For a long time I feel I have been ambiguous about my own personal views of children’s play and play places. I feel now is the time for me to come clean. Nothing revolutionary or surprising, more, I hope a confirmation of what I have said publicly and privately over the past few years.
Primarily it will be a collection of my own observations about different places where we encourage, or would like to encourage children to play. I hope you will agree that it is holistic, equally embracing different opportunities, their benefits and problems, without being in any way a play fundamentalist.
After more than 30 years working in this sector and after Chairing the writing of the Playground Safety Guidelines in 1992 with Dave Renshaw at the National Children’s Play and Recreation Unit and then Managing Risk in Play provision with Tim Gill, Sandra Melville and the Play Safety Forum from 2000 to 2008, as well as participating in the writing of the European Standard between 1990 and 2000 and being involved in the Children’s Play Policy Forum from its inception, I feel the time has come for me to give my own very personal views about the different sorts of play that we offer children and the way in which I believe they should be complimentary.
What I would like to do is to go through each of the above forms of play provision and give my own views about them.
Broadly speaking they fall into several different categories:
- Adventure Playgrounds, sometimes referred to as open access play, ideally involving self build structures, loose parts and playworkers.
- Natural Play (as if all play were not natural) which involves a setting made up largely of Natural elements such as tree trunks, boulders, landscape, sand and water.
- Conventional Playgrounds in public spaces, which range from Kit, Fence and Carpet (or KFC, thank you Helen Woolley!) to imaginative places which can include natural elements as well.
- School Playgrounds again ranging typically from fitness trails to loose parts and, rarely, sand and water
- Public realm, in pedestrian streets and squares cheek by jowl with adult public usage such as cafes, shopping etc. Sadly currently this is rare, but I hope a growing tendency for play.
These are what I believe constitute the main stream and backbone of play provision, though there are others such as after school clubs, large Pay and Play parks and Play Barns, which range from supervised facilities, large and exciting outdoor play and inflatables to indoor soft play, but I will not be discussing these here.
What I would like to do is to go through each of the above forms of play provision and give my own views about them.
First, Adventure Playgrounds.
By which I mean supervised playgrounds that are generally open just as long as there are playworkers there to supervise them. They are very much self-created, with and without the children and parents that use them. To my knowledge, they usually have a register of regular participants, with volunteers to help, who are often the parents of children using the playground. Normally they comprise both an indoor play area with creative materials, loose parts (eg scrap materials and items that children can manipulate and play with) and seating areas and outdoor areas that usually have one or two large wooden structures created by playworkers, who have experience of building such items, with the help of children. Ideally the structures are supposed to be temporary and capable of modification by the children that use them, but in my experience they rarely get modified on a regular basis. The “Elements” form another important part of the Adventure Playground offering, comprising sand and water play and a fire pit. Generally speaking the materials used on Adventure playgrounds are “found” and ideally free of charge. They were a natural succession to the post war bomb sites that children loved and used as playgrounds immediately after the war.
I have one or two misgivings about adventure playgrounds. The first is that they rarely live up to the claims that are made for the movement. Children rarely actually make the structures on which the playgrounds are based, most structures lasting several generations of use (a generation being the time that children use these playgrounds, typically perhaps 7 years) without significant development. These structures are often a fulfilment of a playworkers dream place to play and as such are often brilliant, but they are not usually self built by children!
Secondly I have misgivings about the claims of “Playwork”, which seems to me to have an inherent contradiction. If play is defined as the activity of children that is freely chosen and intrinsically motivated (as set out in the Playwork Principles), why is there a need for playworkers to supervise and participate in their play activity? and should such activity be truly the only experience of play or even considered to be the best experience of play as is sometimes implied by the Playwork movement? I think that this is probably a weakness in this definition of play rather than invalidating the role of Playworkers. But I do think that such play offerings are limited and can only offer a partial solution to children’s play needs.
My final concern about Adventure Playgrounds is the logistical impossibility of their being universally available to all children. The numbers that would be required and the Playworkers required to staff them could only be the result of a complete change in this Government’s or indeed the last Government’s policy, not just to recognise the importance of play but seriously embrace only this specific aspect of it, even if it were to be agreed as the desirable outcome for children. The Capital cost of doing this would, I believe be in excess of a billion pounds and probably several billion and that is before the revenue implications.
So, having said all that, I do believe that Adventure playgrounds do offer one of the best experiences that a child can have in play. I do believe that the presence of adults within a child’s play environment adds a dimension to the play experience allowing a child a different sort of freedom to that which they enjoy when playing on their own, indeed the presence of adults is often a stated preference of children. In addition Adventure Playgrounds encourage a creative freedom, enabling greater risk within a social context than can be found elsewhere. To me the encouragement of greater self awareness and self potential is at the root of real education and fulfilment in later life, quite apart from the thrill of activity for its own sake. So I am an advocate, even a passionate advocate for adventure playgrounds but only as one element within the play offering that should be made to children.
My second is “Natural” Play.
One has to begin with the word “Natural”, which sort of sadly implies that any other play is “un-natural”, which is clearly not the case, nor is it the intention of most natural play advocates. However the meaning is indistinct and varies from encouraging children to engage with nature, through using only natural elements such as tree trunks and boulders, to inserting “natural” objects into a conventional playground. It has really suffered because it became a clichéd response to the Playbuilder programme before anyone had really worked out the implications on maintenance or a requirement for compliance with Standards. Thus we even reached a point where fibreglass boulders were being supplied in order to comply with Standards and at the same time meet the design expectations of Playbuilder programme. This programme has, sadly resulted in the “natural” elements now being removed from many playgrounds. The gestural insertion of so called “natural” elements into Playbuilder playgrounds to obtain Government funding seems to me to have been ignorant and cynical and has seriously set back the natural play movement.
To me it is so obvious that encouraging children to engage with nature is a wonderful thing. I only have to look out of my window in Swanage to watch children playing in the sand and waves on Swanage beach or letting children loose in wooded public landscapes for this to be apparent. Of course we should provide every opportunity for children to experience nature, to lose their fear of the unknown, insects, animals, remote places, but it may be impossible for cultural, geographical or economic reasons to make this offering to all children, nor would it be desirable, if we could, to limit their experience to this monoculture of play. And even if we could, we would have to embark on another massive piece of education both for the designers as well as the providers.
Third the Conventional Playground in the park.
I remember as a child enjoying the old Jungle Gym, as one who suffers from vertigo, the sense of satisfaction, from reaching the top, particularly when there was that extra tower in the centre. Sitting looking around and down at the world from above adults and children. I mention this because this would almost certainly be considered boring and unimaginative today and, as far as I know, is no longer offered for today’s modern playground.
The conventional playground in parks is perhaps the most controversial sort of playground within the non-commercial members of our sector. Sometimes there seems to me to be a reluctance by some within the play sector to buy commercially made play products at all! Not to find a “Natural” or “found” or “self made” alternative product is somehow an admission of failure for such people. In my view this is very sad. Conventional playgrounds are hugely varied from wonderful landscaped places including standard products, natural products, sand and water play, in fact almost every facet of play imaginable to really dreadful formulaic products with maximum activities for minimum money placed on a dead flat sea of rubber, set within a cage of fencing, with no reference to location, risk or creativity and everything in between!
I thought we made huge progress with the Playbuilder programme and the ten principles in Play England’s Design for Play publication, particularly the Golden Rule:
“a successful play space is a place in its own right, specially designed for its location, in such a way as to provide as much play value as possible”
In implementing that programme we made four steps forward, but sadly since the programme ended and we have a Government that denies the existence of play we have taken three steps back again. As I said in my last blog “Success of Government investment in Play” I do believe that we would have been better off being less coercive at that time and more persuasive, which might have resulted in our only taking three steps forward, but only one back!
Of course one of the strengths of this form of play is that it requires principally capital funding and very little revenue, but I think more important is what these playgrounds can potentially and quite often succeed in offering, making quite clear demarcation of areas specifically reserved for children within the general context of the park and offering stimulating and creative play for children at a far more geographically universal level.
Fourth School Playgrounds. Traditionally schools have recognised the need for play and play facilities within their playgrounds, although their understanding of the role of play within a child’s education is very mixed. Typically within a school playground the facilities offered are a trim trail around the perimeter, which seem to me singularly inappropriate to their needs at playtime or lunch break. At these times the playgrounds come under intense use, with upwards of 20 to 200 children playing simultaneously. Combined with this children need a full range of play experiences beyond simply that of a trim trail, which is both very specific in its offering and also limited in the numbers that can use it any one time.
Recently a number of developments have really extended the way schools could, and in my opinion should, be using their playgrounds. Two of them are based on the principles of “loose parts”. The first, Scapstore Playpod is a brilliant scheme developed with the Scapstore movement, which combines the use of recycled scrap with a training scheme in Playwork for supervisory staff, the second Snug was conceived by Snug and Outdoor and developed by Sutcliffe Play also based on a loose parts concept. The third development OPAL is very much based around introducing schools to the concepts and ways in which play can enhance the education of young children, giving training in playwork and auditing facilities.
Interestingly all three of the above systems of play designed for schools have at their heart the importance of risk and the encouragement of children to manage the risks in their lives, but more of this later. Suffice it here to say that this, perhaps is one of the reasons why children return to the class room refreshed, invigorated and ready for more disciplined learning. It is also one of the reasons, why play should be at the heart of the school curriculum instead of in the margins.
So, to my final and Fifth, Public Realm.
This I feel is my baby and I am likely to become grumpy and ranting about it. Why is shopping, the most usual time for children to be with their parents, so interminably boring? The sound of children playing is a symptom of a healthy place and community, whereas a place that is silent (apart from the noise of cars!) is a community that is dying or dead (thanks to Brian Cheeseman for that one, but true!). Why are we not planning to bring children back into our streets, squares and public places? We invest hundreds of thousands of pounds to create safe places for bicycles in our streets, why are we not doing this for children’s play?
If all shopping streets were made into shared space with a maximum speed of 10mph imposed through chicanes, bumps, seats and sleeping children and you added places for socialising, sand pits, a water trickle (NOT the ubiquitous fountains at vast expense and monocultural return!) our communities would be transformed, security and social cohesion increased; just think of the passeggiata in Italy. Why do we not do it?
Actually there are examples few and far between, but they are even fewer than the wonderful playgrounds you occasionally find in parks!
Standards, risk, inclusivity. If my five categories of play were to be ordered successively in vertical columns one after the other as they might be in a matrix, then horizontally running through all of them would be the need to consider Standards, risk and inclusivity. The need for children to have the opportunity to take risks, embrace risk taking and learn how to manage risks I would like to think is no longer a matter for debate. However the appropriate way of doing this is still contentious.
Standards and risk. It is interesting to note that the European standard (and no Brexit here, we simply lose our right to a weighted vote or a final say) is really only applicable to conventional playgrounds. Adventure Playgrounds and school playgrounds are supervised and so specifically excluded from the remit of the CEN standard. Natural playgrounds by their very definition of being natural and not man modified must be outside the scope of the standard and public realm can hardly be considered as a playground, it is after all the entire public realm.
As you will all be aware by now, I am not trained in playwork and therefore only speak from a perspective of common sense, but it seems to me that at the root of all education must be the encouragement of children to take risks; physical, emotional and social. All creativity involves risk taking and all self-discovery and honesty depend on a person’s capacity to take risks.
Obviously there are elements of the Standard that are useful in considering some types of risk in the places where children are encouraged to play, but fundamentally they are all far better addressed through Risk Benefit Assessment (RBA) than the rigid application of standards.
Inclusivity. Like standards and risk this is something that should be considered for any playground, in whatever context. For designers familiar with this territory, it will be unconscious second nature, for others they will need to be reminded. In my view two things need to be remembered when thinking about inclusivity. First the aim should be to cater for all levels of physical ability from disabled to dexterous and well coordinated. Neither end of the spectrum should be omitted. And secondly all children need and enjoy risk and it may well be that the disadvantaged need and enjoy it more than the able bodied.
So, to my conclusions.
First I believe that play is fundamental to the wellbeing, development and enjoyment of children.
Second that the greater the variety of play experiences we can offer children the better.
Third that all the above types and circumstances of play for children should form part of the vocabulary of play.
Fourth that the opportunity to take and manage risk should be considered and included in all places where children play
Fifth Inclusivity should not be an optional extra, it should be second nature and embrace all levels of ability and not just the disabled.
But finally remember the Golden Rule:
“a successful play space is a place in its own right, specially designed for its location, in such a way as to provide as much play value as possible” Genius Loci