Julia Sexton reflects on an extraordinary period for staff and children at Pitsmoor Adventure Playground, where she is a trustee.
In Rising to the Covid Challenge I described how staff at Pitsmoor Adventure Playground had responded to the challenge of keeping the relational space of the adventure playground alive and well whilst the physical space was closed to children, young people and families.
The playground’s physical space reopened this summer, in July. There was some understandable initial apprehension from staff, children, young people and their families about what the reality of reopening during the pandemic would be like. A main strength of the playground is its diversity; the staff team reflect the cultural diversity of the children, young people and families who use the playground. With research indicating that BAME people have a higher risk of contracting covid 19 (Public Health England, 2020) there were worries about what the impact of meeting regulations to keep everyone safe would be on keeping play at the heart of the playground when it reopened. As one playworker reflected ‘I was worried at the beginning; would we be able to build dens, build a swimming pool, play with water and just get close to the children?’
Pirates and zombies
Once the playground was reopened, there have been children running around, playing games of ‘pirates’ and ‘zombies’, football, cricket, basketball, hopscotch, hoola hooping, whizzing down the slide, hanging off the ‘witch’s hat’ roundabout and shrieking with joy as it spins around, making music with frying pans and saucepans, digging and planting, playing hide and seek, painting and drawing and constant shrieks of laughter and smiling faces and much more besides; much more than was anticipated to be possible before reopening.
Reading this you could be forgiven for thinking that the covid restrictions have had little impact on what is on offer at the playground, but you would be wrong. It has been a slow and steady process to be able to confidently offer most of the familiar play opportunities and resources although with some changes. For example, sand, water and the zip wire have not been available in line with risk assessment guidelines and art materials have been available for individual use only. Ever resourceful, the staff continually found alternative ways of doing the familiar things that were affected by the restrictions. Birthdays, always popular celebrations on the playground have continued to be celebrated with cake but involved clapping as an alternative to singing and blowing out candles. A playground favourite game, ‘tiggy’ played by children and playworkers has continued but as ‘tiggy no tiggy’ to enable abiding by social distancing guidance.
Keeping the relational space of the playground alive and well, whilst physically closed through socially distanced face to face outreach work, the press and other media, helped to keep the playground in people’s minds. Prior to reopening it was important to brief children, young people and families on the changes to expect on returning to the playground to prepare and reassure them that the playground was a safe place for them to play. Running a pilot session was crucial to enable ironing out any glitches and identifying any operational adjustments needed.
Regaining as much as possible of the co-created ‘everydayness’ of the playground required planning, preparation and reflection with all the team members; paid and volunteers. Effective teamwork has been crucial to ensure that the transition to reopening went smoothly and safely. Clear guidance that all of the team understood has been key to this, ensuring staff felt informed and supported. To effectively manage the changes to the playground systems and practice required having sufficient staff so that staff felt confident in their roles and not overwhelmed. Staff found that parents/carers often sought out opportunities to chat with them about their experiences and fears and having enough staff to accommodate this comfortably was essential for the health and wellbeing of the families.
Implications for our ethos
Some of the required changes have had implications for the ethos of the playground and playwork practice, needing careful ongoing reflection, discussion and planning to implement, manage and review. The playground previously aimed to offer the ‘three frees’ (Conway, 2009, p.4); being free of charge, open access and children and young people being free to choose how they play (Lester and Russell, 2013). It remains free of charge but currently cannot be open access. At the entrance to the playground there are now social distancing markers and a registration table. Here all visitors are greeted, welcomed and checked that they have been booked in, as the numbers of visitors on site has been limited, initially to 20 a session; generally 15 children and young people and up to 5 parents/carers in social bubbles.
To accommodate as many children as possible on-site during the day whilst also complying with social distancing and cleaning guidelines, the playground offered two, 2-hour pre-bookable sessions a day, Monday to Friday. All visitors are required to sanitise their hands prior to entering (hand sanitisers are also located throughout the playground) and temperature checks are taken and recorded as part of checking no one has any symptoms of covid 19. Whilst the children and young people are free to play there are some restrictions as to what and how equipment and resources can be accessed.
Feedback from the children, young people and parents/carers about the reopening of the playground has been very positive.
‘We couldn’t wait to be able to play on the playground, it was like every special day coming together when we were allowed back on to play again’ M aged 10
‘It was horrible being stuck in the house all the time. It’s been great being back with my friends and the playworkers’ A aged 11
‘There’s some bits changed but it is still great’ A aged 12
‘The Covids changed everything and made it hard for everyone but it is good we’ve still got Pitsmoor Adventure Playground and that it’s not shut down. We can come here to play, we can’t play anywhere else, it’s not safe’ E aged 13
‘I’ve been struggling with feeding my kids. I lost my job you see when the covid came. I was on a zero hour contract and they got rid of me. It’s been really hard but the playground were there for us all the time and now its opened to play, it’s made a real difference to my kids. They’re smiling again’ – Mother of 4 children
‘A huge difference’
‘Just being able to take my kids somewhere to play and have quality time is vital to me as a lone father. I was climbing the walls at home with them during lockdown not knowing what else to do. There’s only so many walks you can take them on before they get bored. They couldn’t wait for the playground to reopen and it’s made a huge difference to all our lives. They love every minute of the sessions they’ve gone to and are complaining they can’t go every day and having to learn the new covid way means taking turns, which isn’t a bad life lesson for them to learn either. Staff have been brilliant. They are really up on safety and it gives us confidence’ – Father of 3 children
This summer at the playground has been an exceptional one for multiple reasons. The reality of reopening during a pandemic has been that changes have been made to how the playground operates and to playwork practice to keep everyone safe. However, it is possible to keep play at the heart of the work by offering time and space for children and young people to play in challenging times. Whilst initially children, young people and their families along with the staff, were apprehensive about the reopening of the playground, they have found the adjustment smooth and safe.
Conway, M. (2009). Developing an adventure playground: the essential elements. Practice Briefing 1. London: NCB.
Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2013). ‘Utopian visions of childhood and play in English social policy’ In Parker, A. and Vinson, D. (eds.) Youth Sport, Physical Activity and Play: Policy, Intervention and Participation. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 40-52.
Public Health England (2020). Disparities in the risk and outcomes of
Photos: Pitsmoor Adventure Playground