The Toll Road: A Kentish Playhood.

 

My parents moved down from the Black Country, now a part of Birmingham, to London when they married. They wanted to get away from the industrial miseries, grinding poverty and ugliness (as they perceived it) of the midlands in the 1950s. They moved to London. However, Plumstead seems to have been not as they imagined it and the pea-soupers were not encouraging to them as they thought of starting a family, so they saved up the £3.5K cash needed and bought a house in Folkestone in Kent which was, at that time, still the garden of England rather than just a paved driveway.

Here there was soft lush countryside and… the sea.
The sea.

They wanted for me what my mother, at least, had never even seen in her childhood. A countryside and seaside experience.
They wanted an idyllic place for themselves and their child.

Being creatures of habit they found a little bit of beach away from the tourist attractions, (the lights and funfairs and machines, they considered to be rather common) in a forgotten patch of the coast and made it home from home. They hired a little beach hut and settled down to read the Daily Mail.

As my father was a teacher, we all spent every week-end and holiday in this spot. Learning to know it in all its moods gave us a feeling of belonging and understanding. We knew that The Place To Be on Christmas Day was in the water on that patch of coast.
We swam in the rain.
I revised for my A levels on the flat roof of the hut and when exams were done We had innocent parties there at night.

As children we learned to run barefoot across the shingle beaches and rock hop over the seaweed and barnacle covered rocks. The inevitable happened surprisingly few times. The slip, the seering grating of young body parts and the slowmotion plummet towards the salt water… very painful and a great learning experience.

There were small worlds in the rock pools to be watched for hours. The wit and nervous speed of the shrimp, the duplicitous manoeuvrings of the sea anemone… the slow and steady conservatism of the crab.
When the tide came in we would dive headfirst into the brilliance of sparkling blue knowing full-well that below the ancient groins of the bays the rocks waited for the foolish divers, ready to smash and grate anyone who came too close. We were not fools. We could tell from the swirls of the waters and our own measuring, where the rocks lurked, and we dove and swam.
Under the water you could hear the moving pebbles and feel the pressure building up in your lungs and ears as you pushed yourself to stay under for as long as possible. Then burstingup into the sunlit air. Snorting out the soapiness of salt water from your nose, spaniel shaking your dripping hair.
We would sail makeshift rafts too. Learning how to paddle and use the waves and read the currents.
Certainly we were aware of the dangers of the temperamental water. We spent time there on windchurned days with broiling greywhite tons of sea hurling against the edge of the stone prom and curling overhead, trying to reach you and grab you and suck you down to the swell and mash you against the shingle and rocks.
We had a deep awe and respect for the sea. Generally it would let you play with it in a gentle teasing way, but it could turn on you in a second.
We learned very early, to watch out for other swimmers. When the every-day-of-the-year, portly bather turned blue and floundered face down in the shallows, I knew to shout out to my father who jumped over the high wall and dragged her from the water. The kids were sent off, running at heart aching rates, to find a phone to alert the ambulance. The undulating passage along the toll road was joltier than speed bumps and we thought of the unfortunate swimmer at the jolt of each heat or root buckle in the tarmac, that sent out unbelted bodies flying off the back seats of the Standard 8, remembering her traumatic life or death ride.

Back on the beach we found drift wood that was unspeakably beautiful and magical to us. Pebbles that glowed when they were wet. Stones with the impressions of the bodies of extinct beasts pressed into them like thumb prints into warm plasticine. We taught ourselves to make flint tools. We threw stones at seagulls as they wheeled above us laughing. We were horrified when a loathing and hatefilled visiting child started to hurl stones at the stranded jelly fish. The stones bounced off the defenceless body which seemed to enrage her more.

If we should want something a little different we could retreat to the pine woods and cliffs behind the beach. We could be explorers through the forests of cow parsley, climb trees and make dens and be afraid of adders.
The road through this jungle was small and broken. A tiny wooden barrier was manned by John, in a smart white uniform in summer and brown one in winter. He collected a toll of 6D per car per day. There was a quaint toll house with tariffs posted for horses and bicycles and motorised vehicles. The ageyness and loving wornness, the wabi sabi of the whole space enchanted me. It felt ancient.

We arrived every morning of every holiday with breakfast, (at least that is my choice of memory, I suspect that there was a great deal of faffing about at home before we ever got to the beach.) We stayed until the sun went down. Oh that delightful feeling of a body worn by the elements and wearied by constant play. Falling asleep in blissful bed with the blackbirds still singing in the pear tree.

Where were the parents during these hours of playing? Sitting together by the beach hut drinking coffee, chatting or dozing with The Mail raising and falling softly over their faces. Not worried about us kids at all.

We all knew how dangerous it was. The water was dangerous, the climbing was a hazard. The adders were perhaps a risk but perhaps not. We were flashed and we found porn in the shrubbery, but we dealt with it. The wealth and perfection of the experience made the risks insignificant.

Playworkers regard the seashore as being one of the archetypal, liminal spaces, a space of change and variance and mystery and creativity. The place we are drawn to for play. We also understand from Simon Nicholson, in his theory of loose parts, that the exquisite lushness of the beach as a playable space lies in it malleability, flexibility and adaptability. We play richly in this space because it allows us to make it whatever we need it to be.

A few years ago, I decided to take my Londongrown kids down there to get a taste of the indescribable flavour of my childhood..

The gate-keeper John is long gone. The toll rate board left as a curio. The bumpy road has been made smooth and there are white lined parking bays. It is a different place in many ways now.
I found that Shepway District Council had built an ‘adventure playground‘ on the toll road. (Please note the inverted commas.)

It is a massive state of the art thing, built of timber.
Inspiration for every piece of it had come, originally, from home-made Adventure Playgrounds built by children supported by playworkers in an effort to compensate children for the loss of a natural play setting. These pieces were neutered clones of those original inspirations. I once heard a playworkers saying how an employee of one of the big ‘adventure play’ equipment catalogue companies, enjoyed visiting real Adventure Playgrounds. ‘We get such great ideas from these visits.’ They recreate the ideas and market them at a profit.
They dictate the ‘health and safety’ standards and align each separate item according to national curriculum key-stage targets , or some such irrelevant measure. This is like assessing the taste and texture of apples using a quality control system developed for oranges.

On a first glance this place looked way better than the everyday municipal playgrounds of springy chickens and wetpour. So why, when I cast my sceptical eye over the construction, did I find myself becoming increasingly angry?
There were climbing walls, structures scramble nets, a small platform with a wobbling little boat shaped deck offered children a balancing space that mimicked the movement of a boat on the waves… there was non-staining sand to dig in with little cranes, so your hands don’t get dirty, structures to clamber over, tiny porthole shaped holes (set in the belly of a funny clown,) in the pine wood structures with bright coloured perspex windows so that children could see the world though changing lights. A walkway bridge spanned the two halves of the structure so kids could have a sense of height and see into the distance.

Surely any Playworker would be delighted to find a new playspace ?

Well no.

In a sort of discursive Masterclass with Bob Hughes, play and Playwork thinker and writer, He spoke about his early years in Adventure Playground Playwork.
He had been asked.’.. Why the big structures Bob?’
He replied…’ They are for trees. ‘ He went on to explain that in his youth he had at once both dreaded and loved climbing trees and struggling with height. The kids in the place where he was working did not have that offer, there were no trees to climb, but their urge to do the work of climbing was the same and so they built high and tall to compensate for the lack of that offer in their urban setting.

A compensatory environment.

The best playgrounds see themselves embedded in the context of the child’s psycho-geographical understanding of an area. Where the child perceives their surroundings as permissive to their roaming, manipulation and haphazard inhabitation for play, the child is likely to be able to experience a lush and wealthy playhood.

No compensatory environment for play is required in such a place as this Kentish Toll Road.
Where the child’s movements are restricted by hazardous lines of severance (fast flowing roads for example), where areas are rigidly demarcated and patrolled for deviations from designated useage (No Ball games, No running, No loitering, No skateboarding, No cycling, No shopping trolleys), where play (the default setting of childhood) is deemed as anti-social in these places*, play literate adults must make every attempt to create ***, maintain and facilitate play in ways that endorse the childishness of childhood and endeavour to replicate the playtypes** which children all over the world share. These are the joy of movement, climbing, hiding, digging and damming, water play, dressing up and dramatic or imitative play, rough and tumbling, playing with communication, play with fire, learning to face dangers etc.

Although they managed to claim the uncared for bomb sites for play during and after World War 2, it is unlikely that children today will be able to seize the agenda of a space for play for themselves. Land is a precious and fiercely protected commodity and few children have an internalised concept that places dedicated to play are anything more than primary coloured fences and wetpour and tangled scraps of bent metal.

How does the urban, landlocked child ever even contemplate the possibilities of the playing that I described at the start of this piece?

It is for this reason that the craft of Playwork has been honed and refined. Using the playtypes as just one part of our diagnostic toolkit, we are able to observe children in play and work with them to create the experiences that fill in the gaps, make fertile the fallow.

Therefore the Playworker in me sets as her bench mark her extraordinary playhood. She informs herself, using theory observation and practice, about why that playhood was effective or not, and she uses her body/sensory memories of that playing to be a sort of ghostly play mate to the children she observes. (I know how that must feel for you. I understand why you are doing that.)
The long slow-growing play that allows the child to muck about with, to delve and dive into experience as and when it seems timely, the education and refinement of the play palette by the child and for the child, the complete immersion in the totally consuming experience for all the senses and faculties of the child is an utterly different experience to the one validated by the expensive piece of kit on the new-look Toll Road. It is the difference between a well balanced diet throughout childhood and the consumerist sop of a pile of brightly coloured sweets.

I am aware that I am sounding like the dewy eyed, grumpy old woman who thinks that all her yesterdays were finer than everybody’s nows. But this is not sour-grapes over the mutilation of the quaint yesteryear place of my beloved playing. It should be the case that all adults think that their own playhoods were the very best possible for any child to have had.
Sadly, this is not always the case. An increasing number of children are growing to adulthood having survived impoverished play experiences. As a result they are not able to intuit ways to provide anything except a shadow play life for the children around them.

There are very many corners of Folkestone in which this lavish structure would have been a godsend. Places where children’s play lives would have been immeasurably enhanced by the installation of this piece. As catalogue bought equipment goes it is pretty great and offers a wide variety of playtypes for a child and for groups of children. In the backstreets under the viaduct or the rolling expanses of 1960’s built estates, this would be a boundless joy.

My quibble is about the choice of setting rather than the choice of the kit.

In this place, all the offers of this equipment are less wealthy than the offer provided in the surrounding areas.
I mean, there are cliffs and boulders to climb.. why build a climbing wall?
There are trees to clamber up, why build tall structures?
There are grass hills and shingle banks to slip and roll down, why the slides?
There is the sea and real rafts to be made. Why create a little wooden wobbly replicas?
There is sand, there are stones, why sandpits?
Why telescopes and optical baubles when there is the pink of a sunset over the sea or the roiling light of an incoming storm or the wincing intensity of the blue of a summer noon?
Where are the smells and the sounds and the grazes and the meditative experiences of simultaneous smallness and bigness?

The typical child experience during the time I have spend observing this space has been to arrive by car. Walk a few yards from the parking space with parents, all in smart clothes, to the playground. To spend maybe up to an hour playing on this equipment, with the support and intervention of parents and no opportunities to band with other children. There is no roaming from the site, and after a certain period, both parents and children tire of the space and leave without ever visiting the channel, the beach or the woodland. Trees stand unclimbed, the sea unseen. I even found with my own children that I felt cruel dragging them away from the fast play experience to the slow play ones that I had wanted them to catch the flavour of.

This equipment in this space has neutered the play experience of one of the richest places on earth. The massive ego of the design adulterates the possibilities of the place.
In short. This playground, here, makes play worse.

Penny Wilson.
April 2nd
2011

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