But playworkers warn that the future of play in Bristol is at risk, with adventure playgrounds struggling to stay open without council funding.
It’s nearly the end of the summer holidays and Felix Rd Adventure Playground is buzzing. There are more than 400 children here and they are not playing quietly. There are kids wrapped in velcro hurling themselves at a velcro wall, climbing up trees and running ant-like all over the giant wooden structure dominating the outside space.
“It’s always busy,” says Ronda who’s come with her children, seven-year-old Amia and five-year-old Shay. “There’s a bit more structured play here – and a bit more free play [too] – and you know your kids are safe. There is more community, so people will watch out for your children.”
Another mum, Jas is here with five-year-old Ravinder. “I’ve been going since I was a kid. My mum used to bring me since I was five or six,” she says. “It’s really lovely, there’s a lot going on. And obviously, it’s free.”
It’s been pretty busy all summer, but today is a special day. Felix Rd is marking 75 years of the ‘play movement’, when the first adventure playground opened in a suburb of Copenhagen in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Parents were scared that their play might be taken as resistance to the occupation or acts of sabotage, so here was a place they could play freely and safely. And so, the play movement was born.
“This wonderful, incredible space full of wood and saws and axes started to emerge,” says playground manager Eddie Nuttall. “And ever since that day, adventure play moved over to London and spread throughout the UK. In the 1950s it came to Bristol at Southmead.”
75 years of play
Today’s celebration is all the more poignant because of the uncertainty of the future of Bristol’s adventure playgrounds since the council has cut youth services spending by 30%. Youth services provision was restructured, cutting out playwork and work with under-11s, and narrowing youth work to target the children most in need.
“Because adventure play is only for 8-15s, there’s not enough there for the younger ones,” says Ronda “So I’m stuck between one’s old enough and one’s not quite old enough.”
Felix Rd’s Ideas Robot. A panel of children is going to choose the best idea, which volunteers are going to build and add to the playground
Nuttall warns that places like this are in danger of closing entirely. “[Felix Rd] had a head start, you know: this has been here for 40-odd years. We already have a tradition of demanding that right. When it was threatened with closure in 2013, 5,000 signatures ensured its survival.”
“It’s been a hard time for adventure playgrounds,” says Nuttall. “Many have closed over the last 10 years because of austerity measures.”
Felix Rd is nearing the end of a three-year funding round from previous mayor George Ferguson, which gives them time to work on securing funding from elsewhere and most of the playworkers have fundraising responsibilities as part of their job descriptions. They still have a £75,000 deficit for the coming year, but Nuttall says they’re “optimistic they can fill that hole”.
Bristol’s other adventure playgrounds, including Southmead’s The Ranch – one of the first adventure playgrounds in the UK – also make a massive difference to their communities, but their future is less certain.
Nuttall says the future of Bristol’s remaining adventure playgrounds “depends on the community’s capacity to rally round and demand the right for their children to have a space to play in within their community”.
Youth services cut by 62% across England
Local authorities now have no legal requirement to provide outreach, after-school activities or youth centres – services that were once considered staples – and with councils’ budgets getting cut in half across the country, it’s little surprise that youth services have been among the first in the service cull.
Overall spending on youth services in England has dropped by 62% – £737m – since 2010, with 600 youth services closing between 2012 and 2016. Bristol is the only core city in England to still have a commissioned, funded youth service, but it’s a narrower, targeted provision rather than something all children can use.
“We were ahead of other local authorities and I think that what the council are in danger of doing is losing all of that rich history overnight”
Chair of Bristol Play Network, Tom Williams, told the Cable that Bristol has a “very rich tradition for children’s play” and used to be the best place [for it] in the UK. “We were ahead of other local authorities and I think that what the council are in danger of doing is losing all of that rich history overnight by going from hero to zero,” he warned when the council announced the cuts and change in provision model.
Play: a serious matter
Jane* says that the adventure playground gives children the opportunity to develop their social skills and “play like we used to play when we grew up – not reliant on technology”.
“This kind of unstructured play environment is perfect for kids to practice realising that there are lots of unspoken rules that exist and they get to try them out without mum or dad being there to say ‘no you’ve got to join the queue’ or ‘no it’s so and so’s turn’,” she says.
“It’s the fundamental thing that children do when they’re not being told what not to do, it’s the way that they relate to the world, it’s the way that they learn who they are in the universe alone and with friends,” says Nuttall.
He points out that the 150 or so parents aren’t coming to him, panicked about everything the kids are doing.
“In a school they’d be terrified by this. I think people fundamentally know that this sort of stuff is inherently healthy for childhood and they recognise that urban communities take that away from them and from their children. And it’s regardless of social class or ethnicity. As you can see, every demographic of Easton and Lawrence Hill is represented here.”
“I think people are realising that unfettered play opportunities are crucial to children, and the adventure play movement has always championed that and fought for it amongst the most disadvantaged children.”
*not her real name