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


Play England Annual General Meeting

March 1st, 2017 by

Play England logo largePlay England’s Annual General Meeting takes place on Monday 6 March this year in Eastbourne.

Our guest speaker is Mike Greenaway, Director, Play Wales.

We encourage all of our members to consider attending.  Whilst we know that not all of our members are playworkers, there are a wide range of workshops that are of interest to everybody who supports children’s play and it’s a great opportunity to meet others who work in the field.  Play England is pleased to work in partnership with Meynell Games in support of the conference.

To book your place, register here:…

In order to attend the AGM, you will need to be a member of Play England. We know how tough it is financially for everyone, so membership is now free. You can join on-line here:

Play England will also be hosting workshops at the National Playwork Conference including:
– launch of new edition of ‘Quality in Play’,
– play design and provision in Europe
– ‘Design for Play – ten years on’.
– a special roundtable on playwork qualifications.

Find out more about this year’s National Playwork Conference:

Child-friendly cities benefit us all

February 15th, 2017 by


Sam Williams is a landscape architect at Arup, currently leading a research project into how and why we should be designing child-friendly cities. Due out in July, it will aim to empower everyone influencing and engaging with the built environment, to integrate playfulness and freedom to explore as part of everyday life.  The research will be part of the Cities Alive series, which aims to engage people with the subject of creating liveable, sustainable urban environments. Sam is working with Tim Gill, one of the UK’s leading thinkers on play and childhood, who is helping to steer the structure and content.

Here, Sam writes for Play England about why we need to create child-friendly cities.

“After becoming a dad, I realised the enormous potential for child-centred activities such as play streets to bring people and places together. I set one up on my own road with the help of London Play, and it has been happening monthly for over a year now. It has been great getting to know all the people living nearby, and seeing the kids make friends. We invite the elderly neighbours, and always make sure there is tea and cake out.

“Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.” – Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogotá

More than half the world’s children live in cities, and it is much more than just a backdrop to their lives. A city can have a huge influence on them and their experience of growing up, both good and bad. In return they influence the city, both through their presence and their absence.

Children’s health and wellbeing, the amount of time they spend playing outdoors, their levels of contact with nature, their ability to get around independently – these are all strong measures of how a city is performing, not just for children but for everyone. This is because the things that children want are fundamentally the same things that everyone else wants: safe streets, green space, clean air, somewhere to call home, and the freedom to be themselves. Creating a child-friendly city is about showing respect for human dignity.

To achieve it though we have to think very hard about the choices we make as designers, planners, policy makers, parents, and even as children.

There are many challenges to creating child-friendly cities, but the biggest, in the UK at least, has to be fear. And the fear that causes the most limits to be put on a child’s freedom is that of a child being hit by a car. The result is that children stay indoors in front of the TV, and their parents drive them everywhere. A child’s day can become dependent on when and where the driver has the time and inclination to go to. They are even driven short, walkable distances to school; the result is a vicious cycle of more cars, more accidents, more pollution at the school gate, and less time to spend outdoors walking, playing and talking with friends.

People can get used to there being no children out, and there can seem to be less reason to supply adequate play and youth facilities. Young people can find themselves with nowhere to go and nothing to do. They are often made to feel like criminals just for wanting to see their friends outside the home, as people mix up anxiety about criminal behaviour with actual criminal behaviour. Children and young people have a huge amount they could contribute through being engaged in the design process, and we should aim to work with them rather than just for them.

It is also very difficult for a child to form a clear picture of where they live when they are driven everywhere, which will have negative impacts on their sense of community, their wayfinding abilities and their road awareness, so they actually do become less safe at navigating the streets when they have to.

For parents it is a huge expense of time and money to always be driving from one scheduled activity to the next. The stress and guilt of trying to juggle parenting with work and other pressures could all be greatly reduced if children were more free to direct their own lives.

Cities might connect us to the wider world through art, diversity and culture, but something as simple as how many cars pass down a street each day will decide whether a child has friends they can visit locally or not.

The vast majority of people do not do enough exercise to keep healthy, and this is proving a significant burden on the tax payer and the health service, let alone impacting on their own quality of life into old age. Those who are too young to drive get around the city on foot, bicycle and public transport, so the street layouts and infrastructure need to be in place for that. If a young child feels confident navigating these then everyone, including the elderly and less physically mobile, will do too.

Major roads tend to cut through the more economically deprived areas, while the people who live there are less likely to own a car. This means that poorer children suffer the effects far more acutely and are far more likely to be killed by a car than their more affluent peers, while enjoying none of the benefits.

In light of all this it is clear that ideas which reduce our dependency on the car could give parents the confidence to allow their children more freedom, and would increase health and equity for everyone. A city where the young can move around freely is one where people of all ages meet, make friends and form the bonds needed to support both their own wellbeing and that of the community.

Having greater dependency on the immediate local environment means that a city which works for children and families is also one with lots of small businesses and attractions, and far less dependency on big out-of-town shopping centres. This results in a resilient local economy, jobs, and thriving high streets.

A happy, healthy population is also an economically productive one. Play is how children first start to develop active lifestyles. Getting these healthy patterns of behaviour engrained early on becomes of even greater importance as life expectancy increases.

Contact with nature is also very important for health and wellbeing, but the debate around children often focuses on the idea that a rural childhood is “better” than the urban alternative. This is neither based in reality nor of any use for providing meaningful natural experiences for the one billion children now living in cities. In fact, an RSPB study found there are higher levels of contact with nature among urban children than their rural counterparts.

Green space caters for a wide range of physical activities, and cities with lots of it have healthier citizens too. For instance, gardening and food-growing are great opportunities for young and old to do together and learn from each other. Street trees, parks and urban forests help provide nature, but they also build up a city’s resilience to heat and flooding. By thinking beyond the standard plastic playgrounds in this way we can start to imagine exciting spaces which not only provide play, community and ecology, but also make a city safer and stronger in the face of great uncertainty about the climate.

Around the world and across the UK there are many great examples of these ideas being put into practice and delivering what they promised.

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany is regarded as one of the most child-friendly places in the world. Its safe, pedestrian-friendly streets, multifunctional green space, and eco-principals all add up to an award-winning healthy place that works for everyone.

Rotterdam implemented a major child-friendly initiative to turn around the problems the city was having with people moving away to have families, which has been highly successful.

Across the UK there are hundreds of people doing great work. Charities such as Playing Out and London Play are doing fantastic things such as helping people start up their own play streets. Councils removing No Ball signs need congratulating. Play workers up and down the country are providing excellent opportunities and need our support.

“Powerful imagination has always been at the heart of changing streets and making them places for play and community.” – Hugh Barton, City of Well-being

Big change mostly comes about through lots of small coordinated actions. We have to take a holistic approach and join up efforts across a wide range of disciplines and industries to create the city we want to see. It is endlessly complex, but we need to be bold and positive about the vision we have.

Possibly the biggest challenge is persuading people that these ideas are worth spending money on, and finances are the stumbling block for a lot of projects. Without a clear understanding of how a city works it is very hard to make any progress. Working at Arup, we are fortunate to have integrated teams of landscape architects, urban designers, planners, economists, transport and more, all working closely together on projects around the world.

Like children, cities are always changing. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for their problems, and they both need understanding, compassion, and people who care about them.”






Keeping children indoors is not the solution to pollution!

February 1st, 2017 by


The response to the recent air pollution alerts in London alarmed many of us who champion children’s right to play in the UK, writes Marguerite Hunter-Blair, Chief Executive of Play Scotland.  Here she looks at the impact of environmental pollution on children’s play, and responses to it – both internationally and in Scotland.

The impact of these extreme environmental conditions on children’s opportunities and freedom to play outside was clear with children’s play time outside of the classroom cancelled in many schools and parents advised to keep children indoors.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013:10) asserts that certain conditions need to be assured if children are to realise their article 31 rights fully. These factors include, “an environment secure from social harm and violence, and sufficiently free from pollution, traffic and other hazards that impede free and safe movement”.

The General Comment warns that toxic urban environments often lead Caregivers to greatly restrict children’s free play and independence. And this is exactly what happened in London. As play champions in a world with increasing pollution levels we need to challenge this evolving social norm and ensure that children’s play needs come first.

Play England supported the call by Friends of the Earth for London’s Mayor to introduce emergency traffic restrictions when pollution episodes are high. ‘The solutions proposed for dealing with the latest smog have things backwards: the first step should be restricting traffic not people.’ I agree!

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, devoted its 2016 Day of General Discussion to Children’s Rights and the Environment. Inspired by this theme, the International Play Association (IPA) developed a discussion paper on Children’s Right to Play and the Environment

This makes clear that: “….the right to play should not be dependent on the environmental conditions.”  Further observing, “as children’s well-being is shaped by where they live, the quality of play is fundamentally shaped by the environments it happens in.”   The report is concerned about the impact of this on children’s life chances, stating “detrimental environmental changes are already affecting the overall safety of outdoor play for children….children’s access to play and a healthy quality of life are faltering.”

In Scotland, community pressure from parents and charities has encouraged some local authorities to review the impact of the ‘school run’ on children’s health and wellbeing, and take action. East Lothian, Glasgow and Edinburgh are some of the local authorities who have introduced pilot schemes and permanent measures to address the cross-cutting challenges of children making their way to the school gate. Charities like Living Streets and SUSTRANS have also supported local groups to take action while working with policy makers to develop innovative solutions.

Planning, health and environmental policies and departments all have a role to play in mitigating the impacts of pollution, congestion and traffic danger, while facilitating more sustainable and active travel modes to school. But developing sustainable solutions requires committed community engagement.  School Streets pilots were introduced initially to limit traffic around the gates of primary schools to increase road safety and promote walking to school. The exclusion zones are community-driven and are not legally enforceable. This means that the community needs to fully embrace the scheme for it to work. This also means there is no need for expensive road traffic orders. Car free zones around schools now offer a broader range of benefits for our children: more space to play, cycle, walk and scoot; less exhaust fumes; less congestion; better outcomes for our children and young people.

Communities need to take action!  Keeping children indoors is not the solution to pollution!


Play best way for children to get active

November 21st, 2016 by
New Ark Adventure Playground


By Nicola Butler, Chair of Trustees 

Play is vital for children’s health and wellbeing. It is particularly important for disadvantaged and disabled children, who often face greater barriers to access appropriate and good quality play opportunities.

Play England is delighted to be part of #GetOutGetActive, an exciting new programme that supports disabled and non-disabled people to enjoy being active together. Funded by Spirit of 2012, the project is about getting people moving more through fun and inclusive activities.

Too many children are leading inactive lives. Many are growing up in over-crowded housing without access to quality play and sports opportunities outside school. An alarming number of children fail to meet guidance from the Chief Medical Officer.

According to Public Health England, in 2014/15 a third of 10- to 11-year olds and over a fifth of four to five-year olds were overweight or obese.

Evaluation of Play England’s Street Play project identified increases in children’s moderate to vigorous physical activity when they played out. Accelerometers and GPS were used to track children whilst playing. It identified increases in children’s moderate to vigorous physical activity.

The data collected and analysed showed that outdoor, active play was more likely to replace sedentary and screen-based activities, than physical activities. Increased community cohesion was also identified through an in depth study of parents views.

Play England, with national partners Playing Out, London Play and the University of Bristol, developed the highly successful Street Play project, funded by the Department of Health. The Street Play project supports parents to hold regular road closures for play, with a sustainable network of over 5,000 volunteers creating over 60,000 additional play opportunities.

The evaluation of Play England’s Street Play project found that the hours between 3:30pm and 6pm on weekdays are the ‘critical window’ for children’s physical activity and it is during this time when differences in weekday physical activity between low and high active children and non-obese and obese children are greatest. Currently only 13% of 10- and 11-year old children are outdoors and active during this time.

Play England has lots of resources to help parents and local residents reactivate a culture of children playing out in the streets near where they live and embed this in local policy.
Click here to find out more and download briefings.

At the Child in the City conference this month, I promoted the crucial role of Street Play in child-friendly cities at a workshop with Tim Gill, author of the acclaimed ‘No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society’.

Play England is also developing Adventure into Sport, a pilot project which will use play provision as a springboard into sport and active lifestyles for children and their parents.
To find out more about #GetOutGetActive click here.

To find out more about the latest Play England news and activities download our quarterly newsletter Playtoday.

Play holds key to inclusion

September 26th, 2016 by

Play is the best way to offer inclusion, says Karen Kewell, co-founder of #ToyLikeMe, an organisation that was set up to call the global toy industry to  account on its failure to represent the 150 million disabled children in its toys.  This year,  Lego launched its first ever wheelchair-using figure, which has been directly credited to #ToyLikeMe campaign. As Part of our diversity in Play campaign, we are delighted to introduce Karen as our latest guest blogger.

In the Beginning

#ToyLikeMe® was established in April 2015 after journalist and creative consultant Rebecca Atkinson and I noticed the lack of disability representation in toys. We had always been interested in the way these industries represent disabled people, but this was the first time they had noticed the lack of representation in the toy industry.

I was a former Ragdoll Productions Researcher and play consultant, and orginally launched #ToyLikeMe on Facebook and Twitter to call on the global toy industry to start representing the 150 million disabled children worldwide.

I now live in York and have a son, Fred with a visual impairment. Rebecca, who is partially deaf and partially sighted herself, wrote for the Guardian about the beginnings of #ToyLikeMe and the impetus behind it. You can read the full article here .

Customising toys

They say a picture speaks a thousand words and with 150 million children worldwide with a disability we wanted to speak to everyone!

We began making-over toys to give them disabilities and asked other parents to do the same. The results soon went viral and our story was shared on news outlets around the world.

‘…when a child plays with a toy that is differently-abled, they will show more compassion, understanding and acceptance when they meet a child with a disability.’

The customised toys not only show and tell, they also inspire creative families to do their own too. We’ve had so many creative ideas shared via #ToyLikeMe it has created a small industry of its own.


Harnessing 3D technology

We spotted a company in the UK who make bespoke dolls using 3D printing. We contacted them and asked if they would produce hearing aids and a white cane for their dolls. To our delight they agreed and within two weeks they produced the world’s first 3D printed dolls with disabilities in response to #ToyLikeMe. We were so happy we fell off our toy box and so did a lot of other kids and big kids. The story also made the global press.

Focusing on the big toy manufacturers!

Our next tactic was to focus on one toy manufacturer: we decided on PlayMobil.

We gave some Playmobil figures waggy-tailed guide dogs and whizzy wheelchairs and started a petition asking Playmobil to produce the figures for real. Fifty thousand people signed in a week and the lovely folk at Playmobil said yes! With creative consultation from Rebecca, they are currently developing products inspired by #ToyLikeMe for release in 2016/17. Whoopeee!

Next up, we started a petition calling on Lego which has been signed by over 20,000 people. Sadly, Lego didn’t respond to us directly. However, in January this year, Lego unveiled their first ever wheelchair-using mini-figure at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. The UK press attributed #ToyLikeMe’s influence to this product and the story was carried worldwide. We were very happy to see this product at long last.  Only time can tell, but where the big toy companies go, many tend to follow! The wheelchair has been very well received and we hope it is the start of incidental representation across all their sets.

In the spring we Crowd-funded for development costs for a website as we needed a place online so people can connect with the products available. This has just been launched! Now, all our hours of searching for the best representative toys is there in all its playful glory. Who knows, maybe we will shame, I mean inspire, other big toy companies to think about representing all children’s abilities.

The play sector holds the key to championing differently-abled children

The play sector holds the key to championing the ideas and values that underpin #ToyLikeMe. If children play with and see images of children who are differently abled, it becomes the norm. Therefore inclusion becomes the norm. We are currently working with a University to provide academic research for this, to show that when a child plays with a toy that is differently-abled, they will show more compassion, understanding and acceptance when they meet a child with a disability. Importantly they won’t feel just pity.

Here are three practical things that local play organisations can do to help be more welcoming to diff:abled children, particularly children with visual impairments:

  1. Hide and seek – Children with disabilities are often invisible to local services so I would recommend you contact your local Sensory team and see if there are any children who would like to attend your play centre. I can guarantee there will be. Their parents might need a bit of persuading. You can help by asking directly what small adaptations could be made to welcome children with disabilities. For sight loss it is wonderful what a bit of paint and washi tape can do.
  2. Awareness – Grab a pair of Sim Specks (glasses that simulate blindness and visual impairments, like these), a blind fold and take a walk in their shoes. Take a slice of common sense and walk around your setting and make minor adaptations. Arrange a training day, invite me or someone like me or Positive Eye to come and share with you some adapted games and crafts you can do together. Promise you will have fun and learn loads!
  3. Makeover some toys and send them to #ToyLikeMe

To find out more about #ToyLikeMe, please visit their Facebook page and their website here.

If you have questions for Karen, or would like to share your own experiences and ideas, please just use our comments section below.