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Focus on play

April 2021

Recognising and understanding the importance of community-based open access playwork provision ‘Playwork is a highly skilled profession that enriches and enhances children’s play. It takes place where adults support children’s play but it is not driven by prescribed education or care outcomes.’1 Playwork happens in a range of settings and locations including out of school childcare and in some schools. In this issue of Focus on play, we are looking at open access playwork provision. Open access playwork provision: • Takes place in community buildings, public opens spaces and staffed adventure playgrounds • Is staffed by playworkers • Is targeted at local communities and responds to children’s play needs • May or may not be regulated by Care Inspectorate Wales • Can be seasonal or year-round • Has more flexible arrangements around children leaving and arriving to support children’s independent mobility.

As children and families in Wales begin to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, open access playwork provision has a significant role in enabling children to play and socialise. Children will reap the emotional benefits of play, supported by skilled and knowledgeable playworkers. Prior to the pandemic, a Play Wales review2 of statutory Play Sufficiency Assessments suggested that there was a gap in access to open access playwork provision across most parts of Wales. Successive lockdowns and restrictions on public gatherings have meant, that whilst playwork provision in general was allowed to open under the guidelines, many open access playwork providers have been unable to operate. The key factors in the decision to either not open or not operate as open access playwork provision are: •

Ratios of staff to children

Difficulty managing accompanying adults

Use of public spaces for sessions.

There is strong evidence that open access playwork provision contributes to stronger, more play friendly communities, which have a widereaching impact on children, teenagers and adults3, 4. Playing is how children build social networks and create positive attachments to people and places in their community. Also, playing contributes to children’s resourcefulness, defined as their ability to navigate to, and draw upon, physical and

emotional resources in times of need. Playworkers support by providing time, space and permission for playing in a range of environments in children’s local communities. This is as important as ever as we recover from the impact of the pandemic. Children have a right to play, as recognised in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Whilst this is increasingly recognised, there is still a need to highlight how playing and open access playwork provision can positively impact on children and families. Research5 on the impact of Covid-19 on all playwork provision found that playworkers have demonstrated adaptability through lockdowns and offered targeted sessions, engaged in community advocacy or in some cases even supported the running of childcare hubs. However, open access playwork by its nature is well placed to support children and families to reconnect with each other and with community spaces, supported by playwork professionals. Here, we explore how open access playwork provision responds to the needs of children, families and communities.

Support for all children Quality open access playwork provision takes place in diverse settings – projects start by researching the characteristics and needs of the local community and the spaces where children and teenagers are most likely to want to gather. As a result, projects can provide an environment that is tailored to the needs of local children and teenagers. Successful open access playwork provision operates to the Playwork Principles (the professional and ethical framework for playwork), with an emphasis on freely-chosen, self-directed play and children’s self-determination. It is a bespoke service, which is different from most of those traditionally offered to children and teenagers. In some cases, open access playwork provision is filling a gap created by the closure of youth provision due to funding cuts. Open access playwork provision provides a service for children and teenagers up to, and even over, the age of 14 and can be a crucial part of children’s transition to youth services. Also, where year-round open access playwork provision is well established in a community there are often positive opportunities for young people to move into volunteering roles within playwork which contributes to their skills and knowledge.

Research6 suggests that teenagers value the important and on-going roles that play providers have in their lives – a ‘play philosophy’ which values individual choice, expression and development in a supportive setting. There are external environmental and/or personal biological factors that impede some children from playing. Such children are supported to play in an environment where there are trained playworkers who know how to intervene, where necessary to facilitate playing. This extends the advantages of playing to children and teenagers who might not ordinarily benefit.

How playing contributes to resilience and well-being A key finding from evidence is that children’s play ‘provides a primary behaviour for developing resilience, thereby making a significant contribution to children’s wellbeing’7. This evidence suggests that playing contributes to developing resilience through a number of interrelated systems including: •

Emotional regulation

Pleasure and enjoyment of promotion of positive feeling

The stress response system and the ability to respond to uncertainty

Creativity and the ability to make new and different connections


Attachment to people and place8

Problem solving.

The social, physical and mental benefits of play help to make the case that playing is an important element in helping to build resilience. Having enough time, space and permission to play helps children to: •

Develop a sense of self sufficiency and independence

Feel that they have a sense of control in their world

Feel connected to others and their community

Experience a range of emotions, including frustration, determination, achievement, disappointment and confidence, and through practice, can learn how to manage these feelings

Develop imagination and creativity

Make sense of and ‘work through’ difficult and distressing aspects of their lives

Socialise with their friends and negotiate with others on their own terms.

Good open access playwork provision has traditionally provided a space in which children can develop for themselves to meet their needs and wishes and where the space can grow with children – space that reflects children’s play needs and space that they grow attached to. Where children are traumatised by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) the playwork approach supports the playing out and re-creation of difficult experiences in a sensitive and nonjudgmental way. Playing has an impact on how children’s genetic make up is expressed, and on the physical and chemical development of the brain. This in turn positively influences the child’s ability to survive and thrive. Children who have developed a playful innovative response to their environments may adapt to these in flexible ways, displaying resilience. Regular active physical play helps prevent disease and relieves depression and anxiety. Playing is strongly linked to creativity – it involves lateral thinking, imagination and problem solving – all of which enable children to be resourceful and resilient.

Parenting support Open access playwork provision is often available when families need it most (afterschool, during school holidays, evenings and weekends) filling in gaps when other services are unavailable. Open access playwork provision offers informal respite for both parents and children – particularly during school holidays. It gives an opportunity for both children and adults to extend their social and peer networks – which contributes to increased resilience.

Many of the problems that parents say they find a challenge, for instance managing aspects of children’s behaviour, can be addressed by improving children’s access to open access playwork provision that meets their needs. Parents working at or attending open access playwork provision have an opportunity to observe their children’s play, and to speak with playworkers who can make sense of play behaviour. As a result, parents feel more confident and better able to manage their children’s play needs away from the open access playwork provision. Playing together is important for family bonding – open access playwork provision can help parents relax enough to play with their children and gather ideas for low cost or no cost play opportunities. Many parents are concerned about letting their child play out in their neighbourhood – open access playwork provision provides parents with the opportunity to allow their children to play freely away from the home in an environment overseen by trained adults. Open access playwork provision appeals to families who most benefit from early preventative services, as there is no formal referral system. Most open access playwork provision is offered free at the point of access.

Quote from a parent ‘Whilst the pandemic has been a traumatic impact on our lives … My son has found it tough as a keyworker child being in the Hub School and then being patient whilst I work at home. Having the playscheme enabled him to have fun, have time for him, meet new people and expel some of his energy. The setup was brilliant and I felt safe leaving my child with the team. His confidence has returned, and he was so excited to go each day. The sessions are therapeutic, they enable growth and a child to develop!’

Conclusion Growing up in adverse circumstances can potentially have a huge impact on both the physical and mental development of individual children. A global pandemic has meant that many children have had to cope with new or different levels of adversity. Interventionist programmes can be useful in minimising some of the damaging impact of adverse experiences. However, they must be complemented by a focus on supporting children to be active participants in building their own resilience and resourcefulness. We know that every aspect of children’s lives is influenced by their urge to play, and that the kind of self-directed, self-determined playing offered by quality open access playwork provision increases children’s opportunities to build their own resilience. Open access playwork provision increases children and teenagers’ ability to support their own well-being and helps parents in understanding and coping with their children’s development.

Play is central to a healthy child’s life, and provision for play should be central to any framework that informs programmes on how best to support children and families in the aftermath of the pandemic.

References 1

Play for a Change: Play, Policy and Practice: A review of contemporary perspectives. 7

SkillsActive (2005).

Play Wales (2019) State of Play 2019. Cardiff: Play Wales. 2

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008) Play for a Change: Play, Policy and Practice: A review of contemporary perspectives. London: National Children’s Bureau for Play England. 3

The Means (2016) An analysis of the economic impact of Playwork in Wrexham – May 2016. Cardiff: Wales Council for Voluntary Action. 4

King, P. (2021) The Impact of COVID-19 on Playwork Practice, Child Care in Practice.

Masten, A. and Obradovic, J. (2006) ‘Competence and resilience in Development’ Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1094: 13-27. Cited in Play for a Change. 8

Further reading Links to other resources on playwork available from Play Wales: •

The Playwork Principles – an overview information sheet

Playwork Essentials videos

Playwork guides

The Welsh play sufficiency duty are the roles of playworkers information sheet.


Beunderman, J. (2010) People Make Play The impact of staffed play provision on children, families and communities. London: National Children’s Bureau. 6 Registered charity, no. 1068926

Profile for Play Wales

Focus on play - playwork  

This issue of Focus on play concentrates on recognising and understanding the importance of community-based open access playwork provision....

Focus on play - playwork  

This issue of Focus on play concentrates on recognising and understanding the importance of community-based open access playwork provision....

Profile for playwales

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