• Signs promoting risk-taking as an important part of play and human development.
  • A profession with titles such as Play Attendants, Play Leaders, Play Workers and Play Managers.
  • A trampoline playground.
  • A conference where camping and playing with fire were encouraged.

These are just a few things I have encountered during the first week of my adventure in the UK.

It has been a whirlwind of a week. Actually, a week-and-a-half. We arrived in London on Saturday, 2 September, with too much luggage, and made our way over the cobbled streets to our little hotel for a few days.

On Sunday, 3 September I had my first “play work” visit to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground. At the entry, a sign prominently posted on the playground fence declares that while the facilities meet with regulation, risk taking is an important element of play and physical development. In fact, the fence itself was rather short compared to what we have in the States, and would no doubt be considered a ‘risk’ to a US builder or insurance company. As I entered the gate, I saw a beautifully maintained facility with freshly raked sand, graceful gardens, and amazing wooden play structures that would engage the imagination and physicality of any child.  The space was similar in size to Fairytale Town (FT), and like at FT where sets are static and represent nursery rhymes and stories, these play sets were simple and primarily based on the story of Peter Pan.

There were differences too. While we have rubberized surfaces at the feet of our sets, they had wood and sand. While our main water feature is a moat to be looked at not played in, here water play was encouraged. There were swings, see-saws, and rock structures that children could climb on and scamper down; things that would not be considered “safe” in the US. (Do they even install swing sets or see saws in new playgrounds in the US? If not, what a shame. I, like most children I imagine, loved to swing. I spent plenty of time on a see saw as well – and lived to tell the tale!)

After wandering through the playground I met Pawel, the Playground Manager. I picked his brain about how the Playground operates. Admission to the Playground is free of charge so that all children have access to it. They receive one million visitors a year! In July alone they had 160,000 guests. They have a staff of five: the Playground Manager who is responsible for the overall operation, two Play Attendants who patrol the grounds, and two Play Leaders who ensure the rules, find lost children, and provide plasters (band aids) and basic first aid.  The Playground is part of the Royal Parks Foundation. Maintenance and food service are either covered by the Parks or outsourced. The Playground offers no special programs or events, and does little marketing or outreach. No need to when you get a million visitors annually! 

As I was impressed with the Playground, Pawel was impressed with Fairytale Town as we were self-sustaining, and earned revenue through special programs, evening rentals, and such. He saw the potential to raise funds for the Playground through activities like these. I hope he is able to pursue these ideas. It seems that cutbacks are happening everywhere, and children’s activities are most vulnerable to the ax.

After our conversation I was allowed to wander the grounds to see how the children and families used the Playground. All seemed happy to be there and thoroughly engaged in what they were doing – whether they were children scampering through the water feature and climbing through the Pirate Ship, or adults sipping a coffee and happily watching their children play. None of them seemed aware of the painstaking raking, gardening, cleaning, training and scheduling that happened before they arrived. They were happy just to be there and to play.

We stashed our bags with friends on Monday and took off for a two day vacation in Paris on Tuesday. My high school French is incredibly rusty so I didn’t do any play research there, but I bring it up because we stumbled upon a very unique playground.

As Paul and I were meandering through the Jardin des Tuileries, we saw children’s heads bouncing up and down in the distance. Curious, we went to see what was going on and saw… yes! A Trampoline Park!  It was a small fenced area with about a dozen trampolines in the middle of it and benches along the perimeter. The rectangular trampolines were of different heights and sizes and were lined up side-by-side and back-to-back so it looked like one continuous trampoline. Parents were sitting on the sidelines as children bounced away to their heart’s content! What fun! Parisian children have no need for a noisy enclosed bounce house – they have a trampoline park!

We returned from Paris on Thursday, and I left for the Beauty of Play conference in Staffordshire on Friday. The three-day conference offered workshops on topics ranging from The Role of Monsters in Children’s Literature to Explorations of Dark Play. It is there that I got to play with fire! But more on that later.  I just moved into our flat yesterday and am anxious to unpack and do laundry. The work of play never ends!