I spent today wrapped in layers of bright yellow fleece with ‘Park Staff’ written on the back, helping to make the Winter Festival run smoothly. 600 people came through the gates, drawn in by the bonfire, face painting, story-telling, teepees – as well as yes, the inevitable bouncy castles. I’ve worked at that particular park for over a year now, for some months as Senior. In that time I’ve got to know many of the kids who come regularly and a little of their family structure.
We’d assigned the ‘big kids’ to one bouncy castle and the ‘little kids’ to the other, letting one could get a bit rowdy and keeping the other one calm for nervous toddlers. About halfway through the day one of the regular visitors, a tall girl of about thirteen who comes by after school to listen to music with her friends and ride her bike around the climbing frames, climbed onto one of the castles with a tiny infant in her arms. I explained the separation, and she responded me that it was her baby and there was no one else to look after it. Could she keep it with her so they could both bounce?
The U.K. has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Western Europe, which is particularly raised in the poorest urban areas (like my own). There are many ways to approach this issue, but only one matters here: How do we, as playworkers, best offer play provision for young parents? How do we ensure that they are not excluded as a result of their responsibilities?
On playgrounds we often see children and young people who are, whether officially or not, primary caregivers for younger siblings, cousins, step-siblings, or their own children. We generally frame play provision as offering a form of respite – the opportunity for these young people to feel themselves free to play, to goof around briefly unencumbered by their responsibilities. But is there more we can do?
As adult playworkers we sometimes find ourselves in privileged positions of trust with these young people. We try to be there as regularly and reliably as we can, we try to be honest when they ask us questions, we try to work with them at all times as individuals and we do our best to always have their interests, their freedom, enjoyment and healthy growth, as our top priorities.
Anything that we offer as playworkers has to have, as its primary intention, the improvement of play provision for the children and young people who attend. Sometimes that can mean hearing and keeping a secret, providing information that is asked for about personal health, or watching an infant while his mother jumps around with her ponytail flying. The thing is, good play provision provides any number of short- and long-term benefits from immediate enjoyment to the learning of new skills, from relaxation to improved physical health and self-confidence. All of this, I believe, helps these kids learn how to be the best kids, adults and parents that they can be.