said that the policy has been developed as a response to the concerns of children, parents and the providers of play. He hoped that it would contribute to improving play opportunities for children as well as enriching their experience of childhood. This paper will examine if it achieved that purpose.
To put matters in context, in 2004 Ireland was in the middle of a property boom and was experiencing accelerated and unprecedented growth. Between 2000 and 2006, house prices doubled. Tax incentives were recognised as a key driver of this price rise. In 2004, 12% of the workforce was employed directly in the construction industry (DOE 2006). Ireland was booming. Money was not in short supply. Against this background the policy document acknowledged certain failings (p.10):
* Play had been seriously neglected at policy level;
* There was a shortage of safe public play spaces;
* There was no ring-fenced Government funding for play;
* There was a poorly developed public awareness of the value of play;
* There was no national strategy for play;
* Ireland lagged behind other European countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, UK and Sweden in prioritising play.
The document then proceeds to give us various definition of what play is before telling us that best practice in play provision has been identified by the NPFA, PLAYLINK and CPC (2000). It then sets out what best practice is. Coalter and Taylor (2001) identified the three characteristics inherent in definitions of play by academic researchers as freedom of choice, spontaneity and an absence of extrinsically imposed rules. These three elements are included in the definition of play provided by NPFA, PLAYLINK and CPC (p.6 2000): Play is freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated behaviour that actively engages the child. The document says that these definitions guided the report. For this reason it excluded sport in the definition of play. The document then goes on to set how play, as defined above, can be supported by policy. The policy document showed it was aware of how play was changing and recognised the need for more outdoor activities. In 2004, the public playgrounds and amenity spaces were provided primarily by local authorities and to a lesser extent by D?chas (p.16). Various initiatives were in place to provide more public playgrounds but these were a matter for the individual local authorities. Planning regulations were adopted to enhance more recreational grounds in building developments by the use of levies.
The document set out the existence of three types of playgrounds, traditional, contemporary and adventure and acknowledged that more adventure playgrounds were necessary that challenge current skills and provide opportunities to learn new ones (p.17). Table 1 on page 18 of the policy document sets out the number of public playgrounds managed by local authorities. All in all, there were 168. Donegal, Longford, Kilkenny and Offaly had none. Local authorities were questioned as to whether they were providing more playgrounds. Only Clare, Kildare and Limerick city said they were not while Monaghan failed to respond. In this analysis the policy document is impressive in its findings pointing out that Section 48 of the Planning and Development Act, 2000 is a particularly helpful mechanism in obtaining funding. It provides opportunities to fund the capital cost of recreational and community facilities. Adventure playgrounds were singled out in the policy document as being particularly beneficial for childrens physical and intellectual development.
The policy document contained a list of 52 actions that followed from the objectives and the responsibility for implementing these actions was divided between a number of Government departments, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA), local authorities, the HSE, City and County Development Boards, the Health Service Executive and the CECDE. Implementation of the policy was to be monitored by the DCYA. The plan was influential and clearly recognised the importance of play in the development of children. Outdoor play is instrumental in helping to support childrens personal, social and emotional development and pushes them beyond their normal comfort zone to cope with new challenges (Cooper, 2003). Clements (2004) showed us how the children of today spend considerably less time outdoors than their mothers did when they were the same age. One of the reasons given was the dependence on television and digital media as well as concerns about crime and safety. Rhonda Clements conducted a wide scale study of 830 American mothers which showed other factors which influence parental decision-making to keep children at home. These included their concerns about crime and safety. The study also provides several useful suggestions for early childhood professionals, classroom teachers, and parents in order to facilitate more outdoor play. The UK Government study Natural England Commissioned Report NECR208 (2016) discovered that 10% of those interviewed had not been in a natural environment like a forest, beach or park for at least a year. The following year, Harris (2017) proved that outdoor schools provide a more flexible and responsive learning environment. Other research shows that outdoor play provides supports childrens holistic development (Dillon & Dickie, 2012; Fiennes et al., 2015; Gill, 2011; Rickinson et al., 2004). Martyniuck and Tucker (2014) studied a total of 1,113 Early Childhood Education students from 20 Ontario Colleges and examined their physical activity, their awareness of it, and their understanding of its health-related benefits. Their study showed that 72.1% of ECE students had not completed any physical activity/physical education specific courses. Only 28.7% were familiar with the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for the Early Years. Finally, only 10.5% of them reported personal physical activity behaviours which were consistent with national recommendations for adults which is 150 minutes per week. Bento and Dias (2017) issued a paper called The importance of outdoor play for young childrens healthy development in which they claim that changes in current societies are adversely affecting childhood experiences. This is because there is less and less time for outdoor play. This is leading to a more sedentary type of lifestyle and children are becoming disconnected from the natural world. Research by Azlina and Zulkiflee (2012) show that play and movement are essential to the young childrens lives. If we allow children to experience the natural and man-made elements of their living environment we will generate their cognitive, physical, and social skills development. The plan is excellent in recognising the importance of outdoor play, even if, it is nearly entirely confined to playgrounds.
But this is perhaps its greatest weakness. There is much more involved in childrens play than in providing additional playgrounds. Sioltas Research paper entitled Standard 2 Environments emphasises indoor and outdoor play. It states that indoor and outdoor environment require planning at every level, including type of play, design and layout, compliance with health and safety, and the determination of what is developmentally appropriate for children of different ages. The paper advises that we need to consider the needs of all children and crucially that we provide a range of developmentally appropriate, challenging, diverse, creative and enriching experiences. The setting should become more than a just a place where children spend time but also a place where their initiative is encouraged, their competence is nurtured, and their curiosity is aroused. Aistears Early Childhood Curriculum Framework Learning and developing through play paper is relevant. They point out that children love to play inside and outside, and benefit from both. They say that some are more enthusiastic when taking part in outdoor play and show greater confidence in the outdoor environment. They recommend that it is better if the outdoor play area is directly connected to the indoor area so that it can provide ease of access throughout the day. Much of what can be done inside can also be done outside and in the outdoor type of activities these can be provided on a larger and more expansive scale. However, it is important to remember that most of this research was conducted after this policy document was published in 2004. The plan was innovative in that it gave a voice to children. Only in relatively recent years have we seen a growing awareness of the importance of the rights of children. In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, introduced a framework or basis for childrens rights. In 1992, Ireland ratified this Convention which provides the first ever framework within which discussions about the nature of childhood and the rights of the child around the world can take place. In 2000, the National Childrens Strategy 2000 outlined a vision for all children. Then the National Play Policy document followed in 2004. Since then we have had in 2007 the Agenda for Childrens Services, a policy document setting out a framework for all childrens services. Furthermore, Aistear: The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework, 2009 sets out the context of enabling principles for all preschool children. The Childrens Rights Alliance seeks to protect all childrens rights. In recent years, we have also seen a wave of Acts and legal precedents providing more protection for children. All of these initiatives have changed how we view children in our society. We now see them as individuals and not part of a system. There is a change in our attitude. We now listen and
provide support (Wyness, 2012). The National Play Policy was innovative in that it gave a say to children and more importantly listened to them.
In so far as the plan concentrated on increasing playgrounds it would have to be considered a success. Since 2004 the number of playgrounds has substantially increased and the vast majority of playgrounds now being built are in the form of adventure playgrounds. An article in the Irish Times on the 20 May 2017 set out 50 of the best adventure playgrounds in Ireland and it is clear from that article that not just the quantity of adventure playgrounds has increased but also their quality. It was the 2004 policy document that set this in motion. So, in that respect, it has been a success.
Kiersey (2009) critically examines early childhood education and care policy in Ireland. Five years after the play policy of 2004, she accepts that while the Irish government have, in the previous ten years, invested considerably in the broad early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector a distinction still remained between childcare and early education within Irish policy, both structurally and conceptually. She accepted that there was initial funding put in place for a variety of child care services but that there has been no integrated national programme or strategy which aims to encompass both early childhood education and care. One could reasonably argue that this is somewhat harsh. The desire has been there and she herself admits there has been a proliferation of policy documents but the problem really has to do with funding. Since 2009 there has been much improvement and it could be argued that policy documents like the 2004 play document were the foundation for this growth.
A practical criticism of the play policy is that the government of the day were awash with money. While they acknowledged that a lack of priority had been given to children, their rights, education and care, they left it up to local authorities to raise funding. It could be argued that they had the funds at the time to make a direct financial contribution to ameliorate and accelerate the play programme but singularly failed to do so. Kiersey and Hayes (2010) are also critical of Irelands second periodic report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Again, the criticism may be considered harsh. They argue that much of the discourse is rhetorical while claiming that the paper draws on the language necessary to sell the government as successful in implementation of the Convention, to the CRC. On reading this study one is reminded of the argument made above that perhaps the play policy was more concerned on selling the
government rather than financing the implementation of what was essentially a very basic and simple plan.
Certainly, the 2004 play document gave a voice to children and listened to them but it in no way made any ground towards advancing their rights as individuals and in this respect it is hard to disagree with Kiersey and Hayes (2010) when they bring this point up again six years later.
The Government would argue, and usually do, that when it comes to childrens education and care it does its best according to the funds available to it. But the figures dont necessarily add up. According to a study by German Bertelsmann Stiftung philanthropic group reported in the Irish Times on the 6 November 2017 (Smith, 2017) Ireland spends just 0.1 per cent of GDP on pre-primary education, the least of all in the EU. This is a damning indictment of a government that produces policy document after policy document on child care, education and rights. But, in 2004, when the play policy was published the Governments document was a step in the right direction. They just neglected to finance it. This is all the more surprising considering that in the body of the document they acknowledge that Ireland lagged behind other European countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, UK and Sweden in prioritising play.
Conclusion On the one hand there is much to like about the 2004 play policy document. It acknowledged the importance of play for children. It gave children a voice and listened to them. It highlighted the need to spend more time on childrens rights, education and care. But, play is not just about having fun and it is surprising that the policy document restricted it, in the main, to public playgrounds. Had the policy document been called a national public park play policy it might have been a more apt title. Indoor and outdoor play is equally important. Play in education is crucial, yet this was completely ignored. Certainly it gave a voice to children and listened to them but there is an elegance of rhetoric and a gaucheness in the manner in which they sought to implement the plan. Ireland may sing its own praises in the publication of policy report after policy report in relation to childrens, education, care and rights but the report from the German Bertelsmann Stiftung philanthropic group suggests its way out of tune with its EU compatriots. Ireland spends just 0.1 per cent of GDP on pre-primary education, the least of all in the EU. So, as the great Elvis Pressley once said: A little less conversation, a little more action please is really what is required. [word count 3057]
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Aistear: (2009) The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework WHERE WAS IT P