I have been looking at loads of playgrounds recently and it has come to my attention that within 30 seconds of walking onto a site, you pretty much know what sort of place it is.
I am trying to put my finger on just what it is that you pick up on in those vital seconds.
I know that if I see a neat, well ordered clean site it can tell me that the people responsible for it take a pride in what they do and the environment that they create for and with the children OR it could tell me that the site is run by adults for adult approval and that the children do not have ownership of their time there, it is adulterated.
I might see a site that is covered in mud and paint, where bits and pieces are all over the place. I might feel that it is a revolting unloved mess and be in a hurry to get out of the dirt, or I might feel that it was a wild and wonderful space in which the children created the order, (which might not be similar to an adult sense of order) and that it might be like this now, but at the start and end of the day it will be cleaned and tidied and loved.
It is a very fine line between a site I would recommend to people and one that I would frown people away from.
I think that what we see and feel are symptoms of the quality of the staff team.
I spent a bit of time working on a site that was always held as a shining example of the best of how an adventure playground could be. And you could see it. The brilliance of a moment’s idea caught and created to inspire the space and break the rules of expectation. The mischief of the wit that listened to children playing and secretly made their imaginings come true for the next day. The placing of incongruous objects in the apex of the roof or hidden in nooks. The hidden gardens. The feeling that every corner had been considered with a maverick mind and tweaked to create the maximum number of play possibilities. Space that had been well managed. But by the time I got there, the wild painting of the structures, that had obviously been done by adults and children together, had faded and peeled and been left untouched. The incongruous objects were layered in dust and an old tired joke. Wildness gone to seediness.
The mad swings had become rule bound and the bazaar touches, rusted and tattered. Very like Miss Havershams house, a moment designed for beauty in the present moment and deep, beloved memories in the future, left to rot and wither. Uncared for any more.
I know that I am particularly motivated by the way things look. My memories of childhood are captured predominantly visually . I went to a workshop by Gordon Sturrock at last year’s PlayEd in which he played with some of the basics of Neuro-
Linguistic Programming. One bit of the theory I found interesting and potentially useful. By looking at how a person uses their eyes, the NLP therapist can tell if visual, auditory or kinesthetic memories are being accessed. People generally have a bias to one or the other way of perceiving their experience.
I used to scrounge lengths of material to decorate ceilings and walls with swathes of overlapping wafting colour. They were changed or added to every couple of weeks. When we were given a lot of plastic plants, we created a forest pool on the ceiling. We hid Barbies in the Fish tank and soft toys up the trees. Found the places where the afternoon sun was most perfect and placed transparent or translucent objects where they would light up for a few brief moments.
If we are working with any children we have to be aware that those first few seconds of impression apply most importantly to them. Especially if it is true that those impressions are symptomatic of the quality of the work. If we are committed to working inclusively, then we should definitely not be missing any chance of getting the ethos of the site communicated to the child.
I think that we should add a sensory audit to our play audits.
How about that for a plan?