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!

Knitting and weaving

I can’t knit or weave with real wool warp and weft, but I do want to spend what time is left to me (many years I hope!)  doing something similar with the playwork world. Not to try make of it what I think it should be, but to see what can be made of the arguments  and agreements and new understandings that constantly appear and disappear. That come into fashion and go out and come back in again – like flared trousers.
Not fair to talk about fashions when talking about playwork? Well, when I started on Bermondsey adventure playground in 1978 the rhetoric that we used to get and justify our funding was that we were keeping kids off the streets. And now many projects are trying to encourage children to play in streets as their doorstep right to play domain. Or more accurately, persuade their parents and neighbours that this is a good thing in a country where there are about four vehicles on the roads for each child. That’s about 40 million motors and about 11 million children and young people.
So here I think we have an existential playworker problem.  Should we be making and holding special spaces where children can play according to the theory and science that we know nowadays. Or should we be thinking about how children can playfully inhabit the whole world they find themselves in? Working well beyond the traditional space and time boundaries of playwork? The liminal spaces that Penny Wilson discovers with children? The 
benign neglect that Tim Gill reminds us that most of us remember?
So back to knitting and weaving. I will leave that to the experts old and new. But I do want to be part of a new swirl of ideas about what playwork is and might become. Look here for starters




Loose parts in action

My new granddaughter Molly had her baptism, christening, water goddess welcoming ceremony a few weeks ago. Call it what you will, it is a very ancient ceremony. And very boring for the other children (aged 18 months to around 5) who would be there and at the party afterwards.
So a few weeks before we went to pound shops and the like to get some bits and pieces.  A pop-up tent. Foam poles. Glittery pom-poms. Cheapo no-logo building bricks. A couple of slinkys. Mini Jengo blocks. Other odds and sods like recycled dolls and toys were added to the mix. Total cost? Less than £30
We had no idea how it would work with around 12 children at one end of a hotel reception room. But of course when you put a mixture of portable and ambiguous things in a space and just add children, play is bound to be the result. In the excitement I forgot to bring my camera, and my stupidphone is rubbish at taking photographs, but here is an inkling of the play magic. Note the ‘drowned doll’ in the river of pom-poms.

The biggest hit of the day turned out to be the slinkys. At two for £1 they were hopeless at walking down stairs. But they became brilliant loose parts when the children pulled the ends as far apart as possible and one would suddenly let go – sproinnnnnng!! – from one end of the room to the other. And even around corners into the pop-up tent. Which led to the discovery of the huge camp underneath the food table with its floor-length cover. Whatever went on under there was hysterically funny according to what we could hear but not see.