Covid 19, Risk and Outdoor Play: Future Advocacy for Playworkers

Within a few short weeks the Covid 19 virus has changed our way of life. In order to keep ourselves and others safe we no longer congregate or touch. Almost all human contact is being mediated by computers and masks. This is a sad struggle. In the midst of this crisis whilst we are waiting for an epidemic peak to subside we have put aside one of our definitive values, that children’s outdoor play is an essential right and is integral for human survival. We have chosen and accepted isolation and distance. Of course children are still playing, but playworkers are no longer able to support them to create outdoor play spaces in the way that we were previously.

Islington Play Association has temporarily closed all of our adventure playgrounds. Now is not the time to argue for outdoor play above safety. However, we anticipate that, very soon we will need to advocate for this again.

Our society places emphasis on safety, security, and risk reduction, in this light the values of play, togetherness and social freedom are held as secondary. Playworkers have asserted that the value of play is as important as the value of safety. We have taken this argument through some extremely risk averse times. During this time of the pandemic, where all humans face a terrible risk, it is important for us to remember that we plan to return to places where children can play together in the outdoors. This is a core value. We hold it to be as important as safety.

Playworkers observe play through numerous lenses (evolutionary, geographical, psychological, sociological, psychoanalytical, political, spiritual and more). Some assert that human life survives and evolves because of play. Many observe that we thrive as communities and citizens through play. Others believe that equality and justice can be made through play. More still, have emphasised the potential of being healed through play. Through play we consider development for the future and experience of the present. All of us are committed to children’s right to play enshrined in article 31 of the UNCRC, some also link this right to article 13, 14 and 15 children’s freedoms of thought, speech and association. We come at our research from a myriad of standpoints. What we share is a belief that play is an essential value worth speaking out for at every chance.

We also believe that risk is an integral element of play. It is necessary for children to take risks in order to flourish. The risks they take in play, and some of these are considerable, help them to develop self-reliance and good judgement as well as bringing joy, nonsense and thrills. Through watching play we see that children have an inherent willingness to sacrifice safety in order to live life fully. We see that for children, living fully means playing with other children.

For today we will stay in our homes. We will ask children to sacrifice the present moment so that we can all be safe. Adults will also sacrifice our own moments of connection and choose isolation. This is necessary to suppress a terrible virus and to protect our NHS and the excellent people who keep it functioning. However, In the long run we will need a return to our own values. Once the virus has peaked we will need to remind others that good health (mentally, biologically and socially) cannot exist without children’s play, connected communities and relationships with the outdoor world.

Isolation, separation and distance are being used as blunt instruments to break a present threat. We can live with these blunt instruments for a short time but we must not take them into our future as the only tools for daily life. The social landscape has changed, it will not be the same again, and we are unable to fully anticipate the changes that will come. However, we do know that our future contains the tools we have always advocated for; play, connectivity and deep relationships to the outdoor world. Playworkers could be at the forefront of re-establishing these tools so that children and adults can live fully.

Lucy Benson – Head of Adventure Play – Islington Play Association