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 firstname.lastname@example.org.