The East London Play conference, organized by the play associations of Tower Hamlets and Hackney, was an inspiring mixture of the old and the new – with some pertinent messages for play policy. Adrian Voce was there.
The more regular occupants of Amnesty International’s UK Centre for Human Rights may not often think about children’s play, but once a year in recent times it has hosted an event that highlights the fact that oppression can take many forms. The majority of delegates to the seventh East London Play Conference, held there on Friday, were in no doubt that the current government’s lack of a play policy in the face of ever-increasing pressures on children’s time and space, constitutes a dereliction of one of its key responsibilities under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
There was something of a retrospective theme to this year’s event, or at least a sober reflection that whatever progress there may have been in the last few years, far too many children are still denied real opportunities to play. But there was also a clear-eyed conviction that this movement is strong and getting stronger, whatever the prevailing winds of economic austerity and political disregard.
Keynote speaker Bob Hughes kicked off the proceedings by asking the fundamental questions: what is play, what is playwork and does it work? In particular Bob wants the field to honestly challenge itself to consider whether good practice can replicate for children the “wild” spaces and opportunities of natural environments, which research suggests are vital to the full play experience and therefore to individual children’s fulfillment and the successful evolution of our species.
Retrospection here came in the form of the younger, decidedly more hirsute Hughes speaking silently in a video film from the 70s, as the more gnarled present-day version made his case in person. The contrast was striking. His earlier air of almost zealous enthusiasm and conviction has been replaced by a quieter, more sober presence. Bob told us that his message hasn’t changed and, for all that his wit and sparkle are never far away, it was hard to avoid the impression – just occasionally – of disappointment, sadness even, that we are still so far from embedding the playwork ethos within mainstream approaches to designing services and spaces for children. “This is a vocation” he implored us, “you can’t compromise on these things just to pay the mortgage”. The message wasn’t lost to an audience comprising many who face redundancy or redeployment to non-playwork roles.
On the upside, Bob concluded that playworkers can indeed give children the wild play experiences they need if we get the environments right.
His model for translating what the research tells us into principles of good practice is his most comprehensive and elegant yet. The challenge for the rest of us is to promote them to policymakers, embed them within training and professional development – not just across children’s services, but within planning, landscaping and architectural disciplines too – and to realise them on the ground.
Elsewhere, the conference heard from the inspiring Playing Out campaign, in which some parents in Bristol, led by the modest Alice Ferguson, and the power of the internet seem to have kick-started a new grass-roots movement to simply close residential streets to traffic on a regular basis in order to bring children outside to play with their neighbours. The effects, demonstrated in a lovely film of the children’s own experience, are as magical as you might expect. “My street is beautiful” said one little girl. It hadn’t changed; except that she was now able to transform it into whatever her imagination wanted it to be.
PATH (Play Association, Tower Hamlets)’s current big focus is on play in estates. The ‘then and now’ came from Penny Wilson speaking movingly of PATH’s work on the Boundary Estate, which was built at the turn of the century as the world’s first council housing settlement. The problems of poverty and space would seem to be still there and the project is bringing playwork to children’s immediate environments in order to, almost literally, liberate them from the battery-reared lives that bad planning and urban decay have consigned them to. Play champions from communities here and all over the borough are being enrolled to ensure this liberation is not over-dependent on playworkers, who are of course thin on the ground – and not likely to get thicker any time soon.
There are both contrasts and convergences between the Playing Out project’s transformation of Victorian terraced suburban streets in Bristol, and PATH’s work at the sharp end of social housing in the East End. Alice and her friends have responded to something in their middle class children’s lives that was evident to Bob Hughes and the other original playworkers in the deprived neighbourhoods of our towns and cities. Playing Out is a positive local response to the fact that play deprivation is no longer a threat just to poorer children, but a blight on modern childhood in general.
Despite the gloom of budget cuts affecting job security, Hackney Play Association’s Nicola Butler and a beaming Bridget Handscombe – happily returned to the voluntary sector after a few years with local authorities – spoke optimistically of their training programme for level three playworkers and HPA’s mission to bring play pods into the the school the borough’s schools.
How the German’s do it
A film from Germany showcased the thriving adventure playground and city farm movement there. Of all the European countries, according to social pedagogue, Melanie Kinghan, Germany alone would seem to have resisted the steady decline in numbers of adventure playgrounds since the 70s peak. Discussion raised the question of whether this may be partly because of the higher status of her profession compared with that of playwork in the UK. Whilst envying this, there were some in the audience who saw the green and red card reward and punishment system described there as being “very un-playwork”. “Are pedagogues really like playworkers, or just teachers in boots and overalls”, was the sentiment. For many of us, though, doubts were calmed when the film moved to a wonderful scene of children taking baths outside in mid-winter; their water heated from open fires lit under the baths themselves. The water gets too hot? Time to jump out and enjoy a glorious, naked snowball fight! Ofsted wouldn’t know where to start…
The buzzword of the day was upcycling. Reusing unwanted items by converting them into something better is a practice more necessary than ever in the present climate, but one that has always been close to the heart of the resourceful playworker. An afternoon workshop in the ancient art of blacksmithing was a reminder of how adventure playgrounds, though based on children’s vital freedom to play randomly and wildly, also offer kids the tools and the opportunities to shape and fashion their own environment. This can involve learning skills that require great concentration and discipline. An understanding of what we really mean by play makes sense of the seeming paradox as children and staff together demonstrate, in Brian Sutton-Smith’s words that “play isn’t the opposite of work, it’s the opposite of depression”.
The blacksmith’s forge at Spitalfields City Farm in the heart of the East End of London – where Joseph Rowntree first decried the terrible cost to city children of the ravages of the industrial age – also offered a potent metaphor for the new age of austerity we are in. The play movement has a strong lineage with the social reformers and community activists of previous eras but must now forge tools from a very modern kind of fire, and create vehicles fit to navigate a rocky new terrain without losing sight of the imperative to make space for children to play, free and wild. For all the progress since Rowntree’s time, the world, not just the East End, has never been more in need of it.