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No play makes for a dull child

Neil Munro reports on a new lobby that is determined to recruit MSPs to its cause.

LLOYD GEORGE may, or may not, have known everyone's father but he certainly knew what was good for their children.

As far back as 1925, the Liberal Prime Minister declared: "The right to play is the child's first claim on the community. No community can infringe that right without doing deep and enduring harm to the bodies and minds of its citizens."

Seventy years on, campaigners are still fighting for that claim of right and, like every other interest group, they believe the Scottish Parliament brings hope. The leading players gathered in Glenrothes last week to demand that the Edinburgh parliamentarians investigate "the state of play in Scotland".

The newly founded charity Play Scotland has produced a report on The Importance of Play, which contains a 50-point action plan spanning six Scottish Executive portfolios and 13 ministers. It points to the key contribution play and leisure time makes to learning, as well as the potential of play to reduce crime and improve the quality of neighbourhoods.

Stephanie-Anne Harris, who chairs Play Scotland, says the importance of play for children's intellectual and physical development has to be recognised not just by educational interests but in the fields of health, housing, transport, the environment, enterprise and justice.

The group appears to be kicking at an open door as Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, acknowledged last December that "play is an essential activity for all children".

Mr Galbraith added: "Not only is it enjoyable but it also makes an invaluable contribution to children's educational and social development."

Although ministers appear to be listening, however, their cash is not being placed where their ears are. The Executive's grant to Play Scotland is just pound;29,000 despite a request for pound;120,000.

"It's somewhat meagre when you consider what the arts and sports councils receive," Mrs Harris observes.

Play Scotland is also concerned that decisions are being taken in education and housing, for example, which ignore the claims of play. Mrs Harris is particularly worried at the eclipse of play as pre-school learning is increasingly formalised. Alan Rees, director of Play Scotland, also cautions against "excessive homework which blocks out other things".

Nancy Ovens, a board member of Play Scotland and a veteran campaigner for the recognition of play, referred to "the collective amnesia about childhood which involves us imposing on children what we learn as adults".

Ms Ovens added: "We no longer have the playground, play time or, even in Scotland, the play piece." But she counsels: "We must live in the present not in the dream times from our childhood we remember as adults."

Deprivation in play is not just a consequence of poverty, she says. A child's access to other children, which may be limited in many families irrespective of social circumstances, is equally important.

Ms Ovens urged activists to ensure that the voice of play is "an informed voice" backed by research. It must also, however reluctantly, advance the arguments using the language of performance indicators, best value and outcomes.

"Our children may be well cared for and protected but they may not be playing and it is only in that way that we make our claim for children's right to play."

Fiona Grossart, chair of the Institute of Leisure and Amenities Management in Scotland, said play should not be the preserve of play workers. Many more agencies must become involved and there had to be a multidisciplinary focus. "Social policy has to take account of play rather than play having to operate within the constraints of social policy," Ms Grossart said.

Transport planners and property developers are therefore in the campaigners' sights as they take the case for play to the Scottish Parliament.

Mr Rees criticised "ghastly" housing developments that give priority to cars not children. He expressed disappointment at the omission from the recent Scottish Office housing White Paper of any reference to the play and recreational needs of children and their families.

Elaine Smith, MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston, called on private builders to look beyond profit margins. "No investment in play is a wasted investment or a cost too high," she said. Gerry McCann

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