Blog 39

Islington Play CEO

I know it has been a while since my last blog. I was waiting til I felt a bit more settled and knew what to say but I can see that this is not going to happen anytime soon so here I am.

I am feeling overwhelmed by social media and am a bit reluctant to add to the outpourings of very real emotion with my own thoughts. I guess if I feel like this then others do too.

I am struck once again at the sophistication needed by young people to be able to cope with the immediacy and rawness of social media. I have grown up and been used to my news being filtered through lenses that may have, to a greater or lesser extent, been relevant. I have spoken before about my dependence on the Guardian to provide my news with a slant that I find comfortable.

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BBC news story flagrantly manipulates statistics on school accident claims

Good, Tim. Needs nailing.

Rethinking Childhood

A major news story on the BBC website this morning uses false comparisons and basic errors to create a highly misleading picture about the sums paid out for accident claims in schools. Far from revealing a ‘claims culture’, the figures actually show that payouts make up a tiny proportion of education budgets, and are not on the rise.

Screengrab BBC News home page 7 April 2017 with school payout story circled

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For market friends

They have a pulse, a rhythm, a beat: markets.  No antiseptic aisles, no serried lines of check-out counters, no corporate branding.

A market cannot be reduced to the transactions that are its formal purpose. Rather, they are performance venues, an example of audience participation in informal theatrical production.

Markets:  places of manifestly human encounters- even fashionable foodie markets plying esoteric comestibles to the recipe-saturated, maintain something of the looseness, something of the boisterous waywardness of the long-established, local street market.  It’s all deliciously human.  Rough and ready, the wrinkles not smoothed out – blood running through its veins.

A market is both a community in itself, and part of a wider community; and a social space.  As recognised in a report[1] for the National Association of British Market Authorities:

Markets are places of social interaction

  • Used by all sections of society, markets are where people of different incomes, ages, genders and cultures can meet together and interact. They are the happy ‘third place’ of spontaneous interaction.
  • Markets facilitate community cohesion and social inclusion. Because of the ease of becoming a trader, markets have traditionally been attractive to new arrivals. They encourage newcomers to become part of the community and are spaces of diversity.
  • Markets are crucial to the distinct identity of a town or area. From Market Rasen and Downham Market to the ‘modern market town’ that Altrincham prides itself on being, markets are emblematic of many places.
  • They embody a community and set it apart from those without such an asset. They are a key part of the experiential identity of the place and enhance the city image.
  • Markets animate vacant or underused space. Whether in street, market place or vacant lot, markets create vitality and animation, drawing customers and onlookers. Their layout can encourage exploration and discovery.
  • Markets benefit disadvantaged communities. The presence of local markets offering affordable and fresh produce can increase choice for people in deprived areas and improve their quality of life and help address social problems.
  • Markets contribute to community development. The small business nature of markets, their entrepreneurial character and integration with the community promotes community development and connectedness.

Customer is not right

In a market the customer is, quite decidedly, not always right.   The trader is.  A trader: performance artist, scene-setter, animateur, wit, sometimes animated, sometimes, well, just pissed-off – it’s the trader who sets the tone and content of any transaction.  And, yes, you should buy what we’re selling.

But let’s get socio-political again, for there’s another aspect, too:  even employed traders – those employed by a proprietor-trader – they nevertheless retain their own persona, their own character, their own patter, manner and performance style.  Market traders are, manifestly, individuals.  Nothing corporate about them, strangers to the desiccated, formulaic ‘customer service’ served up by the staff – employees all – of supermarkets and globalised, branded stores.

But the corporates, currently, look as though they’re on the winning side. In true Darwnian survival of the fittest style, they adapt.  This from a CentrePiece article:

‘But the fall in the opening of big boxes [i.e. out of town superstores] did not coincide with a reduction in the total number of new stores, rather with a change in their size and location. In the years following the introduction of the reforms, [the planning reforms introduced in 1996 and reinforced in 1999] the major UK retail chains started to open more small stores on high streets and in city centres. Griffith and Harmgart (2005) show that since the late 1990s, the top four UK retail chains substantially increased the number of small convenience stores opened in town centres relative to investments in large stores in out-of-town locations.’

As the local, proprietor-owned shops and market stalls are relentlessly erased from the local ecology of neighbourhood life, replaced by the corporates, their branding promoting a masquerade of intimate connection  – ‘little Waitrose’ (note the insinuating lower case in ‘little’ – I’m small, I want to be your friend) ; ‘Sainsbury’s Local’ (note the ‘Local’); ‘Tesco express’ (note the lower case, italicised ‘express’ , for all you hurried-off-your-feet  people needing to ‘pop-in’ on your way home) – more and more people, young and old, are forced to become employees of  huge corporates that, certainly at the ‘customer-facing’ end, rely on the depersonalisation of the person, their staff.

This depersonalisation has as its logical end point the use of robots.  We’re almost there, with those self-service, check-out units increasingly prevalent.  So that’s technology as the handmaiden of social sterility and, presumably, enhanced company profits.  In this context – depersonalisation – there is the European Court of Justice’s recent judgment which found that, provided a company has a formal, general policy disallowing the display of any religious symbol – crucifix, headscarf, skullcap, etc – at work, then a company is within its rights to enforce a no religous symbol rule on its customer-facing staff because:

‘… an employer’s desire to project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers is legitimate notably where the only workers involved are those who come into contact with customers. That desire relates to the freedom to conduct a business which is recognised in the Charter.’

Putting to one side the wider merits or demerits of the ruling, consider this:  doesn’t the ruling pressage yet another, legally supported, step in the effacement – ‘image of neutrality’ – of employees’ character and individuality as, tethered to their check-out points, wearing the company uniform, they are forced to perform as customer-facing mechanicals replicating in anticipation the electronic voice message of the machines that will replace them.  So, as they say, ‘Have a good day’.


[1] Report by Professor Alan Hallsworth and Professor Cathy Parker and Simon Quin from the Institute of Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University

Reforming play equipment and surfacing Standards: a few thoughts

I think it fair to say that within the broad community of play advocates – play designers, landscape architects, play provision providers, pedagogues – play equipment and surfacing Standards have not been a hot topic of debate or contention. For some they were, and continue to be, a form of assurance as to the ‘safety’ of a product; and, in addition, they may even be taken as a proxy indicator of that quasi-mystical quality: play value.

For others, Standards in their current form are a source of bemusement, if not irritation, seen as impeding the possibility of creating rich and varied play environments.

But what this diverse constituency  has in common,  is the shared sense that play equipment and surface Standards descend as from on high, are created via processes and people they know not, but whose pronouncements  have the force and authority of Holy Writ, to be adhered to, but not questioned.

That was then. Now is now.  

‘Now’ is marked by the steady growth, and the coming together, of a diverse  constituency of pedagogues, play advocates, academics, designers, individuals from within Standard-making bodies, all seized of the need to examine Standards, how they are formulated, who formulates them, their scope and their practical consequences ‘on the ground’.   And this constituency is growing. Continue reading

I am compelled to share this

Truly, there are no boundaries to the surreal.

Or perhaps Rockhampton Regional Council wishes to demonstrate its sense of humour.

playground-sign-s-africaOr a particular world view taken to its logical conclusion – reductio ad absurdum

With thanks to Liselle Wolmarans  and Free Range Kids

It’s not all progress


I want in the article that follows, and the next one,  to consider aspects of the resistance, current and developing, to what can be called the ‘pro-risk’ movement in respect of play and outdoor learning.

In this, I’m as interested in the subjective, internalised, self-oppression experienced by at least some – I hazard to suggest actually many – practitioners, a symptom of which is abiding by norms that they rationally disavow, as much as objective factors such as the hold Standards have on thought and action. 

This piece, I’m afraid, ends in a minor key.

Progress and movement

I remember thinking myself rather bright – a momentary conceit – when, in some essay or other, upon which matter I cannot now recall, I drew a distinction between progress and mere movement, and the danger of mistaking the latter for the former.   It is, I think, a not uncommon error which, unchecked, can restrict vision to that which one likes to see.  The concomitant danger being threats, barriers and counter-currents come to occupy only one’s peripheral vision, or are pushed out of sight completely.

These musings once again tapped me on the shoulder as I enjoyed the splendid three day 5th International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) conference in Lund, Sweden, hosted by the formidable City of Lund’s Naturskolan team.   The programme included visits to some quite delicious school grounds and public spaces.  Green, ‘natural’ spaces, needless to say.  The taste reference, by the way, is not misplaced since the treats included first rate lunches grown and/or cooked by local schools.  Continue reading

A renewed, misguided ASTM attempt to change surfacing standards, a Guardian editorial and risk-benefit assessment

‘Bicycle helmets save lives’ a Guardian editorial pointed out today (27.09.2016) referrencing recent Australian research.

The editorial then posed the question:  Should wearing cycle helmets be made compulsory?  Now read on for the editorial’s succinct explication of a form of reasoning we have come to know as risk-benefit assessment.

‘From the point of view of accident reduction, the answer is entirely clear. Helmets do prevent some head injuries, and these can be very serious even when they are not immediately fatal. On the other hand, they are extremely rare. You would have to cycle tens of thousands of hours in Australia to get an injury requiring medical treatment. More than 10 times as many Americans were shot dead in 2014 as died cycling and, despite the headlines, most Americans are never going to be shot at in their lifetimes. The benefits of cycling can’t be translated into such striking figures but there’s no doubt that regular exercise prolongs and improves life in every way, and cycling is one of the best ways to make gentle exercise a daily routine….’

‘…Risk reduction cannot be the only grounds on which policy is decided. If that were the case, helmets would be compulsory for pedestrians as well, since it would reduce the seriousness of some injuries, and undoubtedly save lives too. The ultimate aim of public policy must be to enable and encourage human flourishing, and because we are complicated and contradictory creatures, that must involve a degree of self-contradiction and the balancing of some goods against others.  The sense of freedom and spontaneity that cyclists enjoy is not an illusion and has real value.’

It is a salutory paragraph that members of the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) committee on play equipment and surfacing would do well to read. Continue reading