Play matters. It matters to children, childcare providers, health care professionals, safety officers, and societies around the world. This message is loud and clear at the organizations in place to support play and playworkers in the UK.

Free play is well-organized here in London and the UK. (I know, how British!) There are numerous organizations to further the cause, influence and establish policy, research and measure outcomes, and provide training on best-practices for playworkers. 

Play England is a national organization that provides research, certification, and advocacy for the sector, and it has counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. London Play is a local organization that does the same at the city level. Playwork London provides hands on training and education for play workers. Smaller grass roots organizations like Ludemos and Play Association of Tower Hamlets (PATH) also provide training and networking opportunities at the community level.

The Wonderous Glamis Adventure Playground

This month I attended Play England’s Annual Meeting and PATH’s Annual East London Play Conference – which I learned about through the London Play and Playwork London’s web sites. Both were enlightening and jam-packed with information and inspiration. A common thread was the dire cuts made to children’s play facilities and programs. (From what I can tell, funds have been reduced by two-thirds.) This coupled with the overall economic downturn have led to a significant reduction in the provision of play opportunities for children. All are working to remedy the situation and ensure England’s children have safe places to play.

Play England’s Annual Meeting took place is a funky old building near their headquarters in London. The first part of the meeting was dedicated to business and governance issues. The latter part of the meeting offered presentations on recent research, budget cuts and their effect on the sector, and a new program on nature play. The research the organization offers is impressive and valuable as it both quantifies and qualifies the importance of play. One research briefing detailed how police and safety officers can work with play providers to improve children’s safety and community cohesion. Another research briefing for childcare practitioners identified factors necessary for physically active play. Yet another for health care providers showed the link between play and good health. (In fact some communities now have ‘play on prescription.’) Recent research findings show that just 21 percent of children play outdoors near their home compared to 71 percent of their parents when they were children.

In addition to the research, Play England has established a Charter for Children’s Play. The tenets of the charter include:

  • Children have the right to play (as enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child).
  • Every child needs time and space to play.
  • Adults should let children play (i.e., create opportunities, allow free time, allow independent play with friends – in and out of the home).
  • Children should be able to play freely in their local areas.
  • Children value and benefit from staffed play provision.
  • Children’s play is enriched by skilled playworkers.
  • Children need time and space to play at school as young children learn best through play and older children’s learning is enriched and supported through play.
  • Children sometimes need extra support to enjoy their right to play (i.e., they may need some extra help to find play opportunities if they are living in a new environment, are away from home, etc.).

    Secret Places in Glamis

It’s easy to get behind something as basic as a child’s right to play. It’s a little harder to implement, especially when funding and resources are so tight. England Play is now part of the National Children’s Bureau, a leading children’s charity. The organization has decided to move towards becoming an independent charity, a transition that will allow it to raise and allocate more funding for play. A big step for free play. 

The Annual East London Conference took place in the offices of Amnesty International, a humbling location. The morning session offered three brilliant presentations. The first was a keynote address by play guru Bob Hughes. He discussed two questions, ‘What is Playwork?’ and ‘Does Playwork Work?’  While playwork is often defined as providing for and working with children at play, Hughes thinks it is more about creating environments rather than managing children. He laid out the essential elements of a positive play environment.  It has to be large enough for a child to be able to run in. It has to have some private or secret areas where children can be alone (or think they are). It must be malleable so it can be changed fairly frequently to offer new experiences. It must use all four elements (earth, fire, water, air) in its features and be shared with other species (insects, birds, spiders, etc.). Finally, a good play environment is child-intuitive; something a child will be drawn to and interact with – without adult direction.  His answer to the answer to the question ‘Does Playwork Work?’ was yes – if the space is right.

Another Species (at Kew Gardens)

The second presentation was from a grassroots organization called Bristol Street Play. A couple of moms remembered playing in the street with neighborhood kids when they were young and set out to make it possible for their children to have the same experience. They organized a play day on their street. The street was blocked off and children and families had the opportunity for free play in the street. Not only did they have a safe place to play just outside their doorstep, the neighbors got to know each other better. The day was so successful they organized more street play days. Other neighborhoods noticed what was going on and they began to organize play days in their streets as well. As a result, Bristol now has an ordinance that allows neighborhoods to regularly block off streets for play. It’s a fantastic model of how communities can work together to create safe places for play.

The final presentation of the morning came from the German Federation of City Farms and Activity Playgrounds. Their representative showed a film depicting all that happens at City Farms and Playgrounds. On the farms children do everything from mucking up and feeding the farm animals to planting and harvesting crops – even blacksmithing. On the playgrounds children do everything from building structures to hang out in to making hot tubs by starting fires underneath old bathtubs. After the presentation there was much discussion on how different German and UK laws are. In Germany children and families took much more personal responsibility, and as a result had much more freedom in these incredible play environments.       

In the afternoon break-out sessions were held to learn more from each of the presentors, and a trip was taken to a London City Farm to learn how to blacksmith. It was a spectacular ending to a remarkable day. (Plus, it inspired me to pursue my desire to weld!)

Glorious Glamis Again

Whenever I am around play professionals I am struck by how serious they are. For these folks, play is no laughing matter or a frivolous option. For those who work in the profession it is more than a job, it is a calling. They are like civil rights activists working to ensure that a marginalized segment of society can exercise their rights. In this case it is a child’s right to play. I salute them.

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