Watford Council and local parents have got into a flap. Much as I hate to link to the Daily Mail, here is a recent article discussing a ban two Adventure Playgrounds in Watford have placed on parents on site, claiming the presence of adults without CRB (Criminal Record Bureau) checks is simply too dangerous and contravenes Government regulations. To balance that, here another link from the Guardian making the point that no such regulations prevent parents from watching their children in a public park.
There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that Adventure Playgrounds operate as open access play provision and as such might be considered public parks – except that the ‘public’ they cater to is exclusively under-15 (except when Youth Club is on). Adventure Playgrounds are not ‘family’ provision, but places where children can be away from their families entirely. Both of these articles are written by adults outside of the play profession (as evidenced by the determined placing of quotation marks around the phrase “Play Ranger”, as if this was only allegedly their job title) and are entirely caught up in the rights of the parents to do as they please, when keeping their children safe. To me, this argument is closest to one advocating allowing parents to follow their children to school and sit at the back of the class. This point is made here, as Watford Council compares Adventure Playgrounds to nurseries and playgroups – other places parents are accustomed to leaving their children.
It’s so easy for children’s places for play to be dominated by adult concerns, for their parents to use Adventure Playgrounds as places to socialize or volunteer, and for site workers to respond by altering provision to suit the preferences expressed by parents rather than children. The sites I have seen which welcome parents on site tend, though not exclusively, to be more ‘polite’, less messy, less risky or exciting and ultimately less playful places than those where children can test the boundaries of workers and their environment without fear of getting an earful from their Mums. It’s so rare for children to find places to be away from their parents, to meet social and physical challenges out of their sight. Do you remember the difference in how you felt and behaved when your parents were watching? Or the humiliation of getting told off or cleaned up in front of your friends?
There are also very real concerns for workers when parents are on site, as they may have different ideas about appropriate risk, dirt and so on and will often curtail the activities of their child and others. The parents who want to follow their children everywhere are generally ones unused to being told ‘no’ and, almost by definition, are more likely to dominate their child’s play. Sometimes parents will shout or swear at their children, or publicly demean or shame them. Once they are used to being there, it is extremely difficult to get such parents to leave, even though their children are the ones who need a place to be away from them so desperately. Kind or not, domineering or just overprotective, parents can dramatically alter the culture of the site and limit opportunities for all the children there, not just their own.
That said, I think it’s a terrible idea to ban parents from Adventure Playgrounds on the basis of CRB checks. It only increases their terrible fear of the unknown, and does nothing to address it in a productive way. For parents who find Adventure Playgrounds too ‘scary’ to let their children attend on their own, this ban will mean they don’t let the children attend at all, and some parents questioned are already speaking of a boycott. In this boycott, it is only the children who will suffer.
There is an alternative. Parents need to understand what an Adventure Playground is, what the core beliefs and ethics are. They need to see how children who attend are able to develop skills of independence, of problem-solving, how they thrive when NOT given constant one-to-one attention but instead are trusted to make their own way and to ask for help when they need it. This process takes time, and may require a (limited) number of visits while parents and children adjust. Both groups need to be supported in this by site staff, not banned on the basis of paperwork.
Adventure Playground workers need to understand that parents are not the enemy, and should not be removed from the site by any means necessary because, while a site without parents is generally more playful and more adventurous, banning parents means that large numbers of children will be excluded. Number 4 of the Playwork Principles reminds us to advocate for play “when engaging with adult-led agendas”, and playground workers need to remember and explain that their first priority is children’s play. What’s more, when site workers know more about the family situations their children go home to they are better placed to support the children should things get difficult – much more effective in safeguarding the children’s welfare than any number of CRB checks.