Artist Mark Neville explores childhood play in collaboration with The Foundling Museum

12 Oct

By Tom Seymour (reblogged from


Main image: Mark Neville, ‘The Jungle Book Rehearsals, Sewickley Academy’, 2012. All images © Mark Neville, courtesy The Foundling Museum

As identified by the UN in the 2013 General Comment on Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a child has a universal human right to play. A new exhibition of photographs, as well as a symposium and photobook, by photographer Mark Neville, aims to generate debate around the complex nature of child’s play, and to advocate for improved provision for this universal right. At a time when up to 13 million children have been internally displaced as a result of armed conflict, photographer Mark Neville presents a series of images of children at play in diverse environments around the world.

Immersing himself in communities from Port Glasgow to North London, and in the war zones of Afghanistan and Ukraine, the series is a celebration of the thing that all children, regardless of their environment do – play.


Mark Neville, ‘Boy with Hoop in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya’, 2016

The exhibition includes new photographs of internally displaced children in Ukraine; residents of Kakuma, Kenya’s second largest refugee camp, and depictions of children at play in London adventure playgrounds.

Through his photographs Neville captures children’s spontaneous urge to play and their determination to do so in the most unfavourable environments. His images reveal how, through play, children claim a place of power, safety and freedom.

Presenting the images on display along with an overview of the groundbreaking work in the field of child’s play, a book will seek to raise awareness of this universal right, and also focus attention on attitudes towards play in the UK and how the conditions for children can be improved.


Mark Neville, ‘Child, Jacket, Slaughtered Goat, Sweets, Painted Nails, Xmas Day, Helmand’, 2010

Adrian Voce – playworker, writer and former director of the campaigning body Play England – gives an overview of the national and international work in the field of child’s play, alongside a review of cultural representations of children at play and historical attitudes towards childhood, as seen through the prism of the Foundling Hospital, by curator Nicola Freeman. Copies of the book will be disseminated free to key policy makers and government departments, experts in the field, and to each of the UK’s 433 local councils, in order to directly impact upon government policy thinking and strategy.

A symposium on 20 March will explore the issue of spaces for play, looking at the real and imagined barriers to play in our cities, and focusing in particular on the privatisation of space.


Mark Neville, ‘Arts and Crafts at Somerford Grove Adventure Playground’, 2011, courtesy Alan Cristea Gallery

In the context of the Museum, the idea of spontaneous play is set against the institutional play evidenced at the Foundling Hospital through archive photographs and film footage. Founded in 1739, the history of the Hospital mirrors the growing recognition of the distinctive needs of children, and the role of play in their lives – from the proliferation of children’s toys and books in the 18th century and campaigns for playgrounds throughout the 19th century, to the closing of the Bloomsbury estate in the early 20th century, now within a fully developed area of London, to give the children better access to fresh air and nature.

Mark Neville said: ‘The right of the child to play a barely discussed, yet fundamental human right.

“We aim to use the Museum as a space for debate and an instrument to improve the rights of vulnerable children.

“By addressing the issues through three symbiotic strategies – an exhibition at the Museum, a hardback photobook with a targeted dissemination, and a symposium – we believe we can really make an impact on this forgotten right.”

Caro Howell, Director of the Foundling Museum, said: “Play is creative, disruptive and a universal human drive. Mark Neville’s powerful images demonstrate its essential role in enabling a child to make sense of the world and to shape their place in it, no matter how challenging the environment.”

Child’s Play is on show from 3 February – 30 April 2017 at The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ.

More information is available here.

If we want children to be happy and healthy, we have to make space for them to play

7 Oct

The crisis in young people’s mental health needs resources for more and better services, but it should also be a wake-up call for policymakers who have neglected one of the most fundamental ways to prevent it in the first place: properly addressing children’s basic need for time and space to play

Reactions to what is widely being called ‘a crisis in young people’s mental health’ has tended to focus on the quality and availability of the services for children and teenagers who need help, and on the excessive pressures of an education system that causes such distress to young minds.

There are good reasons for such concern. NHS figures[1] have revealed that, as at June 2016, more than 235,000 young people (aged 18 and under) were accessing specialist mental health services for such problems as anxiety, depression, self-harming and eating disorders. Research by the Guardian suggests that a large majority of those working to deliver this support believe it is inadequate; a view endorsed by Young Minds, the UK’s leading mental health charity for children.

Meanwhile, Natasha Devon, the Government’s own mental health champion for schools until the role was abolished in May 2016, has produced a harshly critical report of the DfE and its recent reforms, blaming the education system’s narrow focus on academic subjects and passing exams at the expense of PSHE[2], sport and the arts, for ‘actively conspiring against good paediatric and adolescent mental health’.

if children are increasingly constrained in the behaviour they most enjoy, we should not be too surprised if they develop symptoms of unhappiness.

Commenting in the Guardian this week, Owen Jones attempted to broaden the picture, calling for a ‘remorseless focus’ on what he identifies as the economic and social causes that ‘drive children to mental distress in the first place: overcrowding, poor housing, poor diet; lack of exercise, family conflict … (and) poverty’. Nowhere in this debate has one of the more obvious issues been identified, which is that if children are increasingly constrained in the behaviour they most enjoy, we should not be too surprised if they develop symptoms of unhappiness.

Psychologists from a range of perspectives have long identified play as crucial to children’s emotional wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment; key to their capacity to experience the vitality of living in the here and now; and fundamental to their developing resilience, adaptability and creativity. The Mental Health Foundation recognises as much: placing the important role of play second on a checklist for maintaining children’s good mental health. The great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith was not trying to be smart when he said ‘the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression’.

Successive governments have turned their back on play

Successive governments have turned their back on play

In 2008, after the UK came bottom of a Unicef league table of the wellbeing of developed nations’ children, there was a consensus  – across the child policy as well as the political spectrum – that children desperately needed more time, space and opportunity to play, not virtually, on screens and social media, but with their actual friends, outside, as they have done for millennia. A 10-year strategy was launched to ‘make England the best place in the world to grow up’, with every neighbourhood made safer from traffic and containing attractive places to play within easy reach of children’s homes.

a genuinely child-friendly, playable public realm seems further away than ever.

As we all know, the Play Strategy was abandoned almost immediately the Coalition Government took office in 2010 and, in spite of growing evidence that free play in the real world is a vital component of a healthy, happy childhood, no serious attempt was made by either of David Cameron’s governments to fashion their own response to what the former Prime Minister himself described as the dearth of ‘everyday adventures’ that was making British children ‘the unhappiest in the developed world’. Indeed, children’s play services up and down the country have been decimated by austerity measures ever since; and the play strategy’s broader ambition – to create a genuinely child-friendly, playable public realm – seems further away than ever.

Theresa May says her new government will be ‘driven not by the interests of a privileged few’, but aim to create a fairer society that ‘works for everyone’. She may not have had children in mind when she said this, but as she and her chancellor begin to again redefine the role of the state, to perhaps play a greater role in the funding of public infrastructure, we should hold her to account not just for the state of the services that children need when they are distressed, but for the quality of the environments they have to grow up in. If we ‘want a society that promotes happiness and wellbeing among children’ we must start by giving them back the space where they are happiest, and the freedom to enjoy it.

Adrian Voce

[1] Mental Health Services Data Set (MHSDS), NHS Digital

[2] Personal, Social and Health Education

A condensed version of this article has appeared in today’s Guardian, on the letters page.

Why we need the Playwork Foundation

13 Jul

In this adapted version of an article originally published in the International Journal of Play, Adrian Voce places the establishment of the Playwork Foundation in its historical context, and sugge…

Source: Why we need the Playwork Foundation

10 reasons to continue providing adventure playgrounds

7 Jul
Felix Rd AP 2

Photo: Felix Road Adventure Playground

The Playwork Foundation has published a blog setting out the case against closing adventure playgrounds, which is well worth a read:

‘Playwork is an essential component of adventure playgrounds, a form of staffed provision renowned the world over as offering children the best opportunities to play within a dedicated, manag…

Source: 10 reasons to continue providing adventure playgrounds

‘Risky play’: a clarification

4 Jul
This second in a short series of articles about risk and play, by Adrian Voce, aims to clarify that, while a more enlightened approach to risk management is an important aim – on which much progress has been made – the banner ‘risky play’ may not be a helpful one.

My blog last month, ‘The trouble with risky play’ stimulated some interesting debate, although some of it seemed to miss the essential point of the piece, which is my issue with the use the word ‘risky’. Some key commentators suggested that I was advocating that we avoid the word ‘risk’, or duck the issue altogether. This could not be further from the truth.

I applaud the way the play movement and parts of the play industry have fought back in recent years against the excessive risk-aversion that can so diminish real play value in managed settings. Indeed, as director of Play England (2006-11), I conceived and commissioned the first edition of the document, Managing risk in play provision: implementation guide, which has done so much to promote the risk-benefit approach and challenge the ‘safety first and last’ culture that was so inhibiting providers.


Photo: Mick Conway

To be clear, my issue is with the term ‘risky play’, especially when used as a promotional banner for a form of provision. This is no pedantic fixation, but rather a plea that we recognise that language is important, and that its widest meaning is determined by common usage, not professional adaptations of it.

Take a look at dictionary examples of sentences using the word ‘risky’: ‘It was much too risky to try to disarm him’. ‘It’s risky to buy a car without some good advice’. ‘We shouldn’t go there. It’s too risky’. ‘Risky investments can lead to financial ruin’. The meaning is clear. If something is deemed ‘risky’, the risks are understood to be excessive. Such activity is best avoided. Inviting parents to encourage their children to do things that are expressly risky is simply counterintuitive: where children are concerned, the instinct to protect is too profound.

 “the word ‘risky’ is most commonly used when the risks are judged to outweigh the benefits”

Everything contains an element of risk; we weigh risks all the time against benefits or rewards. My point is that the word ‘risky’ is most commonly used when the risks are judged to outweigh the benefits. The ‘risky play’ movement is an attempt to subvert that meaning as part of its aim to reverse a trend wherein ‘We have lost sight of the fact that there might be such a thing as a “good” risk’ (Furedi, 2002). But language doesn’t work like that; it evolves through common usage, not through appropriation by professional sectors.

The person who first coined the term ‘risky play’, as far as I can tell, is an academic, Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter (2007). Her research is about an aspect of play behaviour. ‘Risky play’, in her terms, is something that children do. It does not follow that provision itself should therefore be ‘risky’. It is also worth noting here that Sandseter, a Norwegian, is not writing in her native language. She acknowledges that the ‘disagreement about terminology might be a result of different cultures and languages’ and also observes that, in Norwegian, there is no direct translation of ‘adventure’, as in adventure playgrounds. The Norwegian for ‘risky’ play, she says, has instead become the accepted term, appearing in policy documents dealing with education and childcare.



Photo: Play England

It may be that I am over-cautious and that the same will happen here and in North America and Australasia. My concern is that it will not, and that in the English-speaking world, promoting ‘risky’ activity or behaviour in children through bespoke provision can seem to be cavalier, when it should be anything but. This makes us hostages to fortune.

Last year I received a troubled phone call from a colleague in East London after a child was killed on a playground in Mile End Park. An inquest has been adjourned until 2017, pending a police and Health and Safety Executive investigation, and it would be wrong to comment further on the case. But tragedies will sometimes happen in children’s play, and if the space is a managed one people will be held to account. In general, a diligent risk-benefit assessment, professionally executed, recorded and acted upon as necessary, should be a sound defence against charges of negligence. This approach is good practice, but if a provider is explicitly promoting ‘risky play’ in such terms, there will be an inevitable, added pressure to prove it – in the public eye, if not in the courts.

The potential harm to the cause of allowing children more freedom and better opportunities to play is great. Just consider the way some media honed in on one specific element of the All Party Parliamentary Group’s Play report last year, which advocated greater autonomy for children to explore the outdoor world. Taken out of context and therefore missing the nuances of the risk-benefit approach – as well as the scores of other recommendations within the report – newspapers invited an incredulous reaction by baldly headlining the suggestion that children be allowed opportunities for ‘risky play’ near ‘potentially dangerous elements such as water, cliffs and exploring alone with the possibility of getting lost’.

“the need for controversy and scapegoats can be relentless and ruthless, as many people working in child protection know too well”.

Children’s safety is an emotive issue. Any hint of corporate or professional culpability for endangering children will always attract media attention, not all of it fair or balanced; the need for controversy and scapegoats can be relentless and ruthless, as many people working in child protection know too well.

The risk-benefit approach recognises that playing involves elements of risk-taking by children, some of which we should not prevent, but rather encourage and support within a professional practice to avoid their serious harm, while recognising that accidents will nevertheless sometimes happen. When they do, and we have to account for our approach, do we really want to have to explain our particular meaning of the term ‘risky play’? Or do we want to simply stand up for children being given the fullest range of play opportunities, some of which include properly assessed challenges and risks, appropriate to their age and experience? We may think that one is shorthand for the other. Perhaps the courts would agree. But will the media? Will parents? Do we want to wait to find out?

Adrian Voce



Furedi, F. (2008), Paranoid parenting: Why ignoring the experts may be best for your child. London: Bloomsbury.

Sandseter, E. B. H. (2007). Categorizing risky play: how can we identify risk-taking in children’s play? European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 15, 237- 252.

For play, vote to stay

22 Jun



There are good practical reasons for play advocates to vote ‘remain’, but perhaps, suggests Adrian Voce, none of these matter. The play movement is innately open and inclusive; the opposite of the leave campaign’s main argument.

The imminent referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union may, on the face of it, have nothing to do with children’s play. Regular readers of these pages – along with anyone who has responsibility for planning, funding or managing play spaces – will know, however, the importance of policy context for what we are trying to achieve. Tomorrow’s vote will either hugely change that context, withdrawing our government and our courts from the treaties, conventions and laws of the EU, and our economy from the single European market, or it will keep the UK within the context of European as well as national policy for the foreseeable future.

So poorly has play policy faired under David Cameron’s administrations since 2010 that some advocates may reasonably argue that we couldn’t do any worse. They may be inclined to vote ‘leave’, if only to give the Prime Minister and (most of) his Conservative government a bloody nose. Others may believe that the EU is a protectionist, capitalist cabal, primarily benefitting big business and social elites. Here, a vote to leave would be for the more progressive, socially inclusive, fairer Britain that would naturally look more favourably on public play provision and child-friendly planning. Each of these arguments to vote ‘leave’ is tempting. And they are both wrong.

‘would the play sector fair any better outside of the EU?’

It is true that the current and previous governments of Mr. Cameron have been a disaster for the play sector. One of the first acts of the Coalition in 2010 was to shred the Play Strategy, and then to remove play policy from ministerial responsibility altogether. The effect on local provision has been nothing short of devastating. But would the play sector fair any better outside of the EU?

Even if one dismisses the possibility of Brexit triggering a widely predicted recession, the vision championed by the leave campaign – of a dynamic, independent country, free of the shackles of big bureaucratic government and its cumbersome regulations – is for the kind of low-tax, small-government, free market economy that would inevitably require still more of the austerity that has driven hundreds of long-established public play services into the dust – or into the hands of private businesses. A Britain – quite possibly soon reduced to a separate England – run by the right-wing of the Conservative Party will not be a new dawn for progressive social democracy. Policy for play will be derided as ‘nanny statism’ and the bonfire of public play provision will blaze more fiercely than ever.

Economics aside, there is a broader reason for play advocates to vote for ‘remain’. When I spoke alongside the then shadow schools minister, David Willetts, at the Conservative Party Conference in 2007 (as an independent ‘specialist’, I hasten to add) I was a little perturbed to find that, as opposed to the thoughtful debate on play policy that I had naïvely understood to be joining, the session began with Willetts’ full blown assault on the policies of the Brown government (which I was then advising on its forthcoming play strategy). One of the targets for this highly partisan rhetoric was the EU, which Willetts quite inaccurately blamed for the ‘health and safety madness’ that was stifling children’s freedom to play.

‘a Europe-wide movement … has rich potential for future projects to develop our field, its reach and its impact.’

There are, of course, no EU regulations about children’s play: the European safety standards for play equipment are a voluntary, industry-led code, whose merits or otherwise are part of a different discussion. But in making a connection between play policy and the EU, Willetts was, inadvertently, noting a link that has, in fact, been a great benefit to the play movement in the UK. One of the very few sources of central public funding for play that has survived the Cameron years has been European Social Fund (ESF), whose continued support for the University of Gloucestershire’s VIPER (Volunteers in Play – Employment Routes) project, for example, is in a long tradition of ESF funding for vital playwork infrastructure projects in things like training, qualifications and quality assurance. This source of funding would be cut off to all future UK applications in the event of Brexit, whereas a Europe-wide movement, drawing upon the rich networks that already exist, inspired by the success of the International Play Association with the UN, and supported by the ESF, has rich potential for future projects to develop our field, its reach and its impact.

‘withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ECHR will inevitably lessen (the CRC’s) influence’.

More broadly, the policy case for public provision for play and a more child-friendly, playable public realm, in the perennial absence of the kind of hard evidence of its ‘cost-benefits’ that policymakers like, is based on human rights, which are international. Given the disinterest of the current government in policy for play, advocacy for it is necessarily a long game. Its foundation is in article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, now explicated by the UN’s General Comment of 2013. As a joint Parliamentary Committee recently noted, ‘the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has begun to take note of the Convention (on the Rights of the Child) in the context of its interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights’. The UK has ratified the CRC of course, and that would not change on Brexit, but withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ECHR will inevitably lessen its influence.

I suspect that for some, perhaps many, play advocates, these economic, financial and legal arguments to remain will be beside the point. The most dominant argument of the ‘leave’ campaign has been about bringing immigration under control, meaning down. That debate is raging (in every sense of the word) everywhere that the referendum is discussed. I do not want to explore it here, other than to say that inclusion and diversity, the celebration of difference and the dedication to making space for everyone, are deeply embedded within the play movement, underpinning all good practice. If for no other reason, our instinctive aversion to the ‘politics of hate’ and division that has so demeaned this debate, should be enough to tell us how to vote tomorrow.

Adrian Voce





Bring back play

21 Jun

by Maisie Rowe

In this guest blog, originally published in this summer’s edition of the Landscape Journal, Maisie Rowe explains how a recent exhibition highlights how much our attitudes to play have changed – and largely not for the better.

Hardly any other modern concept had a more far-reaching and enduring influence than the Skrammellegeplads’, says Gabriela Burkhalter. She is talking about the ‘junk playgrounds’, which were conceived in Denmark by the landscape architect Theodor Sorensen in the 1940s.

Burkhalter is curator of an excellent recent exhibition, The Playground Project, held at the Kunsthalle, Zurich, which reviews a hundred years of playground design through pictures, books and full-size play installations. Her exhibition contained much to inspire the landscape architect, not least by reminding us what design looked like when it was rooted in theories of human development and the belief that play is a right of the child.

The Playground Project in Zurich. Photo: Annik Wetter

The Playground Project in Zurich. Photo: Annik Wetter

Freidrich Froebel, inventor of the kindergarten, wrote: ‘Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.’ Froebel, Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori were just some of the key figures in a discourse that, by recognising childhood as central to human experience, would put children at the heart of the twentieth-century social project. The design of playgrounds took on artistic and social importance: ‘If childhood is a journey, let us see to it the child does not travel by night’, said Aldo van Eyck, who designed around 730 play- grounds for the city of Amsterdam.

‘the twentieth century was not kind to children’

But despite being described as ‘The Century of the Child’, the twentieth century was not kind to children. Conflict and upheaval devastated childhoods and, while the enlightened pedagogues sought to nurture the innate creativity and spirit of each child, cities blindly privileged the motorcar over the child and sacrificed open space to bricks and concrete.

So playground design was always going to be contentious. From early on, it was beset by a tension between mass delivery of practical municipal play facilities and provision that emphasised deep play and contact with nature. Some of the earliest playgrounds were severe, gymnasium- like spaces provided by reformers and philanthropists to engage slum urchins in purposeful activity, once they were liberated by reform from factory labour. By contrast, the progressive designer C. Th. Sørensen spent time watching how children, left to their own devices, played on waste ground, building dens and damming streams.

‘Sørensen said: ‘They (the children) can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality’

Sørensen’s collaborator was Hans Dragehjelm, ‘the father of the sand-box’. They drew inspiration from the German idea of sand play; in Berlin, in the 1850s, huge piles of sand, called sand bergs, had been provided for children to play with. Dragehjelm set up Copenhagen’s first sand playground but Sørensen took the idea further, says Burkhalter: ‘Sørensen made even more room for the creative moment: the children were given materials and tools to build their own worlds.’ Of his ‘junk playground’, established at Emdrup in Copenhagen in 1943, Sørensen said: ‘They (the children) can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality… It is so obvious that the children thrive here and feel well, they unfold and they live.’

An English landscape architect, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, chanced on Sørensen’s project while on a British Council lecture tour through occupied Europe. Lady Allen came from the class of eccentric, posh-but-penniless bohemians. Enamoured of nature, she spotted that these gloriously chaotic environments – with their dens, ropes, bonfires, gardens and animals – offered urban children freedom, self-expression and an outdoor life.

She wrote: ‘In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities… There was a wealth of waste material… and no man-made fixtures. The children could dig, build houses, experiment with sand, water or fire, and play games of adventure and make-believe.’ Adopting a rallying-cry of ‘Better a broken arm than a broken spirit!’ she reinvented Sørensen’s Skrammellegeplads as ‘adventure playgrounds’.

‘playwork practice evolved into a highly-skilled (but under-valued) profession’

Continental adventure playgrounds are relatively orderly affairs. Small groups of children work assigned plots of land; at Kolle 37 playground in Berlin, children to this day are given 20 nails per session to work with, which they use, re-use or barter. Britain’s adventure playgrounds developed a more anarchic and squalid character – photographs of Clydesdale Road Adventure Playground in the 1950s show children revelling in daubed paint and old sofas – while our playwork practice evolved into a highly-skilled (but under-valued) profession. Sørensen was aware of this contradiction: ‘Of all the things I have helped to realise, the Junk Playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works’. It is curious that this most significant of contributions to landscape architecture should be a sort of anti-design; produced by child-builders with the minimum of involvement by the professionalised adult designer, without aesthetic consideration.


An adventure playground in 1966. Photo: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

While it is difficult to escape the sense that playground design today has become formulaic, the Playground Project exhibition reminds us that it need be anything but that by describing a wealth of innovative sculptural forms, derived from an array of design practices. The play sculptures of Josef Schagerl and Egon Møller-Nielsen ‘combined the autonomy-based language of modern sculpture with the goals of play and functionality’, according to Burkhalter. Their underlying anti-elitism aimed to encourage public acceptance of abstract art.

In America, Joseph Brown, who was a boxer, sculptor and teacher of architecture, experimented with kinetic works like Jiggle Rail and Swing Ring, while Paul Friedberg and Richard Dattner made the playground itself into an abstract sculptural composition. Their landforms invited children to hide, clamber and interact, but designed out parental hovering. In Italy and France, the radical spirit of ’68 informed the experimental practices of Riccardo Dalisi, Palle Nielsen and Group Ludic, whose spaces were tools of political engagement and subversion. And the architect Aldo van Eyck earned himself a special place in playground design heaven by inserting more than 700 playgrounds into the fabric of the city of Amsterdam between 1947 and 1978, combining playground design with a form of place-making.

And so to the present day, where we face growing evidence that children are spending less and less time playing outdoors. The phenomenon is variously ascribed to parental fears, stranger danger, perilous roads, over-structured leisure time and electronic games; the costs are commonly named as childhood obesity, poor mental health, disconnection from nature and the breakdown of community.

While the true nature and effects of this crisis – if indeed such a crisis exists – are up for debate, negativity surrounding the question of children’s play is leading to a reconsideration of what constitutes a playground.

‘(a)…proliferation of adult-controlled monetised play experiences’.

One expression of this is the proliferation of adult-controlled monetised play experiences. At Westfield, London, Kidzania brings children indoors to try out an array of professions, at a cost of £29.50 per child. The experience is claimed to ‘teach kids essential life skills including financial literacy, team work and independence.’ With 28 UK sites, Go Ape, (£18 per child), enables harnessed visitors to navigate a fixed circuit of high ropes, zip-wires and walkways, suspended from trees. These are terrifically fun days out, but what they offer is not true play, defined in the British playwork tradition as ‘freely chosen, self-directed and intrinsically motivated’. At Go Ape, the activity is neither freely chosen nor self-directed. You cannot choose the sequence in which you use the equipment, nor are you free to go back and do something again (and again). At Kidzania, which conceives childhood merely as preparation for adulthood and rewards the acquisition of specific skills, the activity is not intrinsically motivated.

How do you provide the maximum of space for imaginative play in a constricted space? Architect Asif Khan has tackled this problem at Chisenhale Primary School in east London (his children’s school) by designing an elevated structure which effectively creates more space. Access via a rope or a rope trellis, the space not only offers access to exciting slides, but areas designed for quiet and contem-plation. The structure is clad in heat-treated tulipwood, an abundant American hardwood that combines the sensuality of timber with a smooth surface devoid of splinters and great durability.

Of greater interest to the landscape architect is the fact that practitioners from the fields of playwork and design are questioning the logical basis of the playground itself. Adrian Voce is author of the excellent Policy for Play, which describes the twenty-year campaign to enshrine the right of the child to play in government and planning policy. He told me: ‘Adventure playgrounds responded to the loss of spaces where children could play. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need playgrounds because spaces where children grow up and go about their day would be spaces which they – and their parents – could perceive as safe. Playgrounds condescend to children’s need to play. They make it separate: but is this to keep children safe – or is it to keep society orderly and safe from children? Sadly, however, we don’t live in a perfect world so if it wasn’t for playgrounds, where else would children play?’

‘radical thinking about children in the built environment is coming close to eliminating the playground all together’

Some of the most radical thinking about children in the built environment is coming close to eliminating the playground all together. A cross-disciplinary team, led by Dinah Bornat of ZCD Architects, is using people-counting methodologies developed by Jan Gehl to gather evidence of the extent to which housing design fosters or discourages free outdoor play.

Bornat describes this as a new way of looking at external spaces: ‘In housing schemes that work well, play happens spontaneously. What’s needed is for children to have access to car-free, communal space from their doorsteps. We’re looking at ways in which housing design can enable this to happen.’

The origins of these ways of thinking can be found in the work of the anarchist, urbanist and educator, Colin Ward. In 1979, he looked outside the playground and said: ‘I don’t want a Childhood City. I want a city where children live in the same world as I do… If the claim of children to share the city is admitted, the whole environment has to be designed and shaped with their needs in mind… Every step the city takes to reduce the dominance of motor traffic makes the city more accessible to the child. It also makes life more tolerable for every other citizen.’

We should question our practice. We should make cities playable. But let’s not give up entirely on that playful, sculptural, experimental landscape that is experienced with both body and imagination known as the playground. The design of playgrounds still has plenty to say about the design and experience of all landscape.

Maisie Rowe

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Together, we all can support child-directed play - one cardboard box at a time.

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Play Everything

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Steve McCurry's Blog

Steve's body of work spans conflicts, vanishing cultures, ancient traditions and contemporary culture alike - yet always retains the human element.

Policy for Play

Responding to children's forgotten right News

The latest news on and the WordPress community.

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