Trustee Ali Wood describes how Meriden Adventure Playground, in Chelmsley Wood in the West Midlands, is managing to continue its vital work through the Covid crisis
Like all other playgrounds, we had to close during the lockdown. We furloughed most of the staff but kept two on to stay in touch with the community and to help set up a new food bank and make deliveries – along with made-up play packs – to local families. We opened up again at the beginning of July, having spent weeks working out to how to do this safely without losing the power and fun of playing – we eventually set up an online booking system (which has been a nightmare to administrate) so that we could open to groups of 20 three times a day. We required adults to socially distance, but not the children and we also encouraged both children and parents to complete a questionnaire about how they had been feeling and playing during the lockdown.
A SPECTRUM OF EXPERIENCES
These have yielded some really interesting responses showing a whole spectrum of experiences – ranging from those who had a really tough tine and were still very worried right through to those who had loved being off school and having more time to play. It was interesting to see the correlation that matched up the most anxious children with the most fearful and stressed out parents… We also noticed initially that most of the children were more reticent than usual and it took a few sessions for them to get back to their gung-ho selves.
Being an outdoors only site did make things easier and by August we had nearly all the staff back and were up to 40 children a session and we had also formed a partnership with SOLAR – our local Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust – who have been paying for the exclusive use of the site twice a week with groups of children on their caseloads. It has been wonderful to see these isolated children particularly, forming friendships with others like them and building up confidence and competence and starting to open up and talk. This is a partnership we shall definitely be building on – the psychologists have a passion for free play and we are learning from each other and sharing good practice. Youth nights also started up halfway through July and moved up to 30 per session and attracting new young people we didn’t know.
A BUSY SUMMER
So it was a very busy summer interspersed with cameos of spraying disinfectant and dishing out hand sanitiser together with constantly explaining the ‘rules’ for limited numbers to parents who kept turning up at the gate. There has been a lot of ‘can we – can’t we?’ reflections along the way but confidence has grown all-round and despite things not being as they were, the magic and power of playing has definitely returned and feels great. We looked forward to the school term starting so we could build back up our unaccompanied regulars after-school – many of whom had not returned because they would normally have turned up here in the holidays all day and every day which has not been possible due to online booking. Many of them did return and we soon went back to offering food again as many of them were hungry.
We are now into the second national lockdown but have managed to stay open. After many conversations with both the police and with public health officials about the need to continue supporting kids, we have been allowed to open as long as there is a maximum of 15 ‘children or young people most in need’ present. That left us with a real conundrum – how could we decide who was most needy. We managed to structure things so that we have at least two sessions five days a week and are working on trying as far as possible to get the same kids at the same sessions so there is less ‘mingling’ (despite the fact that all these are kids are mingling on the streets after school and in the park). Despite the agreement we had forged, the local police force still came to disperse everyone at the first youth session last Thursday, but fortunately they listened and drove off and we are hoping that doesn’t keep happening.
We are also spending time having strategic discussions and planning for the future in response to the pandemic – we are exploring offering alternative education placements and more therapeutic play sessions as a means of reaching those children most in need, whilst earning extra much-needed income. These are not easy times for playwork!
Trustee, Meriden Adventure Playground
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