Originally, Glamis Adventure Playground (GAP) was one of the sites that sprang out of community action, a local identification that children in the area needed somewhere to play in safety and with daring, and the appropriation of bomb or slum clearance sites for that purpose. This playground ran for years, and many people sharing their play memories with me, who had grown up in the east end of London, mention GAP as the home of their playing.
At its peak, (1950-1970s) the Adventure Playground movement comprised 200 or so sites in London alone that were established in similar ways.
The Thatcher years brought new policies and ways of thinking. In this case the denial of the concept of society and the abolition of the Greater London Council, which resulted in a massive cull of these valuable and well loved spaces. The prevailing culture shifted to one that was litigious, inspected to find fault, derided for a lack of conformity and labelled as liberal-leftwing and anarchic. Structures and Playworkers were made to conform to arbitrary, externally manipulating agendas which were not informed by Playwork practices or theories. These theories were still emergent at that time and a language for the Playwork toolkit had not yet emerged. The Adventure Play movement found itself in a reactionary position and floundering for words, a confirmation to those in positions of authority, who were seeking it, that this was a nonsense and a luxury and funding was withdrawn across the board.
Adventure Playgrounds withered and died. At the time of writing about 70 are extant.*
GAP was a typical case. There are traces of a sad demise in the records of the time. A depressed site, a depressed team of Playworkers and a local council that felt as if it had been caught out for even supporting such a wacky, outlandish project and seemed to be more than a little shamefaced about the whole enterprise.
For years the site ran to weeds. Locals gave up hope and children refused even to break in and play in the place ‘because there was this old lady who kept cats and the whole place stank of piss.’
However at the turn of this century the space began to attract attention again. Local allotments and community gardens were running successfully and the encroaching development of land (largely by the Thatcher Government quango, the LDDC London Docklands Development Corporation) shook the neighbourhood into a realisation that they had a great site on their doorstep, still nominally dedicated for children to play. The people in the community and local political leaders had played in that very place and wanted it back for their kids.
The Shadwell area, in which GAP sits, had always been one of deep deprivation. Massive warehouses and dock spaces to the south of the GAP led it to become a transitory home for sailors and the home-spun trades that exploited them. Slum lodgings and the coffee houses that sprang up along the length of Cable Street, were fronts for prostitution, drug dealing and crime long before and long after the intensive bombing of the warehouses and docks during the war.
This bombing and the LCC (London County Council) reconstruction of the area with enhanced traffic systems and mazes of housing developments and tower blocks, served to undermine and erode the tight communities that had managed to linger and thrive there. It is hardly surprising then that the Adventure Playground movement was seized upon by the vestigial threads of the existing community as a way of nurturing their children and young people.
The street had been the traditional pre-war playground for kids. Especially at weekends, when the horses and carts had been fewer. And even on the busy days the children had enjoyed the challenge of jumping on the backs of wagons and skitching lifts, often catching the backwards flick of a whip. They had foraged for food in the docks, (imagine the rare and zingy delights of a stolen orange,) and braved the Thames with its filth and dangerous undertows, for swimming.***
Life for adults was hard during the period of employment that was to be had when the docks were thriving, the depression, the bombing, the re-development and the Thatcher years of unemployment and industrial action. After that, the money started to flow again but largely to the incomers, the ‘yuppies’.
The walk to Glamis from Commercial Road is not pretty, there are grey and canyons and wind sweeps around you as you pass through the half heartedly, vibrant, pseudo market-place in the remodelled Shopping Plaza. There is little of playfulness here, except the gems of community gardens and allotments along and around Cable Street, which meanders along a route that was originally a cattle path worn between fields by driven hooves being led to the haymarket at Whitechapel from the pastures of Stepney and beyond. Arrive at a beautiful church that looks like a miniature Salisbury cathedral from a Constable painting which sits bizarrely ancient in these surroundings. Turn a corner and there it is!
A mass of zesty colour and inventiveness bursts into view.
It has a pithy, button box quality. The fence is be-decked with massively enlarged children’s drawings of themselves cut out in ply-wood and attached in a scamper down the length of the boundary. There is nothing of the prevailing culture of street cool and designer labels and educational agendas and drugs culture here. Here it is all quirky. This is fencing as bunting, a perpetual celebration of a place in which the playing of children is of the paramount importance. Playing is the soul remit, the only agenda of this space. In contrast to the height and harsh unyielding texture and greyness of everything around, this place is like a fabulously innocent Heath Robinson acid trip. The structures are weird and wonderful. Carousels of swings and skeletal frames to climb over and build under, seem to have grown in some organic mutant frenzy and one feels the urge to investigate. Partly it is the colours that attract you, like bees or butterflies one is drawn to the subtle blending of vibrancy which is as tasteful as a wildflower meadow.
Here is an environment which compensates town children for their lack of nature- an urban country-side.
One instinctively knows that there are adventures to be had here. As an adult, one also feels oneself a guest who should defer to the host, just as one would respect and elderly aunts’ home with its crystal and porcelain or whisper in a place of worship.
The adult is the welcome outsider here in a place that is for children.
And just to make it clear, there is a hand-painted sign at the door which reads, ‘There is no war here. We are all fantastic.’ There is no truck paid to the internecine disputes of Islam and The West, drugs sales, domestic violence or postcode territorialism. This space is for play and all children can do that!
It may look haphazard and makeshift, but this is far from the case. The reason that it is successful is because a dedicated team of Playworkers has thought closely and cleverly and researched the local history and watched the kids and every single piece on the site has been planned, informed by the playing lives of the children.
So it is that in their determined desire to create the most flexible ‘good enough’**** offer to the children they serve, the playwork team dissects every aspect of the site in their Reflective Practice sessions at the end of each day.
The site is equipped with a range of bits and pieces, loose parts*****, things that they can use for anything they need to add richness to their play.
Realising that they were not offering chances for dramatic play, they created a stage area and sought out a glorious jumble of dressing up clothes for the kids to use. (Feather boas, red fright wigs, ball gowns and flippers and snorkels. Real stuff from charity shops, not pretend, catalogue bought pieces.)
Missing symbolic play, they put out a local appeal for the left over tat of childhood, plastic super heroes, farm animals , dolls house furniture.
Understanding that even though you may live in a high rise block, you have little chance to experience a real sense of the danger and excitement of height, they built a Raiders of the Lost Ark bridge, so high up that the sense of vertigo is attractive and terrifying at once, and yet, safe.
Looking at a need for fantasy and transgressive playing, they created a free standing door frame and door, that opens and shuts onto nothing. Or does it?
The swings give you The Fear as you stand poised to make a jump into the abyss. Get this wrong and you could die. Learn to master it and you can fly. Like other sites I have visited, children awaiting their turn on the swing sing ‘I believe I can fly’.
There is no right way to play here. Nothing is ‘age appropriate’. Boys at secondary school play with sand and water. Girls learn to build dens and the little ones play with fire, catching sparks on string ends. All of them, from the very smallest, to the most daring can find a level of challenge here, and a broad age range of children play comfortably together as, children have done through the ages. Kids race snails, grow food and share it. There are growing beds around the peripheries of the site.
The children can play out after dark, take riverside walks with Playworkers, have girls nights when the Muslim girls can literally let their hair down, in safety.
On one Eid day visit I saw a family arrive with their girls and film them swinging on the carousel of swings rejoicing in their celebratory Shalwar Kameez, the chiffon of the glorious parrot like flurry of colour billowing back and forth as the girls swung and laughed, rejoicing in their wafty-sequinned beauty.
When the project was ready, they opened their gates to children with disabilities. They worked hard to make their policies, procedures and staff training fit for purpose before they tried this. And what did they find when they did? All at once the magnificence of the playing inflated as children and staff saw new ways to be in the place. New naive art ways to be alive and play. And the inspiration spread. A child who enjoyed kicking plastic bottles around the site was an oddity, for five minutes or so, until the street wise teenagers watched, modelling their development of understanding upon the Playworkers who supported them, and saw that his joy was not so very dissimilar from their own love of kicking a ball around for hours. The children had few problems with the concept of the integration of extreme difference, play is play. Through this development they realised that all who play here have special needs of one sort or another.
The only indoor play area is a small cabin. Glamis need to address this as their next major project. Indoor play can be just as exciting and challenging as playing outdoors, so long as the children can choose it. It makes the place more workable for children with disabilities and offers a sense of nurture and comfort and a different quality of play experience. But there is a danger that an architect will come up with a design that is not fit for purpose, a thing of glass and polished steel.
This would adulterate the playground. The challenge that faces them now is to find a new design solution to this problem.
Two anecdotes illustrate the life of the site. The first story is about a time when the children and staff were clearing a piece of land on the playground. As they dug the found many, many crystal droplets, obviously from a chandelier. These were treasures and were hoarded by the kids. The Playwork team, with their deeper understanding of the history of the site, saw that these were the remnants of a bombed out home. A slum clearance would have allowed time for such extravagant trinkets to be removed from this place for relocation in Dagenham.
This touching moment of real life history into real life play was lost of none of the adults, but for the children was something of innocence to enjoy. For them it was the finding of treasure. If they recall it into adulthood then they will better understand. But that is not their work now.
The second story is from an eight year old boy. He was over-heard by the Playworkers telling a mate. ‘It’s so hard out there’ (Indicating beyond the boundaries of the Playground.) ‘You have to be so hard and cool. But in here, you can just relax and play and be yourself.’
This is the sign of a really great Adventure Playground.
It is a bubble of how the world should be.
It is not blinded to the reality of kids’ lives, far from it. It is exactly this understanding that informs it and makes it successful.
Its aim is to make one little space in the whole of the world of the children where they can be children, and where they can just play.
*The current Government initiative is designed to create 30 new adventure Playgrounds across England.
*** ‘Couldn’t afford the eels.’ Memories of Wapping 1900-60 Martha Leigh. History Press.
**** Donald Wood Winnicott. The good enough Mother is his term for a parent who provides a children with a ‘holding environment’ that considers every aspect of need for the child from physical to emotional. DWW is often cited by Playworkers to explain their work as he considers the foundation of all successful human relationships to be based in play and a play-filled, ‘creative living’ to be the ideal human condition.
***** Simon Nicholson. ‘How NOT to cheat children-The theory of Loose Parts’ was originally published in ‘Landscape Architecture’ v62 p30-35 1971. In this he neatly describes what play work thinkers had recognised for many years, that is that children need a freely available variety of bits and p0ieces which they can use in any way that they need to in their playing. Eg the cardboard box. Lady Allen and Soerenssen both make great use of this concept. The article is available in reproduced for in Ip-Dip issue 7 may 2009 ISBN 1753-870x