The politics of play

Play is healthy – throughout the life course. The evidence that engaged play has physical and mental health benefits is compelling.

However, the nature of play is changing. Younger generations increasingly depend on screens to play, and outdoor play tends to be constrained. ‘Roaming range’ (the territory you can and are allowed to roam freely in) has decreased over the last four generations, and Alan Davies poses a few hypotheses why that might be. Could it be, he asks, that children today:

  1. Are innately less adventurous?
  2. Live in suburbs where there are fewer interesting places to go?
  3. Have fewer playmates in the immediate neighbourhood?
  4. Have parents who are far more coddling than previous generations?
  5. Have more ways of spending their time at home?

These questions are valid but wrong. Roaming range, and the opportunity as well as the freedom to play, have reduced because our social and political systems have responded in overdrive to something called the Risk Society. Giddens postulated that a risk society is “a society increasingly preoccupied with the future (and also with safety), which generates the notion of risk,”[1] and German Ulrich Beck defines it as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself[2].

‘Roaming range’ (the territory you can and are allowed to roam freely in) has decreased over the last four generations.

roaning range

Source : Derbyshire, D. (2007, Jun 15). How children lost the right to roam in four generations. Daily Mail

Play and risk are inherent to human life and evolution. Limiting play and pretending that risk can be eliminated is the end of humanity as we know it. Yet – in an unstoppable juggernaut the whirlpool of media coverage, policy proposals, institutional performance accountability and individual as well as social perceptions there is the illusion that life can be risk-free – and limiting or regulating play behaviour is part of the ‘solution’.

The question, then, becomes how policies and politics that creatively manage risk and at the same time creatively and optimally stimulate play and human development can be assessed and supported. The argument is that media coverage is relentless, and social/cultural norms are phenomena virtually always unyielding to intervention. Policy is, supposedly, a sphere of influence that can be morphed. In particular policymaking at the lowest level of governance, close to the community that lives its benefits or laments its absence, is worthy of investigation and investment.

Therefore, the overarching question on the above five becomes:

What are the determinants of local (council) policymaking that would enable the maximization of roaming and play, at every stage of life, but in particular for children between 5 and 13?

We have argued[3] elsewhere that we have the theories and tools to study this question. It is time to be playful again[4].


[1] Giddens, A., & Pierson, C. (1998). Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making sense of modernity. Stanford University Press. P. 209

[2] Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. New Delhi: Sage. P.21

[3] De Leeuw, E., Clavier, C., & Breton, E. (2014) Health policy–why research it and how: health political science. Health research policy and systems, 12(1), 55

[4] de Leeuw, E. (2011) Theory and policy innovation for health: where has the creativity and fun gone? Health promotion international, 26(1), 1-3

Is local government better?

In the health field there has been a call — since the early 1980s — to make health policy development the responsibility of all sectors, not just the health care system’s. This echoes calls from administrative and political science, first voiced in the 1970s, to integrate or join up policy systems. There is a range of monikers for either, from Healthy Public Policy and Health in All Policy to Whole-of-Government and Integrated Governance. Whatever it is called, it remains what Peters has called ‘the holy grail of public administration’.

Our first feasibility study of such integrated health policy at the level of the nation-state was published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We found that there are many parameters, intimately associated with the very nature of the nation-state and its governance systems, that do not bode well for the development and sustainable implementation of policy for health (rather than policies for, e.g., pharmaceuticals, health workforce development, practitioner accreditation, numbers of hospital beds, etc.). The emerging practice of Healthy Cities around the world from their official European WHO launch in 1986 turned out to be a ‘natural experiment’ (or rather multiple case study inquiry with an N>10,000) to see whether local contexts would provide different opportunities for evidence-based health policy.

Colloquially there have been convincing arguments that devolved governance to local systems is the ‘natural’ and more efficient thing to do. Benjamin Barber attractively argued (in his not entirely rigorously resourced book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities) that ‘local government collects the garbage’ – and that local politics therefore would be more responsive to community needs and might well be more agile in its (health) policy response.

Based on three decades of Healthy Cities evaluations; a typology that has been developed to challenge the more traditional ‘knowledge translation’ paradigm (into an area of seven interlocking nexus theories); horizontal and vertical policy transfer theories; and an eclectic use of policy network and framing perspectives, this paper argues that although health policy making at the local level is relatively easier, its mobilisation and use of relevant evidence sources is often more convoluted. Rather than dealing with more abstract power and governance issues at the nation-state level, the fact that Council collects the garbage also requires it to shepherd a more conscientious and accountable way of generating, managing and applying the evidence to support responsive policy for health.

Read more in this new discussion paper by Evelyne de Leeuw here