4 August 2017

Maria Billington, Director of Acts of Random Caring at Gatis Community Space, reflects on her community’s relationship with play and the role of play in adulthood and we think her 10 key insights are really handy. You can read about Maria’s initial struggle to open her community space here.

Photo of mini community garden for all

My name is Maria and I run Gatis Community Space in Wolverhampton - a space of multiple uses, combining indoor halls and a café area with outdoor adventure, water play, and a community garden.  Operating for two years, we offer all sorts of activities to everyone in the community – from toddlers, to adults; from fit and active youngsters, to those with disabilities or illness.  We strive to be truly led by our community.

Questions I hear often in my community developer role include:
• What is play?
• Why is play important?
• Playing is for children, isn’t it?

I continue to be amazed that grown adults need to ask these questions. It seems to me, that as a nation, we are fast becoming so removed from the outdoors and playing that we’ve totally forgotten how important play - and especially play in the great outdoors - is so important for our creative minds, for our problem solving, and for our general health and wellbeing.

At Gatis Community Space we base our work on the five ways to wellbeing:
• to connect
• be active
• take notice
• keep learning
• to give back

We use all of these to shape our activities around food and play. Food is an obvious way to bring people together - who doesn’t like a good bit of cake and a natter?! – but play, well, that’s a whole other story! 

As adults we have forgotten how to play.  When faced with the adventure play equipment at Gatis Community Space, most adults giggle shyly saying “nooo, leave that for the kids.”  Deep down though, their inner child is begging “get on the swing, go on go on go on!!!”  Usually, when one adult caves in to that inner child and runs off to the swing, or starts climbing up the castle wall, others will follow. Suddenly the site is filled with adult laughter as people get stuck or scream with glee as they reach the top of the castle.  As inhibitions are let go, people relax. Smiles appear as adults enjoy the freedom of being a child once more.  As a facilitator, it’s a very special moment to watch.

I’ve noticed that once children reach secondary school, the ability to play freely seems to get left behind.  Children are sucked into their phones or other technology, and suddenly mud and sticks have lost their magic – and children are slowly lost to the non-playful world of adults.  Does it take much to get them playing again?

In my work I have had the pleasure of working with a range of different children, young people, and adults, all with differing abilities. Here are some of the things we, as a community, have learnt:

  1. Taking anyone – child or adult – out of a building and into a green space has an incredibly powerful effect. An initial excitement is immediately evident, and anticipation of the endless opportunities available in the great outdoors soon takes over.
  2. If you lead a group in an outdoor session you can dress up ANY activity as a learning experience, when in reality what you are doing is providing an excuse to play (and I get paid to do this which is just awesome – being paid to play!).
  3. Where a space contains mixed groups of adults and children, the adult will eagerly volunteer to ‘help’ the child play – but they ALWAYS end up playing just as much (if not more!) as the child.
  4. When you factor in a bit of competition, even the most inhibited of adults will join in.
  5. Many people, children included, start a session of play with a sceptical approach. But you’d be surprised at how many of them you have to nag to finish at the end of the session.
  6. Generally, people with some sort of disability are the first to try anything and everything. Why this is, I have no idea!
  7. True, free play means letting people occupy space with no formal rules, no special exceptions, and no explicit guidance. This is when the real magic happens: worlds are created, roles are adapted, and nature explored and utilised through this whole process.  This is where a child’s brain, particularly, is really developed - through problem solving, social interactions, risk management, and risk taking.
  8. Community play allows bonds to be deepened, whether between family, friends, or strangers. By coming together to experience community play on a community site families begin working together.
  9. Life – whether work, family, or social - is so much more fun when we play. Through playing together we encourage one another to be relaxed, fun, and communicative. 
  10. A community that plays together, stays together!  Communities grow and strengthen when people play.

I love my job – it involves a lot of laughs, every day. All jobs should be like this!