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50 Years & Counting: Self-directed play at Pitsmoor Adventure Playground

From informal beginnings five decades ago, the award-winning Sheffield playground continues to offer open-access free play – and, in the end, the kids are in charge.

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Kids and staff at Pitsmoor Adventure Playground.

Pitsmoor Adventure Playground

That there should be anything novel in simply providing facilities for the spontaneous, unorganized activities of childhood is an indication of how deeply rooted in our social behavior is the urge to control, direct and limit the flow of life.

Colin Ward - Anarchy in Action, Chapter 10: Play as an Anarchist Parable

The origins of Pitsmoor Adventure Playground are an issue of local debate. Some say the building on the site was originally a garage. Some are convinced, despite physical evidence to the contrary, that there was an MOT centre there. Other stories merge with recollections of several different playgrounds and play schemes, with childhood memories of playing outside and getting dirty on long summer days.

It’s generally agreed that a group of parents started things off with a few bits of discarded wood and rope on the grassy bank at the intersection of Melrose Road and Burngreave Street, near the gates of Pitsmoor Cemetery, in the hot summer of 1972. They had an understanding that kids needed control, challenge and safe places to play in a city that had increasing traffic on the roads and faced a gathering storm of industrial decline and mass unemployment. There was a belief and an acceptance that even if a community had very little, it could still pull together and make good things happen.

Fifty years later, sitting at the top of that same grassy bank on a sunny spring afternoon with kids running, playing, shouting and facing their fears, it doesn’t feel like all that much has changed.

Pitsmoor Adventure Playground offers open-access free play provision. Staffing reflects and reaffirms the diversity of service users and the community as a whole. The area has been enriched over the years with the arrival of many diverse communities and their cultures, heritage and traditions, which in turn have become an integral part of the playground itself.

“It’s the most disparate community in terms of people’s cultural origins, religions, languages, but one of the most cohered communities in the city,” says Steve Pool, artist and volunteer at the playground for 25 years. “Everybody is accepted in their own way.”

“It presents a unique space,” adds Patrick Meleady. “People naturally come together with their children, while they’re playing, they’re having fun, they’re smiling, they’re learning.” Patrick has been manager of the playground for 15 years across two periods of time. Formerly managed by Sheffield Council, along with its sister project Highfield Adventure Playground, the Pitsmoor site came into community ownership in 2013.

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Opening of pirate ship The Lucky Gordon at Pitsmoor Adventure Playground.

Steve Pool

The playwork principles are embedded at every level of the playground’s operations, with planning and delivery underpinned by the ‘play types’ developed by playworker Bob Hughes. The focus is always on allowing children to take risks in an enriching, accessible, stimulating, rights-promoting and positively affirming environment.

Above all else, play is freely chosen and self-directed. Staff are facilitators of play, never play prescribers. This approach acknowledges that play is essential for children’s holistic development and that their right to play is fundamental according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"[Children and young people] all know ultimately that Pitsmoor Adventure Playground is theirs and that they – like the staff , families and volunteers – are custodians of the playground for generations to come," says Patrick. "This provides all with the added impetus to ensure that it maintains its egalitarian ethos and principles."

The adventure play movement has radical and anarchist roots. Lady Allen of Hurtwood, the founder of the movement in the UK, famously proclaimed, “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” Speaking in the aftermath of the Second World War, when Europe was trying to regain some of the things it had lost and the spirit of childhood was at breaking point, she and many others were deeply worried about the impact of war’s brutality on a generation who had grown up experiencing nothing else. Children and young people in Sheffield and across Britain were often playing in broken streets, making use of debris to create dens, and this rubble became the bedrock of the movement.

“After having that, running wild on the bomb sites [...] a swing and a roundabout’s not going to cut the mustard,” Steve points out.

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From the beginning, adventure playgrounds have been underpinned by a belief that if children are empowered to make choices, they will make the right ones. By way of comparing our sense of acceptable risk for children and young people in different settings, Steve notes how we have come to understand that bones sometimes get broken on concrete skateparks, for example, whereas “within a playground, it’s [treated as] adult responsibility for children’s behaviour.”

“We’ve been fortunate – we’ve [only] had a couple of accidents here in ten years,” Patrick clarifies. “We get a few scrapes and cuts. Obviously it’s supervised, the staff are professionally trained and hazards are removed.

“Children need to feel safe enough. They don’t want to be feeling too safe. They want a bit of risk and they want to be able to manage it – and they feel different on different days.”

That spontaneity is clearly important. “The best days are just when there’s 40 kids and they decide to have a water fight… All the spark comes from the kids,” says Steve.

“Children like water fights,” Patrick observes. “Parents come and they all sit round them tables and they sit in the under 5s areas. Then the next minute the children are throwing water all over them and they’re screaming and shouting, ‘Sort these children out!’

"I have to say to them, ‘It’s their playground. You’re here on their invitation.’”

A strong connection with the outdoors has provided physical and mental health benefits for the kids who go to Pitsmoor Adventure Playground too. Dens, mud kitchens, loose parts play and trips off-site to woods and seascapes all bring natural environments and resources closer to children who might otherwise be confined to an urban environment. Through the playground they can access arts, drama, music and dance and other creative activities, which can help them gain important problem-solving, resilience and citizenship skills.

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Steve Pool

But ultimately, the small but committed team behind the playground works hard to not define what it does solely by the community ‘needs’ it might meet – so often a requirement of funders – or the ‘deprivation’ of the area it’s situated in.

“I hate it when we are seen as tackling social problems – I love it when we talk about promoting play,” says Steve. In that sense, he thinks, the playground is much better as a community-run asset, rather than being first and foremost a Council-run site for therapeutic purposes.

As you walk up Burngreave Street towards the playground you are greeted by a large sign that reads ‘Utopia’. For the people lucky enough to work and play at the site there is no hint of irony in the branding. Last year, its 50th year of operation, the playground was voted by its users as the best playground in the world and it also won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.

For Steve and Patrick, the dream is to secure Pitsmoor Adventure Playground for a further five decades and beyond, continuing to develop and improve its practice and make sure the site is a beacon of high-quality play that is flexible and fit for purpose. After fifty years, Pitsmoor Adventure Playground continues to be a lynchpin and a hub for the Burngreave community.

"Pitsmoor Adventure Playground is a place I can volunteer my time and have not a single shred of doubt that I’m contributing to something that makes a difference," concludes Steve. "It's somewhere to be proud of, full of memories, full of joy and laughter. It's one of the places that reminds me I'm never too old to play."

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