Here is a true gem from the archives of play: extended video footage of Lady Allen of Hurtwood. Lady Allen is the foremost figure in the history of children’s play in the UK (I reviewed her classic Planning for Play – available as a pdf from the marvellous Playscapes blog – in a previous post). The video focuses on the staffed adventure playgrounds Lady Allen created in the 1960s and 1970s to provide play opportunities for disabled children, some of which continue today under the management of the charity Kids.
Some health warnings: at times the language used in the video to describe the children is old-fashioned, inappropriate, and even offensive to today’s ears – though in Lady Allen’s day the terms were standard. Also, the video is somewhat grainy and jumpy. Oh – and Lady Allen’s accent could cut glass at 20 paces. But do not let any of this put you off, or you will miss out on as clear a manifesto for adventurous play as you are ever likely to see.
The documentary pulses with children’s appetite for autonomy, and includes some powerful and moving images of children straining every sinew to achieve the goals they had set themselves in their play. What is more, Lady Allen’s ferocious faith in children’s competences is a thrill to see, and still resonates today.
At around 2:55 Lady Allen says of the adventure playground: “Here, they can play with very dangerous tools, they can create their own houses, their own climbing frames, they can take really dangerous risks and overcome them, and above all it’s a place where they can meet their friends, where they can make new friends, in a very free and permissive atmosphere.”
At 4:40, look out for the children running out of the bus to get to the playground: their excitement is palpable.
At 5:25: “At every point these children need some kind of challenge which sets them going. We want them also to be as free as possible from adult supervision. Because I think, and I think other people think with me, that many of these children are needlessly overprotected by adults, and never given any freedom to explore and experiment, and find out what the world is all about.” (My blog post on disabled extreme wheelchair user Aaron Fotheringham makes a similar point.)
At 6:30: “If they are so overprotected that they are never able to meet these challenges and able to take these risks, I think they will be the poorer for it when they grow up. When they set their heart on doing something which may be beyond their capabilities, they’ll stay at it and stick at it until they’ve achieved it, and this builds up a tremendous sense of self-confidence.”
At 8:15: “All our experience goes to show that a child that is unhappy… is not able to learn, is not able to benefit from the experience around him, and the majority of these children are not only unhappy because of the situation in which they live, but they are tremendously frustrated, because people feel that they are not able to cope with these problems with which they have got to be faced in later life.”
From a play point of view, the video goes somewhat off-topic between 9 and 12 minutes – but do not miss the recap, with more from Lady Allen at the end. At 12:45 she says, of her experiment in providing adventurous play: “I’ve got a feeling that you’ve got to try everything once. If it works – wonderful. If it doesn’t work – scrap it and try something else.” This philosophy, which echoes children’s own hunger for experience, has great resonance in our more anxious times.
Acknowledgements: the video is from a series called The Pacemakers, produced by the Government in the late 1960s and early 70s. Thanks to London Play for uploading this video to Youtube, and to Adrian Voce and Marc Armitage for bringing it to my attention via facebook.