In Grovelands Park, north London, an exciting new playground has taken shape. Placed in a densely wooded area, next to a rocky creek, the playground is made of large timber poles, rather like telegraph poles. These have been joined together to form swings, climbing frames and obstacles. On any sunny day the immensely popular playground is packed with children from around five to 16.
This is just one of the playgrounds created as a result of the Government's Play Strategy, which was unveiled in 2008. The Labour administration promised to give out £235m for play projects in the two years 2009/10 and 2010/11. The scheme was launched to ensure that Britain had "world-class" play provision that would be mentally stimulating and help build a strong sense of community.
The Play Strategy was certainly ambitious. It declared: "The Government's ambition is to make this the best country in the world for children to grow up. Play is a vital ingredient of a happy and healthy childhood, supporting physical, emotional, social and educational development." Play was supposed to be exciting and open to everyone - disabled as well as able-bodied. Local authorities were supposed to have their own play strategies.
Guidance was given on how play should be organised. Play England produced Design for Play: A Guide to Creating Successful Play Spaces, which suggested 10 principles that local authorities should follow. Playgrounds should be specially designed, well located, fit in with the local area, make use of natural elements and allow children to experience risk and challenge, it stated.
The guidance was critical of some local authorities and manufacturers of play equipment. It suggested that "avoiding wear and tear often appears to be a bigger priority than user enjoyment". There was a great deal of discussion about "natural play"
- encouraging children to explore and interact with the environment - and how children should be allowed to take risks. Stress was laid on the importance of design. Natural materials such as timber, sand, water and rocks were advocated in preference to pressed steel.
Because of the amount of money being given out (at least £1m to each local authority), almost every council has signed up to the scheme. The Department for Children, Schools & Families website lists 526 playgrounds that have been created or renewed using this money. The strategy recommends that the £235m should be spread across 3,500 play areas throughout the country.
Local authorities have welcomed the initiative. This, perhaps, is scarcely surprising. After all, it has given them funds to renew play areas that would otherwise have been a drain on council budgets or would have been allowed to decay, causing local hostility.
Instead, they can now offer local residents state-of-the-art play facilities. Richard Wellburn, head of parks and green space services in Leicester, sees the strategy in an extremely positive light. "It has made a huge difference. We have got funding for new facilities, which we normally wouldn't have had," he says.
However, he reckons that it is not just the cash that is important. He suggests that the introduction of the strategy has changed popular perceptions about play. "This has raised the profile of children's play. It has made the council realise how important play is for children's development and how it brings about social benefits," he explains.
The strategy has had a profound effect. "We have to put play facilities in the right locations. In at least one instance, we've actually removed an old playground because it was in the wrong place and was attracting antisocial behaviour."
Leicester has introduced a wide variety of new play equipment, some of which is designed to encourage adults to take more exercise. It includes such items as swings, climbing frames and scrambling nets. The council has tried to incorporate elements of natural play, recommended in the various guidance. "We have contoured the ground and put in low mounds. We have also agreed to accept reasonable levels of risks. We call this 'safe danger'."
Scarborough Borough Council in Yorkshire has built two playgrounds. It has applied for funding for a further two schemes, although because of new Government budget plans, there is no guarantee that further funds will be made available.
The local authority's landscape architect Matthew Smart says the schemes were prepared in conjunction with environmental regeneration consultancy Groundwork, which specialises in park and play developments. "We wanted to build from timber because it's difficult to get funding for traditional steel equipment," he says.
He points out that the consultation has been genuine: "We talk to a lot of groups. If children want ropes, we'll do our best to provide them." He suggests that the equipment should have a lifespan of between 15 and 20 years. "It has certainly changed the nature of our parks," he adds.
Even in the densely packed City of London, the strategy is having an impact. Director of open spaces Sue Ireland explains: "We've had to think very carefully about the people who use our play areas. Some are tourists, some are local residents. It's not just a matter of putting in slides. We have to provide play areas that are challenging." She says play is now embedded in council policy. "Play has to be taken into account with every planning decision. That to me is the biggest legacy of the Government strategy."
The strategy has also encouraged the development of styles of play equipment. Bernard Spiegal is part of the Playlink consultancy, which helped write the Design for Play guidance. He has also been involved in designing at least 12 playground schemes as part of The Play Strategy.
"The strategy has helped create a more natural space for play," he says. "We've used more interesting materials." He is particularly pleased with the way that items such as basket swings, which will hold groups of children, are often used. "These can be used by different age groups and by children with disabilities. It brings everyone together. It is genuinely integrative. It doesn't yell that someone has special needs."
Some play equipment manufacturers have reservations about the strategy, feeling they have been unfairly criticised and that landscape designers have been used too liberally. Proludic managing director and Association of Play Industries vice chair Michael Hoenigman says: "A lot good stuff has been installed, but there is some poor stuff. Too many people have jumped on the idea of natural play and put lots of rocks and timber in the middle of a field, which doesn't really meet the needs of the community."
He complains that the play industry is not being consulted adequately. "We have had a lot of criticism for making boring playgrounds in the past, but we only did what we were asked. If you want us to make exciting, innovative play areas, we can do it. We really understand play equipment - many landscapers don't."
Noel Farrer, a director of FHA Play, which advises on play provision, says many local authorities are still stuck in the old ways of thinking. "Over the past 25 years, councils have been obsessed with limiting risk. Many of them haven't changed. Mothers are now insisting that play should be more challenging. But they haven't got the message." He says in some cases councils were simply building the same dull play environments but using timber and sand in construction.
He also points out that play has not been built into town planning. Most new playgrounds are being put in parks, which close at dusk. The sort of play centres that you find on the continent, in city squares and housing estates, can rarely be found in Britain.
Of course, there are practical difficulties in delivering The Play Strategy. Although Government money has been made available for capital spending, creating new playgrounds, councils are having to find the money to maintain and supervise the sites.
Often this entails using the existing budget in a novel way. Roger Burnett is head of parks in Scarborough. He explains: "Because we don't have to spend money on new equipment, we're doing more routine maintenance. We're oiling bearings and replacing worn parts before they break." The council has also employed a dedicated member of staff to do the required inspection and maintenance work.
This has not entirely removed the problem. "We'll have to look at revenue in the future. Because the equipment is getting more use, there are greater problems with litter and general wear and tear on the playground area. There are difficult revenue implications, which will have to be addressed over the next few years," says Burnett.
Spiegal goes even further, suggesting any future expenditure should be given exclusively to look after existing schemes. He worries that some work has been rushed. "All the work is being done over three years. The schemes haven't always been thought out as carefully as they should have been."
In addition, some parts of the strategy have yet to be tackled due to lack of council funds. The strategy, for example, argues that there should be a more professionalised play leadership and that staff should study for NVQs in children's play.
It also suggested that there should be closer links with voluntary bodies and with health services. But much of this has simply not happened. Burnett explains: "We don't have money for that kind of thing. We're not envisaging any retraining."
But for now the really big worry is future funding for the programme. The Department for Education, has been ordered to implement a £5m reduction in the revenue budget for The Play Strategy as part of the deficit reduction programme of the new coalition Government.
No final decisions have been made on how the cuts will be made, but it is understood that savings will come from a range of programme delivery strands, and Play England has been asked to propose a hugely reduced national delivery partner role for the remainder of the financial year (Play England's Play Strategy contracts were due to complete in March 2011).
Play England is negotiating with the department exactly how it can deliver a reduced programme within the new policy framework with a view to both minimising the effect of the cuts on children and families and providing the most effective and sustainable programme of support for community play.
The news followed hard on the heals of a decision by the Big Lottery Fund not to offer new funding to secure the legacy of the Children's Play initiative beyond 2011, although it is hoped that play will feature in the next round of funding programmes to be discussed later this year.
But whatever the future holds, there is little doubt that the strategy has had a major effect - as can be seen in almost any borough across the country. Play is seen as important, it is firmly on the agenda and there are numerous extremely good new play areas, which - even if no more money is available - will continue to give families and children pleasure and stimulation for at least the next 15 years.
- The Play Strategy (2008) Produced by the Department for Children, Schools & Families. Outlines Government aims for the £235m strategy.
- Design for Play: A Guide to Creating Successful Play Spaces (2008) Produced by Play England. Gives 10 principals for new playgrounds. See www.playengland.org.uk/resources/design-for-play.pdf