It’s volunteering, but not as we knew it Jim!

I had a lightbulb year when managing Play England’s Exploring Nature Play programme. Yes, that’s right, a lightbulb year rather than a moment.
The project was funded by Natural England to explore ways of engaging children with nature through their freely-chosen play. We worked with three very different adventure playgrounds in Tottenham, London; Shiremoor in North Tyneside and Torbay in Devon to find out what actually worked in practice, could be replicated elsewhere and continue after the project ended.
A relatively minor element of the project was to encourage volunteering, but to our amazement this became a huge part of its success – in a way we could never have predicted. We were thinking inside the playwork box about how to attract, check and vet, train and support volunteer playworkers.
What we discovered was that there was a whole other world of amazing people who didn’t want to be playworkers, but had skills and knowledge they wanted to pass on to children and the people who work with them in play and other projects. They were beekeepers, tree planting experts, allotment holders, green woodworkers and furniture makers, dry stone wall builders, gardeners, organic growers, forest school or bushcraft experts, willow weavers, insect, butterfly, bird and pondlife experts.
A total of 1,470 people helped out in the three areas where we worked. Some were one-offs that we didn’t see again, some helped out seasonally while others turned up every week.

Out of all the amazing stories, here’s just one that illustrates how there can be a true symbiotic relationship between play, environmental and other projects that might not immediately spring to mind.
The Northumbria Dry Stone Walling Association needed a base where their long-standing members could train volunteers and apprentices as well as to “keep their hand in” at doing something they had loved over a lifetime of working in a craft that is still very important to the north eastern rural economy. Shiremoor adventure playground needed a playable boundary enclosing their new wildlife pond, wildflower meadow, willow tunnels and seating areas. The Exploring Nature Play project brought them together, put in some seed funding and helped to fundraise for the stone.
The beautiful 60 metre wall tells a story as it winds its way across the adventure playground. It has a selection of traditional stone and wooden stiles to use as crossing points, bug hotels hidden amongst the stones and mysterious stone animals built into it that children have fun finding and making up stories about. It also contains several time capsules, which the children and young people enjoyed making and burying as a lasting legacy of the Exploring Nature Play project.
Dry stone wall 3 Dry stone wall


The simple message is that everybody involved needs to have a win win from a volunteering project. Paid staff must not feel threatened; volunteers need to be able to bring their skills and get what they want out of it; and of course the project beneficiaries need something out of it, otherwise why bother?
I was going to mention sustainability until I remembered that the Shiremoor children were given a 100 year money-back guarantee by the chair of the dry stone walling association!