Success of Government investment in Play: Pathfinder Wisbech

14 Jul

Never let it be said that there were no benefits from first the lottery funding then the Play Builder and Pathfinder programme investment amounting in all to over £500 Million. Don’t let it even be said that the net benefit did not exceed the issues that arose through the process, speed and product of its realisation.

Last week I visited the only Pathfinder playground that was designed and produced by Sutcliffe Play with the local community and Cambridge District Council at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. If ever there was an example of what we can do as part of the commercial sector when given the opportunity to be responsible for design and realisation in conjunction with the local community, this must be one of the best. I could name others such as Chatsworth

Chatsworth Paulsgrove Waterplay 2

and Paulsgrove in Portsmouth.

There are others of which I would be equally proud, where we interpreted the concepts of other designers, such as Cutsyke


and Snug

But this is really about the playground at Wisbech. An open access playground that is opened at dawn and closed at dusk by a local resident. Including two purpose built barges for toilet and changing facilities and indoor play space, Seen here through a self modified structure:


and American Swing,

American Swing

cable ways, self build modular structure, sand and water play and a fire pit

fire pit

all set in a playful landscape. My only criticism is the requirement for a fence, for which I can see no reason, being set in a green with little traffic at its edges.

So why do I think that it has been so successful. There wasn’t a child on the playground when we visited in the morning during term time, but all the signs of heavy use were apparent, worn out turf, charcoal around the fire pit (locked in the absence of Supervision); worn paths; a sign saying no play session today due to lack of staff (tragic, but clearly hanging on in there!).

fence notice

But what pleased me most were the signs of ownership and modification that were to be seen everywhere and the lack of vandalism (I don’t consider graffiti to be vandalism, any more than a broken bone is a serious Injury! I remember the obscene Graffiti that I painted on the ceiling of my adolescent attic).

graffiti wall

The addition of a boat that someone had picked up from somewhere. Hidden dens, bike tracks on the mounds outside the entrance to the playground.


While I was there I questioned a young man walking his dog on the green. He lived locally he said, the playground was fantastically heavily used. Occasionally there were scuffles, to his knowledge, never serious or out of hand. It was viewed as a real asset by the community, melting pot of race, nationality and religion in a very deprived area of Cambridgeshire.

If ever there was a justification for the investment programme, this must surely be it. There were many problems of making such a huge investment in so short a period, coercion to meet design standards that were not understood, resulting in extraordinary results such as Plastic rocks in the name of natural play, along with attempts to make all natural features comply with standards instead of using Risk Benefit Analysis to consider and justify minor irregularities.

Tragically with the change in policy of the current Government many of the people who so successfully drove this programme are no longer in place and there has been a tendency for playground design to return to the default Kit, Fence and Carpet (KFC) that preceded this investment, natural play being the biggest casualty. Happily all is not lost and many providers do have a better understanding than they did before the investment programme and there some playgrounds being built now that would come up to the ten principles underlying the golden rule of Genius Loci

My dreams?

First that this Government would recognise the contribution that play makes to the wellbeing, health and development of children in playgrounds such as Wisbech, in schools and in nature.

Second that the criteria for designing and purchasing playgrounds were based more closely on the 10 principles put forward in the Play England Design guide, rather than the reductionist approach of cost play points.

Third that those companies with a real knowledge of design, landscape, place making and children’s play be given more opportunities to create imaginative places for children to play, before this country is either covered in KFCs or the ubiquitous programmed fountains!


An alert and call for action – a new Standard threat to play provision

5 Jul

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I would recommend this blog to all who are involved in children’s play. However time is getting short. We would really welcome all those with an interest to respond urgently to Matthew Marshall at BSi in line with Bernard’s request.

Bernard Spiegal

This is an alert. An alert to all those – across Europe and wider – where European play equipment and surfacing standards are held, or will be held, to apply.   A new Standard is being proposed, one that will further undermine play provision.

Proposed change

The particular proposed change I focus on here (there are others) aims to introduce a requirement for onsite testing of playground surfaces, in particular, synthetic ones, for example, rubber.

Negative consequences

The proposed changes – designated (prEN 1176-1:2016 (E)) – if implemented, will have an entirely negative effect on play provision, piling on significant additional costs or, in an effort to avoid additional costs, providers may well feel compelled to close or further dumb down existing provision.

To demonstrate the scale of the potential increase in costs, one local authority has calculated that an additional annual amount of £400,000 would be required if the proposed…

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O Lucky Woman! Lois Sutcliffe Smith 1919 – 2016

18 Jun
  • On March 31st my Mother Lois Smith died. This obituary was written by Charles Drazin, a fellow trustee of the Lindsay Anderson Foundation and friend of Lois through the last years of her life


O Lucky Woman! Lois Sutcliffe Smith 1919 – 2016

by Charles Drazin

 I first saw Lois Smith on stage at the Royal Court Theatre in November 1994. The occasion was a celebration of the life of the film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson, who had recently died. She was describing their long friendship. Going back to when they first met in the 1940s, she explained how she had persuaded Lindsay, who had just come down from Oxford, to make a film about her husband’s factory near Wakefield, even though he had no previous experience of film-making. She concluded a funny, touching tribute with an account of Lindsay’s last days, which he had spent in her house in France.

This first memory captures well the person I got to know over the next twenty years. Vital and charismatic, Lois was a natural performer. She told me once that she would have liked to have been an actress. One of the things that drew Lindsay and Lois together was a shared love of Hollywood musicals. I am certain that they both must have seen that Mickey Rooney movie, in which Mickey persuades the kids in his sleepy town to put on a show. ‘How about it, kids!? We’ll get every kid in this town on our side, and we’ll start right now. Whaddya say?’ This was Lois. She had an extraordinary knack for generating enthusiasm, for inspiring people on to great endeavours that they would never otherwise have achieved, whether it was a young Lindsay Anderson or many other people whose lives she enriched through her encouragement.

The daughter of a Bradford family doctor and Lay Methodist Minister, she was born Lois Osborn Martin on 9 August 1919, the youngest of four children by eleven years. Growing up during the Depression was an important formative experience. She watched her father go to lengths to help his often desperately poor patients in a time when only a strong sense of community compensated for widespread hardship.

She used to speak with great warmth of what had clearly been a very happy childhood. One story comes to mind now. Her father, who was the son of a Methodist minister, was about to give his first sermon at the local church. He had a slight stammer, and so was more than usually nervous. When he successfully completed the talk, he asked the congregation, ‘Shall we sing hymn number … ?’ to which his youngest daughter piped up, ‘Yes, Daddy, do let’s!’ I think the story offers a clue to Lois’s own lack of shilly-shallying. Definite, rarely tentative, she knew how to seize the moment.

Two of her siblings, Bob and Esther, followed their father into the medical profession, and Lois herself, after school at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, went up to St Andrew’s University to read medicine, but dropped out after only a year. Whatever the huge admiration and affection she had for her family, it must have been difficult to try to follow in their footsteps when she herself had a creative vocation. This was an area in which they could not help her.

Returning home to Bradford to live with her parents, she became involved in a local arts and film society, and met Desmond Sutcliffe, who had taken over responsibility for managing a large family firm, Richard Sutcliffe Ltd, which, situated in Horbury outside Wakefield, invented and made underground belt conveyors for the mining industry. After a quick romance, the two married in 1939 and had two children, Perry Ann in 1941 and Robin in 1943.

Outgoing and gregarious, Lois was not of a disposition to settle down easily to housewifely domesticity. She was really only content when there was some cause or campaign to pursue.  A suitable opportunity arrived when, in 1947, Desmond commissioned a film company in London to write a treatment for a promotional film to be shown the following year at an industrial exhibition in Earls Court. Rather than accept a pedestrian outline that failed to capture the atmosphere of a Northern factory, Lois said, ‘Why not make a film ourselves? We could form a Sutcliffe Film Unit, and I know the person who could make it.’

This Rooney moment finally worked only because Desmond agreed to support what most other Managing Directors would have dismissed as a silly idea. His act of faith was important not only because it resulted in Lindsay Anderson’s first film, Meet the Pioneers, but also because it established the vital artistic framework within which Lindsay, and such other like-minded film-makers of his generation as Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, would operate, championing the individual over the professional. When a few years later Lindsay wrote the manifesto for the Free Cinema Movement that led to such films as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and This Sporting Life – documenting the North that Lois knew so well – the words offered a codification of what he had already experienced making his first film with Lois and Desmond: ‘No film can be too personal. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude …’


It’s worth quoting Lindsay’s own summary of how his first film began because it brings out so well Lois’s character: ‘She marched in and said that she wanted me to make a film of the works. I told her not to be so damned ridiculous… I was just down from Oxford and was packing my bag to do a post-graduate course, with the vague idea of becoming a teacher. Lois said that was nonsense and that I’d never make a teacher. She said I must make this film… None of us knew a thing about making films. We were all amateurs. When Lois makes up her mind about something, there’s not much you can do about it.’EPSON MFP image

Lois as continuity Girl 1948

Lois went on to collaborate with Lindsay on his next film about Richard Sutcliffe Ltd, which was called Idlers at Work, but her involvement with the Sutcliffe Film Unit ended abruptly in March 1950 when Desmond died of cancer at the age of only 35. Regarded with disapproval by the members of the Sutcliffe family who took over the factory, Lois left Wakefield with her two young children and took refuge with her parents in Bradford.

At the same time she continued to rent the house in the village of Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales, which she and Desmond had enjoyed in the last years of his life.

Here she gathered around herself a group of friends in what to seems to have been a kind of Northern salon: her nephew David Waterhouse recalled the exhilaration of being exposed to a world of music, art, argument and jazz. He remembered the first summer after Desmond’s death, when typical of the mix was a post-impressionist Hungarian painter, Jean Georges Simon, known as ‘Jansci’, who was staying, whilst carving the headstone for Desmond’s grave in a tent at the bottom of the garden. Lois had discovered his work with Desmond at a Wakefield art gallery, and had commissioned him to carve a headstone for the grave in Burnsall churchyard.


This wish to pay tribute to people who had mattered in her life was striking. When Jansci himself died many years later, Lois set up a trust to promote his work. The unfailing efforts that followed included several exhibitions of his pictures and a book that was published in 2005. Similarly, it was Lois’s initiative that established the Lindsay Anderson Memorial Foundation, which aimed to foster the non-conformist, socially committed spirit that Lindsay represented.

It was while living in Appletreewick that Lois met and eventually married Mickey Smith, with whom she had a son, Stephen, in 1962. The nature of Mickey’s work as a topographical surveyor meant that over the next thirty years they lived in many different places around the country, including Bristol, London, Saffron Walden and Cornwall. Such a peripatetic life must have caused inevitable family disruption, but it suited the restless nature of someone who found contentment only in an active engagement with the world around her.

In Bristol Lois trained to become a social worker. If it was yet another example of how she actively transformed the lives of other people, at the same she was determined to develop her own creative vocation. In 1990 she went to Batley School of Art, and became an accomplished painter. It was a vocation that she pursued with passion and purpose into her last years, refusing to allow her increasingly poor eyesight to stop her.

Another passion was France. On her sitting-room wall there was a bright, colourful poster of three people dancing the sardana during the fête du Racou, a small Catalan village east of  Collioure that she first visited in 1952 with her children and her friend Eunice Musk[surname?]. The original intention had been to spend a few days in Brittany, but after a week of solid rain, Lois decided to follow the advice of a petrol pump attendant who said that if they really wanted to find the sun, then they should retrace their steps, turn right and drive until they got to the sea. After that first visit, Lois returned to the south of France many times, eventually, in the 1980s, buying a farmhouse in the Périgord.

Free spirit that she was perhaps it was inevitable that she could also be often selfish, capricious and volatile. Her children were fortunate that they could turn to their Aunt Esther, who offered a much needed compensation for her younger sister’s erratic nature. The two remained close through their lives in a mutually beneficial relationship for their children, Esther often having to act as the surrogate mother for Perry, Robin and Stephen, while Lois provided her nephews David, Robert and John with a taste of excitement.

If Lois knew how to make the most of life, she faced much sadness too, whether it was Desmond’s early death, problems of mental instability within the family or her divorce from Mickey in 1984 after years of coping with his alcoholism. But whatever the hardships, a rare resilience and capacity for friendship carried her through. When her family and friends gathered together after her funeral, there were so many wonderful stories about her that it seemed much more natural to celebrate her life than mourn her parting.

One of her friends described visiting Lois in hospital not long before she died. She had expected to find her fading away on her deathbed, but instead she was her old, irrepressible, funny self. ‘It was if she had grabbed the Grim Reaper by the hand and taken him down the pub for a drink.’ Another friend shared the message that Lois had left on her answerphone not so long afterwards: ‘Lois here, . . .  back from the brink… . ! 2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate? Me!!! Cackle’ The comment might have been meant in jest, but it was true. Rarely can anyone have been so appreciated.

When Lindsay died, Lois wrote a long, sensitive account of his last days, which she concluded by quoting two poems. The first, ‘Dirge without Music’, by Edna St Vincent Millay, began, ‘I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground… / With lilies and laurel they go; but I am not resigned.’ And the second, ‘Alone’ by Siegfried Sassoon, ended, ‘Alone … the word is life endured and known. / It is the stillness where our spirits walk / And all but inmost faith is overthrown.’ I think that to be alone was what Lois feared most, but her loving heart and provocative wit were such that she was never alone for long, and will never be forgotten now by those who were lucky enough to have known her.

Show or tell: How should educators and playworkers back up their real-time decisions about risk?

25 May

Another excellent blog from Tim!

Rethinking Childhood

This post explores how the real-time decisions of educators, playworkers and other staff who oversee children fit into the overall risk management process, and how they are held to account for those decisions. I have written it at the suggestion of the UK Play Safety Forum. The PSF would welcome comments on the position set out here – as would I.

Bayonne Nursery School Forest School session Bayonne Nursery Forest School session

I will start with describing a real-life scenario from a Forest School session run by Bayonne Nursery a few years ago. (Those who have heard me talk on risk will recognise it from a video clip that I often show.) A group of four-year-old children are exploring an area of woodland. After clearing away fallen branches from around a large tree trunk that crosses over a dry ditch, three girls start to shimmy across. Two succeed, while the third becomes alarmed and gives…

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Playground claim thrown out in landmark court judgement

29 Feb

It is good to see the work that we have done in the PSF having such a positive effect around the world. I hope it will reassure colleagues in Asia and the Antipodes as well as in Europe. Thanks Tim for bringing this to my attention too.

Rethinking Childhood

A claim for compensation after a playground accident has been rejected in a precedent-setting legal case in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The civil claim was made against the municipality of Saanich, following an accident during a game of ‘grounders’ (a chase game played on and around fixed play equipment that my daughter and her London friends would know better as ‘off-ground touch’).

Scales of justice British Columbia

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To whom are the Children’s Play Policy Forum and Play safety Forum accountable?

29 Jan



The accountability and transparency of the Children’s Play Policy Forum (CPPF) and the Play Safety Forum (PSF) have been a matter of concern since their inception back in 1997 with the advent of the four Play Contracts initiated by the then Conservative administration.


Initially the membership and structure of the two fora were in the gift of the Contract holders, who, at that time was the National Playing Fields Association (NPFA) (now Fields in Trust), who simply invited those people or organisations that they felt could contribute to the issues around play and communication with Government at that time. When the contracts were passed to the Children’s Play Council criteria for membership was reviewed and Terms of reference were set up.


The fact that recently there has been growing concern about their accountability and transparency is welcome as it perhaps indicates that the two fora are perceived as having been increasingly influential and effective, but which has probably been truer for the PSF than the CPPF. However, regardless of the reason, this is an important issue and one that both fora take seriously.


Maybe the beginning of a new year would be good time to put on record what has been done in the past year to try and respond to this concern; timely too because the sector has been so reduced and transformed as a result of the drastic cuts to local authority and voluntary and community sector play provision. It also appears that the UK Government is more likely to be influenced the third and private sectors rather than democratically elected local authorities. All this only increases the importance of transparency and accountability.


During the past year the most valuable thing that these two fora have done with regard to transparency has been to create their own websites, independent of any host and entirely in their own right. Given that we have no staff or resources, it is a tribute to the four national lead agencies in the play sector – Play England, Play Wales, Play Scotland and PlayBoard Northern Ireland – and particularly to Play Wales that these have been created. The websites in each case give the aims and objectives of each of the Forum, the criteria for membership, the current members and in the case of the Children’s Play Policy Forum the term of office and process for appointment of the Chair, which is currently also being established for the Play Safety Forum.


The membership of each forum is reviewed and discussed often and new members are considered regularly by the existing members. Both fora are open to suggestions of new members and will consider these at meetings. However, the fora do not consider themselves to be formally accountable to any wider membership or constituency, nor is there a wish to be so.


However it is relevant to note that, since Play England has become an independent charity, the four Nations are all now membership organisations and in this respect all four organisations are accountable to their respective membership and elected trustees. In addition the work of the fora is open to all the members of the organisations that participate and on completion is publicised as far as resources allow.

This informality is partly a matter of practicality, but also due to a wish to complement rather than compete with the four national play agencies, who are all active members of both fora, and who each have clear structures for governance and wider accountability. At times this has enabled conversations with officials and politicians that might have not otherwise taken place and compliments the more formal role of the 4 national orgs.


Personally I am extremely proud of the work that has been done by the PSF since I became Chairman in 2002 and believe that attitudes to risk have developed considerably over that period. Indeed I believe that the UK now leads the world in this field!


With regard to the CPPF I am sad that we have been unable to engage with the current administration in any meaningful sense, what has been achieved is much greater coherence between the Nations and greater resilience in what seems to be a hostile political environment. It is tragic that the UK Government has failed to recognise the contribution that children’s play could and should be making to the health, wellbeing and happiness of all children, and it is a cause to which both the CPPF and PSF will remain unfailingly determined!



What are my six top tips for parents – and why did I even write them?

27 Jan

I am rebloging this as i hope that some of my children and their friends might read it and find it useful!!

Rethinking Childhood

I am on record as saying that I am no parenting guru, and that there are too many people trying to tell parents how to do their job. So why did I recently agree to give FQ magazine – “the essential dad mag” according to its website – my six top parenting tips? (And no, it wasn’t because they paid me!)

The thread that links all my work is that children want and need to expand their horizons: to have everyday experiences of freedom, adventure, exploration and responsibility as they grow up. It is the core of my vision of what a good childhood looks and feels like.

Most of my work to achieve that vision focuses not on parents, but on all the other people and institutions that influence children’s lives: schools, educators, residents, voluntary organisations, play and leisure services, charities, regulators, designers, planners, campaigners, local and national…

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