Outdoor Play in the “olden days” – hmmm, thanks for that, Junior PLL the Elder!

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Image (c) Google Earth – our flat was at the end of the long block orientated NW – SE and the area in the centre and behind the two smaller blocks was our domain.

I had an absorbing discussion about outdoor play with PLL Junior the Elder today, on our train journey to London for his latest dental drama.  On the way, our train passes the estate I lived in as a young child, and he always asks about what it was like “in the olden days” when I lived there.  Today’s sunshine and blossom took me back forty years and our conversation has had me musing on the nature of free play all afternoon.

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Run, Junior PLL the Younger (aka Forrest Gump), run!!

Our maisonette had no road at the front or back, and at the rear was (is) a large greenspace, with trees, bushes, grassy mounds, shady spots and suntraps, deep and creepy shrubberies and garage blocks to play tennis against or British Bulldog between.  The pic below is a Google Earth view of my childhood playscape – this is exactly how I remember it (albeit with fewer cars) so this is not just a view though rose tinted specs!  It isn’t a huge area, but it was enormous to us; I’m still in touch with several of the friends I made in those days, and their recollections support mine; in the early 70s we really were free to go play, so long as we free-ranged with our friends and promised to be back by teatime.

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There were no houses around this field 40 years ago, but other than that, this could have been my childhood.

It’s become something of a cliché to begin outdoor play or learning seminars with the question, “what do you remember about your childhood play?” and to follow that up by noting how many memories are set outdoors.  In fact, I rarely ask this question any more; I find myself increasingly in front of an audience I’m coming to think of as the outdoor play ‘lost generation’.  Aged 18 – 30, their parents (and thus they themselves) were the first victims of society’s increasingly skewed perspective on (some might say obsession with) stranger danger, risk aversion and H&S myths.  The media’s rush to sensationalise incidents that in fact represent vanishingly small risks to children’s safety in the grand scheme of things didn’t and still doesn’t help.

Many of these adults, who are now working with children themselves, did not in fact play outside as children.  They don’t have these ‘shared memories’ – or at least their memories don’t encompass freely chosen outdoor play as readily as I and others of my age recall it from ‘our’ childhood.  The two Junior PLLs WILL have play memories we will be able to share and compare in later life: as a parent I try to model the actions I promote as a practitioner.  I hope (and believe) that Mr PLL and I allow our boys age-appropriate freedom to roam and to choose when and where to play out, what to do when they’re out there, and with whom.  Don’t misunderstand me; we do have rules (they are only 4 and 7 after all) and we do fully expect broken bits of bodies at some point in the future.  Nevertheless, we begin with the premise that the Junior PLLs are sensible, dynamically risk assessing, adventurous small people who look out for each other and for their friends – just as ‘we’ did as children.

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Outdoor play occupational hazard: cow pat on your leg.

My family is extremely lucky to live opposite a large green public space; the Junior PLLs and their friends truly make the most of it, throughout the year.  As those of us in the northern hemisphere move into what we hope will be a fair and warm spring and summer, we ought to be considering what WE will do in order to ensure ALL the children whose lives we are privileged to touch are able to enjoy the sheer joy and freedom of independent outdoor play.  Those memories of free outdoor play are precious and diminishing – but by no means extinct.  I want Junior PLL the Elder to be sharing recollections of his childhood with his own children, but that’s an easy ask – I know he will.

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Only equipment needed, some sticks, an old throw and bags of imagination. Oh, and vitally, Outdoors.

We should really be asking, “what more can I do to make sure that all children are able to collect these experiences and memories?”  That question will be occupying my thoughts in the coming weeks.  Amongst other excellent blogs and websites, Rethinking Childhood, Love Outdoor Play and Playing Out will help us focus our ideas and provide motivation and inspiration for action.

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‘After Dark’ club

A Learning through Landscapes project in Lambeth last autumn explored the opportunities for play after dark – with fascinating and unexpected results.  The programme was actually about helping 15 After School clubs make better use of the outdoor space they had access to; more often than not, children were cooped up, albeit playing, indoors, having been pretty much cooped up all day at school too.  So fabulous Kyrstie worked with the club playworkers and the children to test out ways of making the grounds accessible after dark.

There wasn’t time enough during the projects to really investigate this in detail, so LTL are now putting together proposals for a bigger pilot programme, specifically to identify creative ways of engaging children and young people in playful activities after dark.  I’m not going to ‘share nicely’ any more than that, because research into the proposal is still a work in progress, but I can say that one of Kyrstie’s real successes last year was with glowsticks.

Let’s face it, in the UK we get a whole load of darkness and at this time of year it’s a real shame that children aren’t out enjoying the smells and sights and sounds of dusk.  Well tonight, the Junior PLLs and their trusty crew from across the Green spent a good half an hour playing with glowsticks of various shapes and sizes.  My pics are awful, I know (apologies) but if nothing else they surely get across the sheer energy and excitement of being out in the darkness.

There were three main games:

Bang loudly on the lamp-post with the glowsticks.  Made a great noise, obviously, and created spooky psychedlic (sp?) patterns in the air, sparkler style.  Now, much as children love making a racket, this actually only entertained them for a few minutes, so they soon came up with the next game.

Hurling the glowsticks as high into the night sky as possible (one of them definitely hit the ISS, really) and avoiding them as they come spinning back to earth was a hoot – for the children.  I have a small, but perfectly formed and slightly sore bruise on my cheekbone as testement to the need for the Littlest PLL to develop his gross motor skills a bit more.  One of the glowsticks ended up in the tree all the children round here ‘learn’ to climb trees in – it was very high up and beyond the reach of even D, the best and most fearless tree climber of the four.  However, M realised that the long (2m) straight stick I keep by my front door would be perfect, so long as someone was prepared to climb the tree in the dark… step forward, Elder PLL, ‘like a rat up an aquaduct’.  We all discovered that tree climbing in the dark is somewhat more challenging than in the bright sunlight we’ve loved getting used to over the last week or so.  But the glowstick made it back down, and so did Elder PLL.  And my stick, more to the point.  My stick obsession deserves a blog entry of its own…

After that, a game of ‘hide the glowsticks on the green’ caused much merriment and mayhem.  Surprisingly, it is possible to hide a very bright emergency beacon type glowstick in undergrowth.  At this point, the four children were joined by two curious cats, who luckily remembered Just In Time what curiosity did to the cat, and scarpered before the children could attach anything to their collars.

I’m afraid at this point, big bad mummy suddenly remembered her responsibilities as a Sensible Parent On A School Night, and called my two in, sending D and M back to their own homes, their radioactive pink and yellow hands fading slowly into the gloom.

I must get the manual out for my DSLR as the quality of the pics is a real shame, and I do want to be able to illustrate the fun to be had outdoors after dark, to encourage others to consider it as a viable context for play.  If anyone reading has experience of play after dark, I’d love to hear about it.

Adventures in DIY: “keep your shoes on and your eyes open”

Day two of the International Green Schoolyards conference took me and others to Berkeley’s Adventure Playground, situated on reclaimed land and sandwiched between a very conventional play park and a yachting marina.  What a glorious anomaly it
is.  Started over 30 years ago, the playground is a paradise of child-built forts, dens, lookout towers and… ummm… tragically moribund pianos.

Manager Patty showed us around and allowed us to mingle with the families making the most of the Sunday sunshine to practice new and dangerous skills.  Adventure Playground has clear and easy to adhere to rules so whilst there is undoubtedly plenty of risky activity taking place, it’s managed and supervised appropriately.  At the question and answer session after our visit, Patty explained that ‘appropriate’ supervision and intervention relies on the judgement of the trained staff and volunteers; the purpose is to allow children to experiment- and yes, there is always a risk they will be hurt, but the stats show that injuries are few and minor when they do occur.

On entering the playground, adults sign a waiver on behalf of their child, accepting the risks and agreeing to respect the rules.  Cleverly, children ‘earn’ tools by exchanging them for objects and items collected from the floor – nails, splinters, trash and ‘Mr Dangerous’.

A large table adjacent to the staff area offers plenty of space to test the tools and materials before attempting the more challenging tasks in the main play space.  Staff have a shipping container full of tools, equipment, safety gear and first aid
kits.  They also roam around the play space, but I was surprised when Patty told us that there would routinely be only 3 staffers on over a weekend (more on a holiday weekend) – adults playing with their children are expected to be responsible for the children they brought with them, and to look out for other children playing nearby.  Hang on, I remember that concept – didn’t it die out in our risk averse, litigation fearing society?  Not here, clearly.

I enjoyed observing a few vignettes:

  • Two boys, eleven or twelve years old perhaps, were trying out various sawing techniques on the test bench, finally working out that having most of the plank cantilevered from the bench made it harder to saw accurately.  Having cracked that conundrum, they raced off to the huge timber bays to collect more raw material; they didn’t appear to have any other purpose than the sheer joy to be had in sawing things up.

  • A patient dad spent ten minutes instructing and watching his daughter, who was determined to do her bit in attaching a long horizontal plank to a fort, at well above her eye level.  She showed real tenacity and determination – not to mention delight when she quite literally hit the nail on the head. Meanwhile, a small group of boys were doing the same at the other end of the plank – they appeared to be a bit more experienced, working quickly and accurately and discussing ideas for infilling the new balcony with panels.  A boy who hadn’t previously been involved in this play, walked over, carrying a comically enormous piece of plywood, a saw
    and hammer and asked if his wood could be used.  The group examined it, decided it wasn’t suitable, and the new boy took his treasure off to the next structure where it was gladly received.  No tantrums, no nails through anyone’s foot – just a considered response and a polite acceptance of the decision.  I wish adults could negotiate this well.

  • A girl and her mum talking to the ‘saw horse’ – feeding it imaginary carrots, patting its hind quarters and checking its cart was securely fastened (it was – the thirty thousand nails other children had previously added to it made sure of that).  The girl then hopped onto the horse and I left them to continue their journey unobserved.

  • Two boys tested gravity vs human brute force, repeatedly pushing a toy quad bike down the dirt hill into some tyres at the base.  A really simple play experiment but carried out in a spirit of fun and with much belly laughing, making it compulsive viewing.

One of my conference colleagues asked Patty, “could this playground be built today?” and her reply, depressingly, was no.  It’s there, it keeps its head just below the parapet and it maintains a spectacular reputation for safety and excitement… so it goes on. Funding is tight, as it always seems to be for anything children might actually choose to do, but gifts and donations (of materials, obviously, but also of money) are one welcome way of sustaining the playground.

And the pianos?  Let’s just say they’d spent a lifetime being loved – the painted, bashed keys and water warped cases, the rusty piano actions and hopelessly out of tune sounds emanating from them made them an absolute joy to play (if not to hear).

Adventure playground website: http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/contentdisplay.aspx?id=8656

NB apologies for the blurred faces – I don’t usually hold with doing that on my pics but as I’m sure you’ll appreciate it was not possible to get signed photographic permission forms!