Initiative puts playgrounds on the map

While it has its critics, the Children's Plan could see cash reach grass-roots level. Jez Abbott reports.

The Children's Plan, a £1bn initiative for education, welfare and play, was set out by the Government before Christmas, aiming to be all things to all children.

Among the "world-class ambitions" for every child in the country was the goal to shake up primary and secondary education, wipe out child poverty and improve health. Children's secretary Ed Balls insisted play is crucial to achieving all those lofty ambitions by 2020.

He plans to spend £225m in the first three years to build or improve more than 3,500 playgrounds and make them more accessible to children with disabilities. The money will also pay for 30 new supervised adventure-play parks designed for eight to 13 year-olds in run-down communities.

The mission, according to Balls, is to make "our country the best in the world to grow up in", and it "builds on a decade of reform and results". Last summer saw the last tranch of cash for the £155m Children's Play Initiative, while lower-key lottery grants have filtered out to playgrounds across Britain for several years.

"We want to move away from the 'No Ball Games' culture of the past, so public spaces in residential areas are more child-friendly," he explained.

However, Balls' most recent grand vision of childhood, that could change visual and cultural landscapes, is not without criticism.

Shadow children's secretary Michael Gove dismissed a "collage of items stuck any old how and with no under-lying vision". His Liberal Democrat counterpart David Laws rejected the "mouse of a plan" as nothing more than a hotchpotch of reviews, recycled policies and gimmicks redolent of "top-down government".

Children's Society chief executive Bob Reitemeier is more guarded, but also has concerns. He said: "The Government came up with the Children's Plan in a few months, which is a very short time. You can't criticise its ambition, but underlying the plan is an idea that we want a different sort of childhood for our children. This means a deeper cultural change is needed and we must, therefore, see children in a more positive light in everything from TV soap operas to newspapers, where they are seen negatively."

He added: "We have to stop using words such as 'hoodies' and 'yobs' and give them the benefit of the doubt."

Reitemeier wants to see legislation "child-proofed" across local and central government, where politicians are forced to look at the implications on children of all their decisions. The Children's Plan is also sketchy on the 13- to 18-year-old range, he feels.

"When looking at youth, as opposed to children, you need to strike the right balance between providing activities and freeing-up capital structures for playgrounds or youth centres. Offering activities in a single location may not serve everyone's needs. It requires more thinking through."

Play England director Adrian Voce, who has been involved in the Children's Plan consultation, hopes the new flood of money will percolate down to the smallest councils and therefore answer critics of past schemes who have complained of cash failing to reach grass-roots levels.

"It will give local authorities the freedom to plan more ambitious play strategies to support bids for funds, and more money will flow down. What's more exciting is the cross-departmental play strategy due in a few months. This recognises that play is a wide-ranging issue taking in parks, planning, traffic and housing.

"Children's play has never had such a big policy focus," adds Voce. "The last department with responsibility was culture and you would be hard-pressed to find any mention in any of its documents of the critical importance of children's play.

"Before the Children's Plan, you could be forgiven for feeling the Government paid lip service to play. Now we have a long-term strategy set by a children's department as opposed to an education department, which embraces areas other than academic attainment."

CHILDREN'S PLAN AIMS

- Strengthen support for all families during the formative early years of their children's lives

- Take the next step in achieving world-class schools

- Seek a step-change in parents' involvement in their child's learning

- Help provide exciting activities for children outside school and offer more places for them to play

KEY ANNOUNCEMENTS

- £225m allocated over the next three years to build or upgrade more than 3,500 playgrounds and set up 30 new supervised adventure playgrounds for eight to 13 year-olds in deprived communities

- £160m to improve the quality and range of places for young people to go and things for them to do, including new youth centres and smaller-scale centres or mobile units

- 20,000 two year-olds from disadvantaged families will receive free childcare, building on the current childcare offer to all three- and four-year-old children.


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