Archive | October, 2017

An issue of disconnect

4 Oct

In the context of play, the last four weeks of September have been challenging and interesting. They began with the Sutcliffe Play Home show, followed by the opening of the new Square Chapel Foyer and concluded with IPA Conference at Calgary. These occasions always give an opportunity for reflexion, which, for me, caused quite some concern! So now I am trying to draw the threads together and discover if there are any common messages, which might be relevant to all of us!

At the Home Show we invite speakers to address some of our customers about what we think might be interesting for them in play. This year Aileen Shackle spoke to them about the ten principles from the Design for Play Guide that she co-wrote for Play England as part of the BIG Lottery funding and I spoke about the role that the UK plays internationally in our field of play and risk. Naturally RBA was part of my presentation.

Aileen having a look at the new inclusive roundabout


Afterwards in questions and answers it was interesting that of the local authority officers and others present virtually none used either the principles of design or RBA in their work. There was a consensus that at best the design guide had reduced the use of fences, but then many of them claimed that they were already reducing the use of fences before the Guide was produced. Most of the audience claimed to be unaware of RBA! Aileen and I were very shocked about this gap between what I would call the mover and shakers and the real world of parks officers.

Immediately following the home Show Jessica and I celebrated the opening of the new Foyer we have been involved in building for Square Chapel, the performing arts centre where we have been Trustees for the past 29 years! An emotional roller coaster in itself, but not irrelevant to my thesis here; play does not stop at 18 and Square Chapel prides itself an engaging with young children and retaining their interest into adulthood!

Square Chapel’s new foyer

 SC for Blog 171002

Then the following week straight onto the International Play Association (IPA) Conference at Calgary, where Tim Gill had put together a thread relating to risky play, in which I had a 15 minute slot. As always with these conferences there was far too much to participate in, but I did get a flavour of the threads around risk, play in situations of crisis and the way that parents are often a barrier to play. The Conference opened with a brilliant plenary speech by Peter Grey, who concluded with the observation that, given the current state of engagement of governments globally and with the deteriorating environments in which children play or don’t play, the retiring generation (of which I am one) have more or less failed, with which I wholeheartedly agree (along with climate change, closing the wealth gap, and generally raising the aspirations of society!)

So moving on to IPA Calgary. The importance of risk ran though the conference like a name through a stick of rock; inclusivity, play in crisis, play in schools, risk was there in all of them. Indeed towards the end of the conference I was beginning to feel the need to say “hey, wait a minute, there is more than risk to play, indeed there are other issues that may well be more important, stop! Let’s get back to play!” I felt that everyone knew about RBA and were enthused! What a contrast with the home show, but this was the IPA, the movers and shakers, playworkers, naturalists and adventure playground enthusiasts rather than those who actually do the delivering across the parks of the UK.

The second theme through the conference was play in crisis. I didn’t get to hear all the sessions on this topic, but the ones I did get to and the subsequent references during the conference and reading the IPA Magazine, have left me with some quite distinct thoughts about this subject. First is the different categories of crisis that were researched as part of the IPA project and the different roles that play can take and contribute to the children in those different situations. It seems to me that they divide into those children suffering trauma after an event like the Tsunami in Japan or the refugees in Lebanon and those that have been born into what we would consider critical situations but which for them are the norm, such as the Squatter children of Kolkata who play between the Railway and the Ganges.


I am also reminded of the wonderful talk that a Canadian Landscape Architect gave at, I think it was, a Child in the City conference, where she described building a playground in Sarajevo, after the civil war in Croatia and where the process brought families from the two warring factions together again for the first time since the war. Old friends re-establishing broken relationships. It was a very moving talk and an experience which I felt had left her, the Landscape Architect almost as traumatised as the participants!

So whereas play can perform a healing role in situations of crisis and trauma, I felt that it could be argued that the children of Kolkata were actually enjoying a better play experience on the railway tracks and Ganges riverside than their counterparts in richer cultures exposed to parental fears and ambitions. Maybe this reflects the lower crime rates in Mumbai squatter colonies than in the wealthy suburbs! Who would want to be wealthy?!

Which leads me onto my next topic that also ran through the conference and that was the problem of parents; such a nuisance, parents! It is interesting that at the end of the BIG Lottery funding we held a Play England member’s meeting where we tried to prioritise the issues that Play England should focus on in the immediate future and the one that came out top was persuading parents of the importance of play and risk. This was echoed in Calgary and, interestingly at the Sutcliffe Play Homeshow.

A relevant slide from Dr Roger Hart’s plenary


Before I try to bring this to a conclusion, I must also mention the flip side (does anybody remember what a flip side actually refers to?) of both events. The pleasure of meeting people one really respects, but rarely sees, people with whom, briefly one can have relationships intensified by brevity. Meals and conversations and of course alcohol and I haven’t mentioned conversations around the really interesting genesis and birth of Outdoor Play Canada.

So, I think my biggest concern, here in the UK is the one first recognised by Aileen after the home show. The disconnect between the austerity affected practitioners and officers responsible for play provision across the UK and the movers and shakers trying to influence their projects and services. Their isolation, besieged by parental anxiety and squeezed by swingeing cuts in funding of Local Authorities, whilst being entreated to follow the aspirations of what might be considered the movers and shakers of play. I am sure that many of our concerns, the role of play not just in crisis but in everyday life for children, the need for risk to engage and develop children’s faculties and the parental barriers to offering those things, are shared across our sector, but we still haven’t found a path to their resolution.