Category Archives: play

The Chinese educational revolution with outdoor play as its beating heart

Anji Play – a public kindergarten service running in 140 centres for 14,000 children aged 3-6 in Anji County, China  – is gaining an international profile for its emphasis on outdoor play and its relaxed approach to risk. I first stumbled on it a couple of years ago, thanks to this widely-shared video on Facebook. More recently my curiosity was piqued by its inclusion in a superb episode of the Netflix TV documentary ‘Abstract’, on the US construction toy designer and play advocate Cas Holman.

Then I realised that an upcoming trip to China was going to take me literally to Anji Play’s doorstep. So I persuaded my Chinese clients to exploit this lucky coincidence and set up a visit.

My first view of the schoolyard at Anji Play

My first view of the schoolyard at Anji Play

This post shares some thoughts on what I saw and heard. It ends with a short interview with Anji Play’s founder, Cheng Xueqin, who has just stepped down from her role as head of service.

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A tribute to Frank Dobson

Frank Dobson MPI am very sad to hear the news of the passing of Frank Dobson. He was known to many as Health Secretary under Tony Blair in the late 1990s, but perhaps better known to UK play advocates as the author of the 2004 Dobson Review into children’s play.

As lead reviewer, I have very fond memories of working with Frank in the year or so of the review period. He threw himself into the task: chairing regional consultation events, visiting parks and playgrounds, bending the ear of ministers, and inviting senior civil servants to share their play memories.

Frank enjoyed telling how, at one early consultation event in his home county of Yorkshire, we asked the audience what they thought they were there for. After a few long-winded, woolly answers from grown-ups, a boy in the front row chirped up saying “we’re here to tell you how to spend t’money.”

Frank had a wicked sense of humour, was legendary/infamous for his plain-spokenness, and placed high value on clarity (as I learnt from his comments on my drafts!)

The impact and legacy of his report (which helped pave the way for the Government’s subsequent £235 million National Play Strategy) – and the positive response it generated from an initially skeptical play movement – are testament to his powers of communication and political persuasion.

As well as being a public champion of play throughout the review, Frank worked hard behind the scenes to overcome both bureaucratic and political hurdles and unlock the National Lottery funding that the play sector had been promised. He was also a longstanding chair of the flagship play facility at Coram’s Fields in Central London.

Frank Dobson and Rupert Everett Opens the New Sports Pitches for the 'Coram's Fields' Children's Charity, London, Britain - 12 Sep 2013

Frank Dobson and children, Corams Fields, 2013. Ray Tang/Shutterstock

It is Frank’s integrity, generosity and unwavering dedication to public service that will stay with me, especially when it came to improving the lives of the marginalised and disadvantaged. He also had a thoughtful and introspective side that belied his jovial public persona. I will not be alone in feeling that the world is the poorer for his absence.

My thoughts are with Frank’s friends and family.

Postscript 13 November 2019: Head here for an obituary in the Guardian.

Leading NGO calls for new thinking on play safety around the world

Playgrounds have for decades been shaped by a zero risk mindset, with, any injury seen as a sign of failure. But things are changing, in what the New York Times recently called a “movement for freer, riskier play.”

Playing it Safe? report coverI am proud to be a part of this movement. And this article introduces a new report [pdf link] on play and risk that I have written for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, the influential early childhood NGO, as part of its agenda-setting Urban95 initiative.

Entitled Playing it Safe? A global white paper on risk, liability and children’s play in public space, the report makes the case for a new approach, and calls for action by the key agencies involved in creating and maintaining play spaces, including city governments, NGOs, research institutions and safety and public health agencies.

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What is more dangerous, an adventure playground or a conventional playground?

In the cultural conversation about play and risk, adventure playgrounds – proper ones I mean, with timber structures, tools, junk materials and skilled workers – are very much on the radical side of the argument. But how dangerous are they, really?

One American school has conducted a natural experiment that helps to answer this question. And the results – set out in a report from the leading playwork group Pop-Up Adventure Play – cast doubt on standard approaches and thinking.

Parish school in Houston, Texas is a private school for children with a range of disabilities and conditions. It is highly unusual in that it has, on one site, two very different types of play space.

Parish School adventure playground. Photo: Alex Cote

Parish School adventure playground. Photo: Alex Cote

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The London Plan is just the start | Child in the City

Change is in the air at City Hall, as followers of my facebook page will have spotted. Last week Mayor Khan fleshed out his vision of ‘good growth’ for London in the draft London Plan. And the signs are that child-friendliness is part of the picture.

The Plan, with its bold statements about integrating play into neighbourhoods and improving children’s independent mobility, shows genuine progress (see Policy S4, pp 212-4). Here Holly Weir (former senior strategic planner for the Greater London Authority) gives her take on the story so far, and the challenges to come. As co-author of the original planning guidance on play, I agree that clear, effective guidance will be key to implementing the policy.

Does the new London Plan, published last week by Mayor Sadiq Khan, herald a renewal of the UK capital’s commitments to become a genuinely child friendly city? Holly Weir, who worked on the plan for two years at the Greater London Authority (GLA), believes it is a big improvement on its predecessor, but that the […]

Source: The London Plan is just the start | Child in the City

Join in a global day to change the way children learn and play

As a teacher or educator, the classroom is your domain. You are in charge. You set the rules and the learning goals. Your children are close at hand, and under a close watch.

Girl pond-dippingOnce you leave the classroom, things change. You have less control. Children have more space, literally and metaphorically. So there is a shift in responsibilities. And this can feel frightening.

So why would you consider taking learning outside? And why would you give any thought to what children learn through free play?

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A rare glimpse into a messy oasis of adventure play

Adventure play is enjoying a moment. And at the centre of this is The Land, an adventure playground in Wrexham, North Wales. So it is great to see a 14-minute documentary feature on The Land – from US filmmaker Erin Davis – being made freely available online. Click on the image below to watch it.

The Land video screengrab

It was Hanna Rosin’s 2014 Atlantic magazine cover story ‘The Overprotected Kid’ that thrust The Land into the public eye. It also features prominently in the new book Messy by Tim Harford, writer and self-styled ‘undercover economist’ (and front man for one of my favourite BBC Radio 4 shows, More or Less). Harford’s take is revealing: Continue reading