Who are we:
Islington Play Association has been fighting for children’s rights for well over 40 years. The organisation has always stayed close to its community activist roots, working closely with parents, carers and community members who want to ensure that the best possible environment is created for children and young people specifically here in this highly over crowded, over built urban area.
From its start as a pressure group supporting local people to create adventure playgrounds and other play provision in the borough to its modern incarnation as a provider of services for young people and campaigner for the rights of the child, the charity has always had the playing child at the heart of all its work.
Play is fundamentally important because it is here, in the space that children fill for themselves that their intrinsic motivation, their own developmental aims and their personal experience of life can be explored, tested out and assimilated into their lives. For children living in challenging circumstances, be they social, physical or material play is the key way that resilience, self-confidence and independence can be increased it is also through play that children learn to interact and coordinate with other people.
Play is what happens when children are given the space to be themselves and explore their world learning about what works and what doesn’t in pursuit of their own intrinsic aims. Children’s play time gets eroded and restricted through parental and societal fear for their safety, through focus on specific learned outcomes and through lack of free time and more and more often through use of screens – where the experience, although ‘fun’ is not conducive to unstructured play and often involves the participant in very specific actions for rewards.
No one can plan for play, we can only create an environment that facilitates play. IPA believes that playworkers are fundamentally important to this as they have studied, practiced and reflected on play in order to understand what impact their interventions and interactions can have for children. Playworkers are not teachers, they are people who understand the needs of the playing child and can use their own agency to increase the agency of others. That is, playworkers can create the environment and add to it but they do not control it as each and every individual child needs and wants different things and these change at different times. The key to being a playworker is flexibility, acceptance and the ability to be in the moment, support the play and encourage freedom.
Freedom to make your own mistakes, cope and try again, freedom to choose what you do, freedom to explore your own environment, freedom to see what effect your actions may have and to take what lessons you will from that. These freedoms are the right of children and young people.
IPA has contact with thousands of children, young people and their families in Islington each year, we gather intelligence that informs our planning and strategic aims in a myriad of ways. We have found some key patterns in what residents tell us and have some key recommendations for decision makers to contemplate:
Children and young people in 2017 in Islington are living completely different lives from their parents and even from their older siblings. This is due to:
- Technological changes, specifically social media.
- An increase in the fear of going out, whether that is of cars, strangers or even other young people.
- Worse health outcomes due to unhealthy lifestyles and stress.
- Extreme pressure from school, leading to more stress.
- Information overload.
The things that families tell us make a difference are:
- Safe spaces to go that are free
- Welcoming adults with children’s best outcomes at heart
- Interesting places which are exciting, distracting and involving
- Friends, people to talk to, places to share experiences
- Role models, inspiring people that talk about their lives
Islington is well served with free adventure playgrounds which is a fantastic resource, vastly different from many other places in the UK but Islington children and young people face a massive mountain in terms of everyday challenges. The nature of the polarised resident situation creates its own problems but also opportunities. Services which are truly universal and can attract the diversity of local people are very important and this is a balancing act that needs continuous attention.
The outcomes for children who meet a wide range of different people, see different lifestyles, play with children of different ages, backgrounds and life experiences are massively improved. The places where children can meet each other in these terms are reducing across the whole of the UK.
The transformation of children’s centres is leading to a potential crisis in early years. Children’s centres have been funded to provide a third of places for children in need and have diligently ensured that those most in need gain access to excellent education which is proven to improve their outcomes. The changes that are happening to our children’s centres will put this in jeopardy due to the very tight nature of the new funding agreements.
The changes from the government which see private and other nurseries getting the same level of funding and children’s centres losing theirs means that those children most in need are no longer a priority across the borough as the extra services and support needed for these children is not necessarily affordable and the council no longer able to ensure that they are offered places in the same way. A private nursery in Islington is perfectly able to fill up with very high paying families and has no impetus to support those in need. The changing funding agreements is negatively affecting the voluntary sector- for example a nursery needs to have at least 60 places to be economically viable but many of the voluntary sector nurseries are smaller than this and deliver some of the most successful and individual focussed services.
Roaming distances for children in Islington have massively reduced because parents do not feel it is safe to let young people out even with peers. People talk about 14 being the age when they would feel happy about this. In other countries it has been recognised that independence and resilience gained from children doing something as simple as walking to school by themselves is so fundamental to mental strength that it is insisted upon.
We need to not only buck up our ideas when it comes to public space and children’s place within that but also challenge parental attitudes where they feel that every child needs to be ‘tracked’ or accompanied everywhere they go. This is not going to grow a generation that can cope well with the lives they have. We also see a massive divide in families where the adults have the time or money to constantly police their young people and those that don’t and the widening rift does nothing for community cohesion. The streets are not safer if no young people are on them.
We see families where they feel safer if their young people are at home, on screens rather than outside mixing with their neighbours. The problems here are both that children are not learning to socialise and cope with new people and experiences and that the dangers of the internet are not fully understood by parents. Recently a police officer recounted how he can see the positive differences in a young person who has attended an adventure playground and one that hasn’t in their approach to risk online. This is a very important point. Developing the ability to assess risk and keep safe is a transferable skill that goes directly from play to everywhere else in life.
Parents/carers and their schools feel under a lot of pressure to know about, protect and control children’s lives to keep them safe, maximise their life chances and ensure they get ahead but in this rush for the best start freedom and the encouraging of independent thought is being lost.
IPA’s Recommendations for the Fair Futures Commission:
- Create a play strategy for the borough that emphasises free outdoor play and get all schools, providers and partners to sign up to it.
- Build on and expand Islington’s excellent network of universal services that thread their way throughout the borough and are open to all.
- Use more efficiently the data and experience that frontline staff including voluntary sector providers hold about what works to help children and young people.
- Ensure that evidence is taken about the experiences of very young children and not just from their parents – actually from them, this can be done with observation and discussion with frontline staff.
- Engage head teachers in the discussions about young people’s mental health and help them push back on government testing.
- Encourage private nurseries to provide places for young children most in need.
- Commit resources from greenspace, housing and planning to change ways that decisions on public space are made ensuring that key issues relating to children and young people are included in planning guidance document.
- Encourage children to walk to school without parental escorts.
- Work with parents to calm fears and allow children freedom and independence as is their right.
- Find ways to communicate with young people about what would make them feel safe to move around the borough and implement it.