Experiences from Dudley

May 6th, 2020 by

My name is Keith Rogers and I manage Sycamore Adventure Playground in Dudley for Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council and I am also a trustee for Play England. Like adventure playgrounds across the world, Sycamore Adventure is currently closed. Before the end of March, we would have 60 children in the morning, a different set of 60 children attend in the afternoon and then another different set of 30ish children in the evening… repeated 6 days a week…. Something very alien to the situation we currently see ourselves in, where at most, my children may have a chitchat over the fence with the next door neighbours children or shout across the road to the children at number 32… and that is their socialising for the day.

My job has always been to get children outdoors, away from screens, away from adults (other than trained playworkers) and running around playing with other children. In juxtaposition to this, I have been redeployed several days a week to roam the greenspaces of Dudley and engage young people in conversation about staying home, staying away from other young people and consequently staying safe. I join a team of detached youth workers whose primary role is to discourage social gathering, inform young people of the dangers of being out and about and to ultimately encourage them to go home. In the current circumstances, this is rightly so, but it’s absolutely mad how different the then and the now are. Funnily enough, my experience has been that young people have been following the guidance… social distancing, just going out for exercise, not mixing with people outside of their families… whereas the same cannot be said for some of the adults I have come across.

I am also visiting the playground weekly, completing maintenance tasks / checks, cleaning, repairing, etc. We are currently painting structures in the rainbow colours as a reminder of these times and the work done by keyworkers. I rarely see the adventure playground empty. It’s beautiful, with blossom filled trees all over. But it’s vital component is missing and without children, it feels kind of eerie. I cannot wait till children can return, but think it’s going to be a very rocky path to return to 150 children enjoying the freedom of this site again… but we will get there I’m sure. We just need to beat COVID 19 and then retrain parents (and some children) to use public spaces, to meet up with friends, to hold hands, to splash about in the same paddling pool, to take turns going down the slide, to pass toys, loose parts, sticks or craft materials around… because right now, these things feel alien. But we will get there. Playworkers are going to have a very important job in this process.

Insights from Bob Hughes. 20 April 2020

April 20th, 2020 by

PPE, virus, deaths today, masks, Nightingale Hospital, Critical Care, stay at home, respirators, coughs, clapping for the NHS, Lockdown, oxygen., overwhelming, wash your hands, Corona, mass graves, peaks and plateau, anti-body  …………………………….what do children make of this, how might they react?

For one thing, they are playing in doors, and while numbers of reported accidents outside are falling, accidents indoors are going through the roof. One report states that self-harming (self harming!!!!) in children has risen by almost 500%

These are difficult times for us all especially medical staff, but spare a thought too for parents looking after children. The lockdown will affect us all, the way we see and interact with the world may well change, but parents bringing up children in what is after all a claustrophobic mini-world have a particular problem. They feel they have to entertain their kids, keep them busy and absorbed, but that is not always easy or straightforward. Add to that the scientific reality that children need play which is free of those adulterating influences to be mentally healthy and adaptive, and you have a biological tug of war in the home. The children pulling one way and parents often pulling the other.

No wonder there are more accidents, which may perhaps get even more numerous and extreme the more this lockdown goes on.

One suggestion is that parents ‘cool-it’  with entertaining their children. It isn’t their job anyway, it’s natures. Perhaps leave the children to find their own level and deal with this situation in their own way. Human children have been doing that in periods of great change for millennia. Better surely to have a non-interfering, and non-neurotic parent around , than have one who is literally at their wits end.

And as for the children, with less pressure to ‘behave’, maybe they will be more able to calibrate their surroundings and hurt themselves less. That way, everybody wins.

Blog by Bob Hughes. 20 April 2020.

Bob Hughes is a lifelong advocate for free play and play as a fundamental and essential part of human development. His book A Taxonomy of Play Types  lists 16 types of play that children will experience in their play development. He has been enormously influential for the development of play theory and playwork.

A list of his books and reports is available at:

 PlayEducation, which Bob leads came into being in 1982.  Since then PlayEducation has provided cutting edge play and playwork training and education for playworkers, childcare and early years workers, environmentalists, scientific professionals, architects and parents in locations as diverse as Northern Ireland, Germany, Japan, Wales, USA, Scotland, Argentina, England, Hong Kong, Australia, the Republic of Ireland and Portugal.

Bob is patron of Islington Play Association and still speaks, argues for and thinks about play. A lot.

ZURICH INSURANCE: Do the ‘underwrite’ thing and don’t bar adventure playgrounds from your services

February 4th, 2019 by

Play England and London Play are calling on Zurich, which recently withdrew its cover from several adventure playgrounds, to revisit its decision, issuing a Joint Statement which highlights what could be lost should other insurers follow suit.

Lawrence Waterman OBE, chair of the British Safety Council said:

“Young people need to learn about taking and managing risks – and designed and managed adventure playgrounds enable this by offering children stimulating, challenging environments for exploring and developing their abilities.   Because this play provision manages the level of risk, so that children are not exposed to unacceptable risks of death or serious injury, they have proved their value in creating safe places for this crucial aspect of becoming adult.  The accident and claim history of such places, often open only when supervising adults are present, is very good and it would be a great pity if unevidenced risk-averse behaviour by insurers threatened the availability of exactly those places where risk management can be experienced and learned.”

David Ball, Professor of Risk Management, Middlesex University added:

“Any threat to adventure playgrounds needs to be taken very seriously. Adventure playgrounds provide essential developmental experiences for young people which are so absent from modern lifestyles.”

A manifesto for Play

December 10th, 2018 by

A big thank you to everyone who has made our play policy forums so successful.

Over 150 playworkers, play rangers, academics, head teachers, public health workers and councillors have come together to help shape a new manifesto for play.
Huge thanks to hosts Bristol City Council, Bristol Play Network, Shiremoor Adventure Playground, Sycamore Adventure Playground and Pearson Street Adventure Playground!

Now we’ve concluded the forums, organised with the Playwork Foundation, we are collating all the feedback from the range of policy asks.

It’s clear that developing communities designed so children have the maximum opportunities to play is central. This means child-friendly streets, nearby parks and playgrounds. It means high quality staffed play provision, like adventure playgrounds, and play rangers who can support parents, children and young people build playful communities.

If you’d like to see the collated feedback, click here.

The feedback will help shape a Manifesto for Play, which will be launched in 2019. Watch this space!

In the meantime, we thought it would be appropriate to share this interview with Tim Gill on the key aspects of developing child-friendly cities.

Therapeutic play – celebrating Play in Hospital week

October 4th, 2018 by

Play has that power, through nonsense, to soften hard edges and warm the cold moments and offer a ‘what if…’ where previously only inevitability existed.

Play England’s new Trustee Laura Walsh is Head of Play Services at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust. With Play in Hospital Week starting on Monday, here she talks about the professional development of therapeutic play and the crucial work of Health Play Specialists in the lives of children and their families.

Play in Hospital Week – now in its eighth year – is a celebration of the importance of play in hospitals. NAHPS (The National Association of Health Play Specialists) leads and coordinates this opportunity for Play Teams across the country to demonstrate the wonderful work they do. And it is wonderful work for sure. NAHPS exists to promote good quality and appropriate therapeutic play provision in healthcare, they administer a registration of professional qualifications and provide an annual conference as well as other learning opportunities.

Children receiving medical care back in 1930s or 1940s would have been treated as miniature versions of adults: parents were not welcome in the hospital setting and frequently children and adults were treated together without any consideration of the impact it might have on a child to see distressed or delirious adults receiving medical care. Children would often be left in isolation with nothing to relieve the boredom and anxiety of a long hospital stay, as Cath Hubbuck explains in her book all about the importance of play for sick children (‘Play for Sick Children,’ Hubbuck, 2009). Work done in the mid-1950 concluded that childhood should be recognised as distinct from adulthood and young patients should be considered differently. This has continued to be an area of growth in understanding and it is since been written into care standards. Now, children must have access to a) their primary carer while in hospital and b) play opportunities, as they would at home.

Why is play important in hospital?
In hospital (children’s hospital or paediatric ward) there are usually connotations of negativity towards illness: they’re generally places you go when something is wrong – albeit with the intention of making it better. Play is the thing that keeps children excited to go back to hospital for that unavoidable scan because they will be able to play with the member of the team they know well there. Moments of play and connection are able to persuade children to take the medicine or hold still for that blood test. That’s so important because when something is made fun it no longer seems so worrying or scary. Mary Poppins had the right idea when she said “Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious”. No, not that one! When she said…”in every job that must be done there is an element of fun”. Play also relieves the sensation of waiting, reduces the amount of perceived pain and speeds up healing times.

Currently there are a number of charitable organisations which align with and recognise the need to lighten the anxiety children and families can feel as a result of hospitalisation and medical procedures. There is clear synergy as Play Staff are able to focus on building meaningful relationships with children while the charitable organisations often support those aims, carrying out their own fundraising and supporting hospital staff to achieve the objective of bringing play opportunities, activities for diversion, characters and games to delight and enchant children while they are in hospital. The Starlight Children’s Foundation is one of these charities and they support Play in Hospital week.

Across the country hospitals will be participating in PIHW, celebrating every-day heroes and highlighting some of the typical playful moments and types of play activities that happen in the hospital. For instance, activities such as medical play – often a favourite choice of children’s – help them to feel a better sense of control over their situation through demystifying the materials that are used. This can be using syringes or cotton buds to paint with, or mimicking real acts with surgical gloves swabs, cotton balls and tongue depressor.  Playing  at taking bloods as doctor and patient allows children to take power away from the fear attached to those procedures in which they are powerless. We as sensitive adults have a responsibility to allow children to redraw the boundaries and play with these power relationships. Play has that power, through nonsense, to soften hard edges and warm the cold moments and offer a ‘what if…’ where previously only inevitability existed.

Playworkers were introduced into hospitals many years ago and eventually a specific qualification for a Health Play Specialist (the title later changed from Hospital Play Specialist) was created, validating the use of techniques which had play at their core and therapeutic effects. The qualification recognised and brought together the body of knowledge. It also standardised the delivery as well as enshrined a sense of value for it as a profession. Today the qualification is a foundation degree delivered by NESCOT (North East Surrey College of Technology) which supports students to learn the techniques of preparation for procedures and distraction (while procedures are happening) as well as techniques and theories of sense making after a procedure has happened. With all of these tools – a mixture of theoretical and practice-based learning in the workplace, and a mentor – they are ready to fly solo and continue the journey of growing and developing their practice which demands skills of critical self-reflection, empathy, sensitivity and wisdom.

This October 8th -14th keep your eyes peeled for signs of celebration of play in Hospitals and if you are lucky enough to know a play specialist – high five them today!


To find out more about Play in Hospital week visit

Active Journeys

March 28th, 2018 by

Photo credit: Scrapstore Play Services

Play is an essential part of every child’s life, and children at school and in early years settings need time and space to play. Children should have the opportunity to play before school, during break times and after school hours. Playtime support including training and awareness-raising for school staff and parents is vital, as well as provision of suitable environments, equipment and materials for active, creative play.

Many play organisations work closely with schools to improve children’s play opportunities. So, this month we’re talking to three such organisations, Play Gloucestershire, the Futsall Partnership and Scrapstore Play Services about the impact their work is having on the lives of children, parents and teachers.

Play Gloucestershire’s Fit for Play scheme gets people active through informal sports, building dens, active games, creative art, and adapting existing play equipment. All ages play together on a shared community space. They believe schools are a key influence on children’s attitudes to activity and have been working to create play-rich environments on school grounds across the county, promoting active and creative play. This reinforces the message that active play is an important part of childhood and often motivates children to move more, once they find a game or activity they enjoy. Feedback has been incredibly positive. “The lunchtime active play sessions have been an amazing addition to our in-school sport and PE,” says primary school teacher Adam Watson. “All of the children are active, being creative and building new friendships. It’s been particularly lovely to see the non-sporty element flourish.”

The Futsal Partnership is a research-based company that delivers informal sports sessions in schools and futsal tournaments around the country. (Futsal is a type of football played on a hard court, like five-a-side football.) Director Matt Goodman went on his own personal journey from “your archetypical sports coach who cared about the win more than anything else” to someone who is now passionate about child-centred, play-based approaches to helping children get active.

They had to find a way to remove pressure and competitiveness from a football tournament – which is inherently competitive. “We have put the children in charge of everything,” explains Matt. “They decide their tactics, their positions and they referee the games.  Where there are substitutes they also decide them.  There is no adult interference at all from parents or coaches.  The children keep their own scores, which often they forget about.  This has been particularly successful in engaging children who have previously withdrawn from competitive sport.”

Scrapstore Play Services have been working with schools and early years settings all over the UK for over a decade delivering play training, research and consultancy, advocating and supporting the development of play in schools. One of their main programmes is delivering Scrapstore PlayPods – a structure filled with scrap materials and other ‘loose parts’, such as cardboard tubes, tyres, lengths of material, netting, rope, bins and barrels – into school playgrounds.  At playtimes, staff open the PlayPod doors and the children are free  take out anything they want to play with.

The un-prescriptive nature of loose parts, combined with children’s inventiveness and creativity, means the items can be used in endless different ways, by children of all ages and abilities playing and socialising together.  Scrapstore now work with over 300 primary schools and early years settings, from Cornwall to the Orkney Islands, enabling over 70,000 children access to quality playtime experiences.

Building links with the schools

Pip Levett, Director of Play at Play Gloucestershire says that building links with schools can be hard. “Our school work started when we found external funding ourselves and approached a primary school that was a stone’s throw away from a regular community play site. We explained that we wanted to extend our playful influence by coming in to facilitate some lunchtime play, and develop a Junior Play Leader scheme. We evidenced our successes, and then did a presentation at the district-wide School Lead Professionals forum. We were amazed at the interest in our work, and from that we developed both our Active Lunchtimes and Play Nurture offers. One primary school has now commissioned us on a weekly basis for the last four years, so we know what we do is working.”

At Futsall, they first built links with schools by referrals. “Now we are seen as experts in our fields so schools will get in touch with us,” says Matt.  “Working with some totally inactive children we have used the play-based approach to huge effect:  within 6 weeks children are fully active!  We are finding time and time again – and have the data now to support this – that we’ve had 100% engagement using a play-based approach and a huge competency increase in all key skills.”

For the Scrapstore Play Services, they found a large number of local primary schools approached them after the success of the two-year Lottery funded project. “From this point Scrapstore PlayPods was born,” says Dan Rees-Jones, Play Development Officer,  “and now, ten years on, schools continue to approach us keen to introduce loose parts at lunchtimes. Our process is based on building positive ongoing relationships and working with the entire school community to change both the human and physical play environments, transforming play at lunchtimes.”

Seeing the benefit

Photo credit: Play Gloucestershire

“Broadly speaking, our active and creative child-led outdoor play is supporting both physical and mental wellbeing,” says Pip from Play Gloucestershire. “We are seeing relaxed, confident and happy children enjoying adventure, friendship and fun with peers and the Play Rangers.” The therapeutic nature of their playwork is helping children cope with adversity and build resilience. “The Play Rangers here are very supportive and nurturing,” says a ten-year-old school boy. “They nurture us like we’re newborns. It’s just so good that we don’t want it to end”. A nine-year-old girl says, “I’ve told other children about Play Rangers, that you’re very kind and how you help me not to get so upset about the little things in school”. Local head teacher Andrea Mills, is a keen advocate. “Play Nurture has helped children find healthy ways to cope with the stresses and strains of life. Their emotional wellbeing has visibly improved, as has their engagement in learning.”

For Futsal, it was when they changed to a play-based approach that they really saw the benefits.  “Our original purpose Futsal was to create more technically proficient players,” says Matt. “However, our research made us concerned our model could encourage early specialisation.  So, we moved away from blocked and repetitive practice and instilled a games and play-based approach to all learning and application.” The Partnership’s child-centred approach means “we may have a basic session plan but the children are encouraged to come up with their own progressions and constraints.  We provide the problems and look to the children to provide the solutions rather than everything being directed by us.  A great example of this might be a passing class. Instead of directing the children to pass in certain ways, we’ll ask them to come up with as many different ways to pass the ball as possible.” Peer-to-peer coaching is also a big part of the process, which they find is potentially more successful than coach-to-child sessions. Check out feedback from one school teacher here.

One of the benefits schools have found using the Playpods is the way children collaborate across ages and genders. Schools have also noticed a reduction in accidents and incidents such as bullying.

Expanding the funding streams available for play providers

Most schools with primary-age pupils receive the ‘PE and sport premium’, funding which is based on the number of pupils. One of the outcomes of the funding is to ‘improve the engagement of all pupils in regular physical activity’.

According to Public Health England ‘[o]ffering a variety of physical activity opportunities, including free play, games and the fun elements of participation, as well as the more traditional sports or competitive activities, can help to encourage participation, particularly among inactive children and young people’.

“Most of our school work to date has been funded by Pupil Premium,” says Pip, “but two schools have just started to use some Sport Premium allocation to commission us to deliver active lunchtime play. As passionate advocates of active play, we understand that not everyone is sporty, or has the  confidence to join a team or club. However, everyone needs to move and active play is a fabulous way of increasing physical activity levels in children. We’ve noticed a shift among schools and physical activity specialists in their thinking about sport, and how it needs to embrace and value physical activity for the contribution it makes to childhood wellbeing. For too long play and sport have been separate entities, and yet the playwork sector has so much to offer. The playwork sector needs to believe it can step over this ‘sport’ threshold and use the funding out there to push the play agenda into education, into the sporting world and into communities.  Schools have increasing amounts of Sport Premium funds now available, and we are working alongside Active Gloucestershire, (our County Sports partnership) to show how active play can contribute to the five key improvement indicators that schools need to evidence.”

Dan at Scrapstore Play Services agrees. “The benefits of a regular improved play opportunity equates to real value for money and wise investment as well as contributing hugely to children’s overall development and well-being.”

Advice to other play providers on improving their work with schools

“At Play Gloucestershire, working with schools, in their school grounds, has been a steep and beneficial learning curve for us,” says Pip. “We have been developing our school work since the end of our community based Big Lottery Children’s Play programme funding in 2011. We recognised it was a way of extending our reach, and diversifying our income streams. We are playworkers, and our Playwork Principles are very important to us. Schools have school rules and are driven by the curriculum. The two approaches are necessarily very different, and we have to work hard to create an understanding of what we do, and why it is so important and so different. The schools we have worked with, have people in the senior management team that have an empathy and understanding of the value of outdoor play. Finally, I’d say that you need to be clear about your offer, believe in it and be brave. One school wanted us to provide a structured programme that fitted in with learning outcomes. We explained that this was all about child-led unstructured play, and that we would show how these outcomes had been met on our report card, using observations and reflective practice. It felt like it could have been a deal breaker at the time, but the school agreed to try this approach and three years later we still work there!

Matt says that Futsal found it quite hard to break down traditional views on what PE should look like. “Sometimes you may have to dilute things and then take the school on the journey with you.  Once they see the results you definitely have them on board.  All that said, schools are the one place that we know we can reach every child and especially those that are most in need of the work we provide.  Looking at current initiatives I think we are slowly moving away from old models but it will take time.”

Dan at Scrapstore says a good tip for play providers is to appreciate that schools’ understanding of play can be very different from a playwork perspective. “Every school is on their own journey (with respect to understanding and supporting play) so facilitating a gentle and supportive approach to making improvements works better than a judgemental approach.”



Would you like to be be a guest blogger for Play England? Get in touch!


Shiremoor leads the way on quality in play

February 2nd, 2018 by

Shiremoor Adventure Playground is the latest play organisation to be accredited with Quality in Play (QiP), Play England’s quality assurance system for playwork practitioners.

Shiremoor, in Newcastle upon Tyne, is a former mining area with high levels of deprivation. The adventure playground opened in 2010 as part of the Play Pathfinder Programme on a previously unused seven hectare site of land. It is managed by North Tyneside Council who provide core funding for staff and running costs. The Shiremoor Adventure Playground Trust raise additional charitable and other funding for salaries and activities.

The Adventure Playground has successfully managed the transition from catering for a very local community, to being a destination playground in the spring and summer months, when between 300 to 500 people visit daily.   In autumn and winter it reverts back to a community playground for core local users. Because the playground is less busy, this is when the more adventurous play, like Parkour, takes place.

Play England talked to Shiremoor’s Manager and Senior Playworker, Keeks McGarry about the QiP experience.

Why was accreditation important to you?

“It’s important for a number of reasons. We strongly believe in the professional profile of playwork and welcome being scrutinised by a set of standards that have been endorsed by the sector. Having achieved QIP status it’s given the team credibility and confidence in what we do and how we do it. QIP is also important from the perspective of an Adventure Playground within a local authority model as our approach is not always understood by Health and Safety Inspectors, other professionals and organisations who may not be familiar with a playwork approach.”

Quality in Play is a management tool to support continuous self-assessment and improvement. The process brings together the staff and management team to organise the policies and procedures – ‘how we do things here’ – into a portfolio of evidence.


How did your team manage the process of working through the Play summary areas?

“For most of the areas we started with a bunch of our Annual Reports and policy documents as paper-based evidence of how we were meeting the criteria. So, for example, Area 1 looks at the importance of freely chosen play. Statements in our Annual Reports and in our Play Policy produced robust evidence of how we were meeting this area. Once we had paper-based evidence we discussed other formats such as videos or children’s statements that would provide an holistic picture of that summary area. We knew from the past accreditation process that our weakest area was around publicity and information dissemination so we made a concerted effort to address this when putting together all of our evidence this time round. The QIP process has also helped us to focus on what we are providing as professional playworkers and we’ve used it as evidence of quality in relation to several funding bids.”

At Shiremoor, children are actively involved in the running of the playground, making sure everyone signs in and showing new arrivals around the playground. Regulars also look out for younger children and new users on the structures. Shiremoor has developed a team of ‘Helping Hands’ and more recently ‘Junior Playworkers’ who encourage children to take responsibility for tasks and jobs – and they clearly take pride in and enjoy them. In return, they are allowed on the playground an hour early, which is seen as a great privilege.

“Children were involved in the Quality in Play process right from the beginning,” says Keeks. “Some of our older users had helped in pulling together a file of their own evidence for our first accreditation visit so they guided a younger group in collating a file this time around. This worked on two levels. On one level the children’s file began to fill up with all kinds of ‘evidence’, ranging from pieces of their own artwork, to photos of trips they had been on. We briefed a core group of children on talking about what was in their file so that they could present it on the day of assessment.

This got the children familiar with the process as well as focusing them on some of the summary areas where they could really have an input. By the time the day of inspection had arrived a lot of our children were really familiar with what was going to be assessed and were more than keen to help show the inspector around and talk about the evidence in their file.”

Another part of the Quality in Play process looks at how play providers can actively engage and work with the wider community – ‘the local community is the sea in which play provision swims or sinks.’ As children’s services are increasingly integrated, play providers need to make links with networks of professionals who work with children and young people in their area. This enables play and other services to signpost children and families to each other and build community awareness of what is available.

Working through the Quality in Play process, did it help you to demonstrate the positive impact of the playground on the wider community?

“QIP accreditation has given the Playground a sense of status that really helps when working with other organisations and professionals. To the uninitiated, Adventure Playgrounds are often misunderstood. It can be difficult to build relationships and partnerships in the wider community unless there is some understanding about our approach and our practice and how this can benefit the children we work with. QIP has helped us to develop good, mutually respected relationships in the local and wider community enabling us to work closer with local police, social workers, local schools, colleges and universities, youth offending teams, foster carers and local businesses. This has given us the opportunity to ‘educate’ some of these people and organisations in relation to the importance of play in the lives of children.”

These mutually respected relationships are evident in the Playground’s Annual Report, where PC Kev Rogerson is quoted: “The playground, the staff and the volunteers are part of the fabric of the lives of the young people of Shiremoor. They know the young people so well and are always looking to enhance their lives by providing experiences that help raise their confidence and self-esteem. I would say that the Adventure Playground is one of the main factors in helping us keep youth issues ‘in hand’. If we (as the police) are looking to think of ways to divert young people from disruptive behaviour, Keeks and his staff team are the ones we go to for help and advice.”

An independent assessment of QiP noted, “with regards to a playwork approach or playwork ethos, QiP was found time-and-again to have made a significant difference in practice to individuals, their teams, to children and, in one case, a whole authority. Those who had embraced the process described how ‘the light bulb was switched on’ for them, or how they had been on a ‘learning journey of team understanding”. 

Did Shiremoor have this lightbulb moment?

“Our lightbulb has been flickering on and off throughout the process as we have now undertaken the ‘journey’ twice,” says Keeks. “The first time around it was a case of affirmation for the way we worked, with the realisation that although we were confident that we were meeting most of the criteria and standards in the play summary areas, we did not have the evidence to prove this to others! When we were going for re-accreditation the system was familiar and gaps were a lot easier to identify so we could concentrate more on the quality of evidence that we were providing.”

Interested in getting accredited for Quality in Play? Find out more here:

Demonstrating health and wellbeing benefits is vital for local play organisations

October 25th, 2017 by


At a time when staffed play provision is being forced to close due to funding cuts, helping show the myriad benefits of outdoor play is vital. Research and evaluation projects that demonstrate these benefits can help local play organisations, including adventure playgrounds, secure funding. Play England’s recent ‘Street Play’ evaluation – that provides evidence of the clear links between active play and children’s health and wellbeing – has been widely promoted and discussed in a wide variety of contexts, such as people’s access to public space, tackling pollution and climate change to creating healthy, sustainable communities.

These are all valid contributions to the national debate to improve play opportunities for children. And, they are all absolutely vital if we are to win over wider sections of society to understand that children’s access to play is something that is also beneficial to them.

Initiatives like the ‘Playworks project’ are doing this on a local level, helping Adventure Playgrounds demonstrate the positive impact they have on their communities and why and how they benefit from them.

Adventure into Sport, Play England’s latest project, is another way of drawing attention to the benefits of play, in this case, showcasing the unique way that outdoor, child-led play can help children and young people stay healthy or get healthier. A pilot project, it builds on work that is taking place across the country.

The Big Swing’, Eccleshill Adventure Playground is one of the Adventure into Sport partners, based in the Ravenscliffe area of Bradford where 44% of the children grow up in poverty. A staggering 89.2% of children in Eccleshill are in the bottom 20% of the Child Wellbeing index. The adventure playground works closely with disadvantaged children including children from BAME communities, disabled children and children single parent families.  Staff at Eccleshill work hard to provide exciting and engaging activities which benefit children’s health, well being, physical capabilities and literacy.  The trained staff also support children to develop analytical, team-working, language and mathematical skills.

Like many adventure playgrounds, Eccleshill has built up strong links with local residents, schools, community organisations, as well as health and wellbeing bodies. It is part of  ‘Active Bradford’, a multi-agency partnership board, which is taking a joined-up approach to improving children’s health and wellbeing, with play provision at its heart. The board has been following research into adult and children’s physical activity levels over a 10-year period carried out by the Bradford Institute for Health Research. ‘There is a real shift taking place here in terms of attitudes to children’s play. It’s seen as a key way to tackle the health inequalities we have here.’ Says Manager of Eccleshill and AiS Senior Development Worker, Janet Jewitt.

Initial evaluations from the Adventure into Sport help to reaffirm the centrality of children’s access to free outdoor play in their health and wellbeing.

‘Once they discover the playground, in no time they are on the trampoline, climbing on all the structures. What we’ve also found is that, as children become regulars at the Playground, they develop really incredible gymnastic skills, like twisting somersaults on the trampoline, and acrobatic skills through free-running across all the climbing structures,’ says Janet. ‘I believe we have the next generation of Olympians in this playground. I want to make sure that, not only is play provision in this area expanded, but that also these children can reach their full potential.”

As a consequence of giving children the freedom to undertake this adventurous play, Janet and other playworkers at the Big Swing have seen how children’s confidence and athleticism has improved. Building links with organisations who can support and coach these highly talented children is an obvious next step.  “If the natural marriage between play and sport enables us to tackle inequalities, improve health and well-being for some of the poorest communities in the country, as well as convert old-age attitudes to rethink the benefits of play, these are all positives in my book,” she says.

Play England believes that all projects that show the benefits of improving children’s access to free outdoor play can help the campaign to win increased funding and national recognition once again for the centrality of play in our society.

Helping show that play providers, such as adventure playgrounds, are best placed to engage and support hard-to-reach children and young people is another aspect of the ‘Adventure into Sport’ project. With only 10% of teenagers motivated by competitive sport, Sport England and regional sports organisations are starting to acknowledge that providing environments that are unstructured, non-judgemental, fun and sociable can be a far more effective way of helping young people enjoy physical activity. It’s important that the play sector is aware of this shift in thinking and so can use the opportunities available to benefit from wider funding streams.


Thirty years on, Playday continues to inspire

August 1st, 2017 by


The first Playday poster, designed by Mick Conway’s daughter Bridie, aged five.

As we reach the 30th anniversary of, founder Mick Conway looks back at its development and impact.

Thirty years ago we had a problem. Children’s play provision was under threat because of massive central government cuts to local area funding.  Three of us called a meeting and nobody came. We went to the pub to drown our sorrows and came up with the idea of Playday. We never imagined that 30 years on it would still be going strong and coordinated by the four national play organisations.

What made it work? Purely by accident we had come up with a simple idea that people could ‘get’ straight away. It would be a celebration, not a protest, so local politicians and decision-makers could at least tacitly support it. It could be any size and any shape and any where; simply celebrate what you do with children’s play, wherever you are, with what you have, and call it Playday. From just seven Playdays in north London the idea caught fire and grew to hundreds of events all over the country. Over those thirty years there have been thousands of Playdays with millions of children playing at anything from a picnic with a couple of friends or just a favourite teddy bear to huge events in parks with 10,000 people – together making the biggest celebration of children’s play in Europe.

We gradually built an infrastructure to support local people and organisations, and developed a media campaign. In 1988 I gave my friend and punk band/radical theatre/health campaign poster maker Ken Meharg a cheque for £50 to screenprint 200 copies of the first ever Playday poster, which he typically insisted must be designed by my five-year-old daughter Bridie. That was the best £50 of my own money I ever spent because I learned that media and publicity was the key to getting local and national politicians interested.

“Most people assume if there’s a poster for it, it must be a real thing.” Ken explained. And to my astonishment he was right – we sent one to Time Out magazine who gave us great publicity in their Kids section and continued to do so for decades. We stuck half of the rest on bus stops and hoardings around north London and gave the other half to the play associations. As far as I know there is only one copy of that poster still in existence, the very first one off the screenprint bed, and it is on a wall in my flat. Yup, Playday 1988 is certainly real for me!

In later years we flogged up and down motorways in Transit vans taking posters to play conferences and play associations along the way. And spent nights in an office (in Conway Street of all places) packing them to post to local Playdays all over the UK.  By 2011 Playday had 870 million ‘opportunities to view’ across TV, radio, print and online media – a very slick PR company we had a bit of money to employ told us that, so it must be true.

Over those years, Playboard NI, Play England (and its predecessors), Play Scotland and Play Wales saw the value of Playday and put an amazing amount of support into the campaigns and the support infrastructure, taking the lead or sharing the load according to the vagaries of funding and resources.

Some in the play sector have questioned whether Playday has had any real impact. All I would say is that when the Number 10 Policy Unit approached Play England to start discussions on what would become the National Play Strategy it was the Playday research statistics that had captured their interest. Of course governments and their strategies come and go – but can I just remind you that Playday has outlasted five prime ministers and seven governments. For me, perhaps the real and lasting impact has been at local level, because Playday has continued to inspire families and communities across the country, year after year after year. Children playing at the first ones, organise them for their own children these days. It really is an example of local people doing it for themselves – like much of play provision in hard times thirty years ago and even harder times today. I truly believe that Playday will long outlast what has been the worst assault on local funding for play provision in three decades, because by its nature it is a resilient thing – an idea that anybody anywhere can be part of– I certainly will. Playday wherever you are on Wednesday 2 August!

Finally, in the true punky spirit of those early days, I couldn’t resist making our own blue plaque to commemorate Playday.
Co-founder Kim Holdaway and me raising a glass to the late and sadly missed Paul Bonel at its birthplace in a pub in Hackney.


Valuing adventure playgrounds

July 17th, 2017 by

Sereena Keymatlian (Somerford Grove APG), Bex Willans (Lady Allen APG), Cathy O’Leary (Somerford Grove APG), Dawn Jarrett & Guy Lawrence (Waterside APG)

Nic Mcewan is lead for the three year project, Play Works, designed to help adventure playgrounds improve how they monitor the impact they have on their communities.

Here she describes how the project works.

“Still something of a newbie on the play scene, it was only a couple of summers ago that I walked into an adventure playground for the first time; a surprise discovery cycling through north London on a hot summer’s day.

I used to be a secondary school English teacher, persuading children to be creative in a room with four white walls (we weren’t allowed displays). “Use the five senses!”, I’d hoot, “What can you see? What can you smell?” and so on. This dusty scenario floated into my mind as I observed the adventure playground in full swing, pun intended.

Here, the presence of the five senses was palpable – the whoops of children leaping from platforms way above my head; the blaze of colour coating higgledy-piggledy wooden structures; a sudden shock of cold water as I’m caught in (friendly) cross-fire; the earthy smell of woods, bark, earth…

London has the highest concentration of adventure playgrounds in the world but they are rapidly dwindling. It is difficult to track exactly how many have closed over the past five years, but in one borough, of the 16 adventure playgrounds advertised on the council’s website, only six are currently open.

The climate of austerity is competitive, unfair and tense. Yet people, especially playworkers, are resilient and innovative. When combined with funding, such qualities will see the survival of these special places. Play Works, London Play’s three-year project sponsored by City Bridge, is designed to help adventure playgrounds improve the ways in which they monitor and evaluate the incredible social impact they have on their communities. Bespoke training workshops and one-to-one mentoring sessions equip participants with the confidence and competence to make arguments for funding backed by hard data. And, believe it or not, at times they’ve actually enjoyed doing it!

Each year we work with four adventure playgrounds including at least one with special provision for children with disabilities. Between September and December, a project lead for each playground is funded to attend five day-long workshops, introducing the process of initiating systems and means for measuring impact. Any time spent completing associated work outside these training sessions is also reimbursed.

A positive outcome for many of the playgrounds has been the sense of starting with what they believe to be their vision, a chance to articulate their purpose in their own words and not bend it to suit the requirements of funders. In this way, participants have been able to stay true to their values and collect data which feels meaningful. Findings then spark further questions that playworkers are genuinely interested in answering, and so the process begins to feel tantalisingly sustainable.

Every happy playground is happy in its own way. So, while we have certainly seen similarities between outcomes being researched – such as improved physical health in young people, more respite for parents, increased confidence and resilience among users – each adventure playground has also been collecting data specific to them. For example, one included staff as a key stakeholder, having just formed part of an employee-led mutual of six playgrounds. They interviewed colleagues to find out how empowered they felt in the new structure. Another focused on their reputation within the wider community, reaching out to schools and local businesses; and another wanted to know if they really were consulting with children and young people as rigorously as they imagined, carefully tracking opportunities for child-led decision-making arising in the space.

After the training phase, from January to June, the participants apply their learning on the ground, spending time designing creative, innovative tools or adapting traditional approaches to collect data that will enable them to make judgements about the extent to which they are meeting or exceeding their desired objectives (what they do) and outcomes (the changes that occur as a result).

Throughout the project they have access to one-to-one mentoring sessions with me, the project lead. These have lasted anywhere from a 20-minute phone-call to a full day, depending on what is needed. It’s worth mentioning that many playworkers have felt hesitant and nervous at the start of the project (probably plagued by memories of sitting in that white walled classroom!), and so the mentoring sessions have been integral to ensuring learning from the previous workshop is consolidated and can be reiterated in the context of their playground.

The final phase, from June to July, sees participants grappling with their findings, analysing them for themes, patterns, surprises, and writing up their process in a full report. One drawback of the project is its timeline, as really the best period to collect data in an adventure playground is during the summer. Still, playgrounds have created an interim report that can be updated with further data, and they’ve used it as a reflection on the process so far; what’s worked well and less so.

For many playgrounds, Play Works has enabled them to cook up a baseline set of data, understand how to read this, and then present it effectively and engagingly. The main report will become their template for annual evaluations, and headline achievements will be elicited to form a thinner, glossy version to be shared and digested more easily among stakeholders. We are particularly excited about printing large banners for playgrounds to display their achievements, like schools do with their Ofsted results.

As well as the 12 adventure playgrounds in London who will benefit most directly from the project over its three years, we are thrilled this year to be piloting our Play Works online toolkit,

a central resource for guides, worksheets, examples and tools for play providers (not just playgrounds) to effectively monitor and evaluate their impact. So far eight play services are engaging with the toolkit, representing different play providers from all over the UK (though we had a recent request from as far afield as Sydney!). We have parents running play streets; social enterprises focusing on play; pop up adventure playgrounds – a real mix of people keen to learn more about how they can evidence what they do, in order to do more of it and better.

In September, we will be travelling to Calgary to present the project at the International Play Association triennial conference, with the aim of making more connections with play providers around the world. Joining up and supporting each other has been a hugely important part of Play Works’ success. When you have a little extra time and money to come together, the climate begins to feel less tense, less tiring, and a little more surmountable.

While this all sounds good and well, it is important to emphasise that participating in this project has not been easy for the playgrounds. The sector is currently stretched to capacity, often beyond, and it has taken persistence, patience, and a lot of frowning to get to that final glossy report, and that’s really just the beginning. I’ve been humbled by the determination and energy of those who have taken part in Play Works so far, both in person and online, and looking forward to continuing this work over the next year.”

Nic works at London Play as project lead for Play Works, designing and delivering the programme of training and mentoring. She is completing a Masters in Landscape Architecture with the aim of designing playful spaces with communities.

If you would like to trial the Play Works online toolkit, or if you have any questions about the project, contact