Thirty years on, Playday continues to inspire

 

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.

 

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