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Playtime becomes a right

Children will have plenty to keep them occupied if an Assembly initiative takes off. Andrew Mourant reports.

Almost everyone believes playtime is crucial to child development. And now Wales has launched an action plan compelling local authorities for the first time to provide for children's play needs This is the meat on a policy the Assembly government published in 2002.

Staff training, the state of school playgrounds, building community links by opening up facilities outside school hours - all this and more is covered in a document broadly welcomed by professionals and politicians.

"It's internationally groundbreaking. Previously there was no legal obligation for provision," says Mike Greenaway, director of Play Wales.

"This strategy will go some way towards compensating children for what's been lost. So much time and space has been eroded by policies promoting adult agendas."

The muscle of the Welsh action plan lies in compulsion. The Assembly will include "a duty to co-operate in addressing play needs" in Children Act planning guidance. But this will cost money and local education authorities may not always be able to deliver, although the Big Lottery Fund has allocated pound;20 million for play to Wales for councils to bid for.

The Assembly calls for "staffed adventure play, a rich play environment to compensate for the loss of natural open space, and a common idea of what good facilities look like".

"The experts are children and young people, who should be involved in planning and designing," it says.

It intends working with practitioners, communities and children to develop standards, funded by grants. Budgets for improving school buildings may, at the local authority's discretion, be used to transform the playground.

In Swansea much of this thinking was embraced before the Assembly existed, says Richard Parry, the city's director of education. "For some time, we've had school councils involved," he said.

"At one primary, the children designed a woodland walkway. We've already developed a community focus - for instance, using empty buildings for activities involving adults and children."

But he is sceptical about being able to dip into the refurbishment pot.

"Our buildings in Swansea need significant investment. We'll always spend money on a new roof rather than play areas."

The Assembly is making available pound;9m over three years to help schools foster a community focus, with play schemes eligible for funding. It will provide guidance and is even planning a handbook for parents on quality play and how they can make it happen.

"Teaching and non-teaching staff need to understand the philosophy and practice of play," says the document. "This includes play types, behaviour, needs, and how to intervene. The Assembly will support development of training."

Mr Parry agrees with the emphasis on training. "We need to understand how children learn from ages three to five," he said. "Some teachers will be able to see opportunities, others won't."

Marianne Mannello, development officer for Play Wales, said: "This document acknowledges that children's lives have changed but that the drive to play hasn't."

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