‘… Municipal playgrounds are often as bleak as barrack squares and just as boring. You are not allowed to build a fire, you would head straight for juvenile court if you started to dig up the expensive asphalt to make a cave, there are no bricks or planks to make a house… and of course no trees to climb…’
Lady Allen of Hurtwood.
The Times 1952
Reading the words of Lady Allen, one experiences a sense of a truth pinpointed.
It was she who introduced the concept of the Adventure Playground to the UK. the AdventurePlaygrounds that she advocated for were wild and wonderful. Spaces in which children could find an experience that was as close to the playing of a child in nature as it was possible to get. So, with these new adventure playgrounds springing up in the bombed out gaps in terraces, on slum clearance sites, kids found themselves able to build structures to climb and dens to inhabit.. They dug holes and lit fires,. They made noise mess and beauty. They were creative. Even in the harshest of inner-city places, these children played closely with the things of nature. They might not have had any trees to climb, but they had structures.. They might not have had a glorious Peter and Jane idyll, getting into harmless scrapes while their well-adjusted parents gave them their freedom, but they had a playworker to stand back and watch and learn and speak out on their behalf and protect and develop the compensatory environment that was the Adventure Playground.
These sites sparked a revolution in play design. Inspiration was drawn from the marvels that the children created. For a while, there was excitement and enthusiasm for the process of play. But slowly the whole business became unfashionable with designers and parks and local authorities and the bubbling wonder of play was deflated by the ‘no ball games’ signs, by railings and locked gates and dog poo, by disapproval and risk aversion. The adventure playground has been kidnapped, tamed and neutered until it is just another piece of kit that you can buy from a catalogue. (Of course the real things still exist in all their glory. These true rather than faux adventure playgrounds surf the edge of chaos and order and are wild and wonderful as they ever were.)
Play designs may have become formulaic in recent years, but Playwork has not. We have moved from the stage of ‘just knowing’ what is right, to being able to capture that knowledge, express it as theory, translate it into practice, frame it in a shared language and apply it to any situation or setting in which it is appropriate to be thinking about play.
It is this process that has informed the recent DCSF investment in play. The understanding that play is a necessity for all children and also addresses the looming fears about obesity, anti-social behaviour and a lack of social cohesion has been translated into a massive investment programme. Each borough in England is being funded to address the physical state of play whether this is through a Playbuilder or a Pathfinder programme.
This has allowed many parks to rejuvenate their playspaces. It has also allowed many parks managers and employees to re-evaluate their thoughts about what they are providing for children to play with. Just as Lady Allen put her finger on the problems with tarmac barrack type playgrounds, so parks people have realized that the ‘traditional’ catalogue bought solutions to play are very often a deeply flawed offer. They restrict the play offer rather than allowing children to engage playfully in the natural world, manipulate it, explore it and come to an understanding of their relationship with it. This Biophobia is a creeping problem. Children feel themselves divorced from their home planet. As one little girl said to me’ I’m not sitting on the grass, there’s dirt under it’.
Playworkers have the skills to be able to help parks people come to some understanding of the ways in which they re-think their play offers.
A good playworker should be able to help you observe children at play in the space that you are re-thinking. They will explain why we do not ‘consult’ with children. Because asking a child an abstract and hypothetical question about play will not get the result you need, only the one the child thinks that you want. Children tend not to think of what they are doing as playing at all. They certainly use play as a first language which seldom gets translated into the spoken word. Adult language restricts the discussion of play. we validate only two words to describe it, ‘fun’ or ‘boring’. Neither is particularly helpful when it comes to informing a drastic rethink of a space.
Instead the playwork approach to this problem of finding out what children would like Would be to take kids to a range of settings and watch what they do in each place, how they play, what they stay with and what has only a passing interest. We become quiet listeners in conversations about the experiences they have shared. We watch and learn by looking at all the different things that children do, analyzing and reflecting on what we see.
Playworkers generally use a skeleton model of 16 playtypes as a diagnostic tool. (Footnote)
When we use this tool to analyse a wet-pour floored bent-metal climbing frame surrounded by railings all in primary colours we can see clearly that it makes only play offers that are concerned with gross motor skills.. It does not vary with the seasons or sway in the wind. There is little chance for dramatic or imaginary playing, and the biggest risk you run is that of being bored.
However if you listen to some play memories and you will notice that the more stories you hear the more you will get themes repeated, water, fire, mud, digging, dens, climbing, hide and seek, running, ‘gangs’, collecting things, pretend grown up things like cooking or weddings or dolls.
By contrast, see how these compare with the 16 playtypes.
Using playworkers local to you, can help you decide what bits of equipment have a high play value. You can work with them to create all-age playable spaces that are as welcoming to the toddler as they is to the teenager, the young mum or the granddad. The segregation of play by age is a mistake that has been made for so many years that we now believe it to be a necessity. Toddlers can play in the same space as teenagers if the design of the playable spaces is well informed.
Working in Mile End Park, I carried out a play audit for the children’s play park and pavilion. This play auditing is not a matter of counting swings and measuring wet-pour. It focuses on the richness of the play offer that the site makes to children. Can they find a way to explore all 16 of the playtypes? Are there loose parts for them to find and use as they need to in their playing? Is there a good environmental range of experiences? How easily can the site be used by children with disabilities and without.?
This audit showed us that although the site looked snazzy, its play offer was limited. To use a horticultural analogy, it was more of a floral clock than a woodland.
The recommendations contained within the audit have each been acted upon.
First we added a sand pit. This changed the whole atmosphere of the site. Fears about fox poo and needles were unfounded and children dig happily together or play in the boats that sit on the sand.
We have a fire pit and dressing up equipment. There are huge crash mats to jump onto from the spiders web or flump down the slide on. Children with disabilities play on the site regularly, there are toilets and a warm indoor place with a fantasy play room. Most recently we added fairy lights to the biggest tree so that children would be able to play out after dark.
Park staff have had playwork training and now deliberately leave piles of woodchip around and twigs for dens building and tree trunks for climbing. Some grass is left uncut before summer, not only for environmental reasons but so that children can play in it.
This park is a long thin strip of land surrounded by densely populated urban streets and estates. The roads are busy and the flats are built high. Children are unfamiliar with nature they have lost the instinctive biophilia of childhood. I wanted to find a way to show them trees to climb on and shrubs to chase around and make dens in; to find the ‘loose parts’ of sycamore helicopters and discover that blackberries are good food not gadgets. Two wild corners of the park had desire lines marked out in woodchips and tree trunks were left lying for seats and scrambling. A local metal work company created the play cues that I designed to tempt children into the spaces, arches and singing ringing trees, variable sign posts, two mirrored walls facing each other so that you can see yourself reflected into infinity playing in nature as children have always done. A swinging gate, opening and shutting a path to nowhere in particular, unless it is a little clearing in the wood. A convex mirrored dome to look down into and see the world above you reflected with you at the heart of it.
These spaces have worked and the woodlands are discovered over and over. Their cost was low and the possibilities for other similar spaces are endless.
This is a fine partnership, playwork and parks, children and nature.
freedomtoplay.org/id4.html – to find a list and brief description of the 16 playtypes and the theory of loose parts.
www.playtimes.wordpress.com for more information on Liminal Spaces and the work of the PlayTimes team in Tower Hamlets.
www.playtowerhamlets.org.uk for play contacts in Tower Hamlets
www.arcadiaproject.wordpress.com A study centre for play and public spaces
www.playengland.org.uk to find playworkers in your area.
www.playengland.org.uk/westmidlands/power-of-play-bh.pdf for an excellent article by Bob Hughes explaining the importance of play.