A space to play

Play services were dealt a setback with the demise of the national play strategy. Gabriella Jozwiak joins one area that is celebrating play and the positive impact it can have on children, families and communities

People passing London’s Hackney Town Hall may wonder where the chalk drawings came from. Florescent rainbows, hearts, and noughts and crosses cover the square’s grey paving slabs. Had they arrived earlier, they would have seen around 50 shrieking children playing tug of war, doing the conga and the hokey cokey opposite the imposing council building.

Why? Because they were celebrating national Playday on 1 August and for a few hours this public space belonged to children.

“Playday shows that we love to play,” says Blessing Nwakamna, a 10-year-old who was part of a flash mob that descended on the square. She was one of thousands taking part in the UK-wide event, which promotes children’s right to play and highlights the importance of play provision.

Wearing a homemade carnival costume topped with a garish papier-mâché mask, she parades to the square from her local Hackney Marsh Adventure Playground with friends. Blowing whistles and banging drums, the group draw surprised locals to their doorsteps.

Although the day was about having fun, play sector professionals also intended it to send a serious message to children, parents and government.

“One year we had nearly one million kids across the whole of the UK taking part,” says Catherine Prisk, chief executive of national charity Play England. “Now there simply aren’t enough play workers to organise this sort of thing.” The target for this year’s Playday was to get half a million children involved.

The play sector suffered a considerable setback after the coalition dropped the previous administration’s national play strategy. This had provided at least £1m to all top-tier local authorities in England to improve and develop free play areas for children aged from eight to 13. Then in February last year the Department for Education announced it would not renew any contracts with Play England.

The familiar tale of local authority cutbacks has also hit play services disproportionately. Recent research by London Play found more than 70 per cent of local authorities in London had either cut funding in the past year or no longer had a play budget. “We have a government that says it’s supportive of play, but when it comes down to devolved budgets, local authorities see it as a luxury because it’s not statutory,” says Prisk.

In Hackney, Playday has specific resonance. “Playday started in Hackney 25 years ago as a way of publicising the importance of play to parents in the community,” explains Nick Jackson, play development manager at Young Hackney, Hackney Council’s recently restructured youth service. As he watches a group of children with painted faces get tangled in skipping ropes, Jackson explains that today Hackney still has one of London’s best play services. Despite its standing as the second most deprived local authority in England, it has seven free adventure playgrounds. These are invaluable for a population of which 46 per cent of under 20-year-olds live in overcrowded households, and 37 per cent of primary and ?40 per cent of secondary school children are eligible for free school meals.

The Hackney Marsh Adventure Playground, responsible for organising the day, has almost 1,500 six- to 15-year-olds registered on its database, with around 140 children attending every day or at least once-a-week. Occupying land tucked away behind tower blocks, the site offers local children an escape from their urban surroundings. “Around 90 per cent of the kids that come to the playground live in flats,” explains Angela Day, senior playworker at Hackney Marsh. “It’s their back garden.”

Having adventures
“At home I’m mostly bored so I come here to have adventures,” explains 10-year-old Raivene Walters, through blue-painted lips. “I meet Yasin and my friends, we get dressed up and he chases us.” True to form, nine-year-old Yasin Ali is dressed as a Manticor. “It’s a mythical creature with the tail of a scorpion, the body of a lion, and the head of a hideous human,” he explains, between growls. The pair run among the playground’s giant structures, pointing out the Pirate Ship of Doom, the quicksand, wobbly mirrors and a vegetable plot where, Yasin explains, pumpkins are growing for Halloween. Yasin doesn’t seem to notice his cardboard wigs getting stuck as he climbs a tree. He recalls a time he fell off and hurt himself, but it does ?not stop him. “Local kids get a lot out of risky play – being able to run around and get dirty,” explains Day.

The Shakespeare Walk Adventure Playground offers similar facilities in nearby Stoke Newington. “I remember playing in the streets, but you can’t do that any longer,” recalls Christina Jordean, mother and chair of the Shakespeare Walk management committee. “You can’t play on the estates anymore, take risks or climb trees. At the adventure playground the children have land, freedom and choice.”

Other parents joining in the Playday festivities agree. “At the adventure playground, kids can run wild, which makes them better tempered,” says Sylvia Songhurst, grandmother to two children attending Hackney Marsh. The children have decorated her with glitter and a fez hat. Patsy Clarke, another Hackney Marsh mum, says staff make the difference. “It’s very important there are trained people leading play. If an adult is there, the kids don’t step over their boundaries,” she says.

One of the current debates in play is whether volunteers can replace trained play workers. The issue was raised in January when the play sector received a grant of £2m from the government’s Big Society Fund for a consortium of 17 local play organisations co-ordinated by Play England. The Free Time Consortium aims to recruit 20,000 volunteers to help with play provision. According to Prisk, so far the project is running well, with 7,000 volunteers involved in new play projects in 60 areas across the country since April.

Hilary Emery, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, who attended the Hackney event, says volunteers have a role, but play workers with a depth of knowledge are also needed. She points to the preparation that went into Playday as an example. Leading a group of excited children through busy streets into the centre of Hackney was, potentially, a risky occasion. “Superficially, it looks chaotic, but if you look carefully a lot of care and trouble has gone in,” Emery says. “All the children have name badges and their numbers on the back if any get separated. That’s why you need professional play workers at the fore.” However, Emery and Prisk agree there are many roles volunteers can perform, including supporting the running of play organisations, patrolling road closures or supervising activities such as grilling marshmallows over a fire.

Hackney Marsh has had little need for volunteers. The playground enjoys a fortunate position sitting within the boundary drawn out around the Olympic sites. Two years ago, the adventure playground was completely refurbished with new play equipment and a new building for indoor play. Funding came through the Recreation and Environmental Action Programme – a £1m grant given to Hackney Council by the London Development Agency to improve areas close to Olympic sites.

Connected services

But Playday marked a transition for the playground, as its 10-year management contract under The Learning Trust came to an end. Now the playground falls under the council’s jurisdiction. Day is positive about the move, saying it makes sense to connect to neighbouring youth services under the same administration, but there may be a greater need for volunteers in the future.

At the Shakespeare Walk playground the picture is different. Located outside the Olympic boundaries, it relies on council funding but a shortfall means playworkers and volunteers have had to spend time fundraising.

“At Shakespeare we have secured funding for two years, so now they can spend more time playing, not looking for funding. It was a nervous time last year,” says Jordean.

The team managing the playground wants to extend opening hours to cater for more children. “There is little for children to do in the area that excites them,” continues Jordean. “The children view the playground as a safe area.”

When it is time to leave the town square, a collective groan emanates from the throng. In a few hours, these children have felt confident enough to reclaim public land. Reluctantly, they pack away their chalks and equipment, and someone turns up the music so they can sing and dance back to their playgrounds. Maya Skribinska, a six-year-old from Hackney Marsh, is still earnestly handing out leaflets. “National Playday 2012,” it reads, “Celebrating children’s play.”

The barriers to play

In May, London Play found six out of 22 London boroughs it surveyed had no play budget. “Money is the key barrier because with investment in play comes pride in what we do,” says Catherine Prisk, chief executive of Play England.

Play England research published on Playday found 46 per cent of parents say traffic makes them keep children indoors. The Playing Out project in Bristol is one UK initiative trying to encourage resident-led street play sessions for children outside their homes.

Almost half (47 per cent) of England’s local authority planning departments have seen staff cut since 2008, according to Freedom of Information data collected by the National Trust. “Some planning departments have been stripped to the bone and don’t have the experience to understand the needs of kids,” says Prisk. “Too often new playgrounds are built, but children can’t get there because roads are too busy.”

Play England found that 49 per cent of parents say their fear of strangers stops them letting children play outside. “The more children there are outside, the more we can build parent’s confidence that there’s no need to be frightened because children are not alone,” says Hilary Emery, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau.

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