One of the nice things about travelling by train is the opportunity to meet new people.  Last year I ended up sitting next to an old house mate from 10 years previously who now has a couple of pubs in Bath.  Last week I sat down opposite a fellow called Michael Follett who turned out to be the "Play Development Advisor" for South Gloucestershire Council.  We had a great conversation with too much to relay here but a few keys snippets were:

  • Year 7 children (age 11 & 12) are 2 years behind in terms of cognitive thinking compared with 20 years ago.  Apparently this is due in part to changes in children’s play habits.
  • The distance that kids roam from their home unaccompanied has reduced by 80% compared to 20 years ago.  Parents restrict their children far more than in previous generations for a variety of reasons and the big losers are the kids.

Michael’s job is to advise South Gloucestershire on their play strategy and to change the councils attitude towards risk in particular.  He argued that children learn through play and enjoy play more when there are elements of unpredictability and risk.  Play has become sanitised.  The play I remember from my childhood is digging dens in the field behind the house, climbing over building sites, being shot at by my brother’s air pistol, and exploring woods.  Does anyone remember the safe bark matting under the climbing frame?  In essence Michael’s job is about telling South Glos councillors to make their playgrounds more dangerous.  I was intrigued about how Michael went about this.  Was it a blunt approach?  What do a few broken bones matter anyway?

Michael told me he starts his pitches by asking the audiences who was a child (yes some councillors don’t stick their hand up) and what they remember from their childhood play.  Invariably their memories are different from what they are offering the current generation of children.  He then asks if that is fair to deprive today’s children of the fun that they had as kids.

As he told me this it occurred that the same approach could be used to convince councillors that it is worth embracing e-Democracy to make politics more transparent and accountable.

In my experience Councillors get into politics for the right reasons.  Because they want to help people, to serve the community, to do a better job than the incumbents.  I’m going to be asking Cllrs from now on to think back to the time before they got elected.  Did they call for more transparency, more openness, more accountability?  Is it right to deprive this generation of citizens every chance for that? 

There are risks with e-Democracy tools.  Some online forums can degenerate into abuse (or more likely banality) but most provide a place to discuss local issues; e-petitions can provide support for unworkable, impractical, but popular ideas, but mostly they are a way of identifying support for good ideas; blogs can land the author in trouble, but mostly they are a great way of initiating discussion and communicating with the community.  There are risks but without taking some small mitigated risks you’ll never achieve the benefits that you wanted before getting elected.

Councillors: next time an officer asks you to consider a new way of engaging with the community don’t just consider the risks – think back to before you were elected, would you have liked the opportunity to engage with politicians this way? 


Michael Follett · 22nd September 2008 at 11:53 pm

Amazing and slightly scary to see our conversation up on the web. I think there is still a long way to go in our attitudes to childhood. Is it all about preparing to be an adult, to work, to study, to become educated? Are there some aspects of childhood that are intrinsically valuable?

Shane McCracken · 23rd September 2008 at 8:12 am

Hi Michael, Hope it wasn’t too scary or I said something out of place.
The conversation we had becomes more and more pertinent as my children grow up. The elder recently started school and the questions you pose above were important considerations. Throughout education and child rearing it is easy to think that we have a production line. Primary School trains them for Secondary School, Secondary School trains them for University. University trains them for employment. Bit depressing really. Need to get them off that conveyor belt.

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