This is part two of four articles written for The Yard about the play that happens at The Yard Edinburgh, an award-winning adventure playground for disabled children and young people and their families. The author is Max Alexander who is an independent play worker and inclusive play specialist who writes and works under the name Play Radical. Max previously worked at The Yard as a playworker for four years and was very happy to have an excuse to go back and visit when he went to observe two days of play sessions. This is a series about what he saw in those two days.

"There are a lot of ways people talk about inclusion. I find that people often focus on practical things like ramps, toilets with hoists, quiet spaces and different ways of communicating, like visuals and sign assisted speech. These are all tangible and essential things, which are relatively easy to understand and implement. They are practical interventions that make a space accessible. But whilst accessibility is necessary for a space to be inclusive, having an accessible space doesn’t automatically make that space inclusive. Just because a child who uses a wheelchair can move freely about a building doesn’t mean that they will feel welcome, and just allowing a child to get up, bounce around and flap their hands doesn’t mean their way of expressing themselves is treated with respect. That’s because inclusion is more than practical access requirements, it’s about something a little less tangible and easy to explain, and that is value. A truly inclusive space is where different ways of being, communicating and playing hold equal value. It’s about the culture of a space, the way people interact with and treat each other. And whilst ‘value’ is a pretty big word, it comes out in the smaller everyday actions and interactions.

A piece of blue sequined stretchy fabric is an exciting feature of the early years music session. First it makes an appearance during 'Five Little Ducks' as the water, during which children dive on, roll in, pull and shake the sheet. Later, it becomes the bed during 'Five Little Monkeys' where a couple of children join the soft toy monkeys in bouncing about. Finally, it becomes the star of its own rhymes as it is lifted, pulled, and shaken over and under the children.

I sat in on a very cute and joyful early years ‘music and movement’ session. The early years sessions differ from most others at The Yard, as they are not solely play focussed, but of course, they remain playful at heart. What’s key here, is that whilst children have less free choice about what they’re engaging in, the choices they make within those activities - about how to participate and respond - are all celebrated and made room for.

Whilst most settle into a circle to begin the 'hello's, one child is off to the side, admiring himself in a panel of convex mirrors. He starts by looking right up close, then moves away to lay on his side, still looking in the mirrors, pulling different poses for himself. He then picks up a mirrored sheet and carries it over to the circle, who are now singing and signing the 'hello' song. He walks around, showing people their faces in the mirror, delighted when they wave at themselves.

As well as the types of play being varied, the way children engage in relation to others is varied. In most play spaces, you can observe play that fits into three categories; solo play or playing alone, parallel play, where children play alongside others but not necessarily with them, and collaborative play, where they play directly with others. In more mainstream settings, collaborative play will often be the most common, although the other two are always there. It is a common misconception among adults that collaborative play is the most important and something to always be striving for, but this is a very adult mistake, one which doesn’t consider children’s need for solo play and parallel play, and how valuable they are too.

A child sits alone in the shade of a feather-tipped wooden wigwam-like structure in the sandpit. He’s slowly loading up a toy monster truck with sand. Mostly he is quiet but occasionally makes deep growling noises. They could easily be the sounds of a dinosaur or volcanic eruption, but from the context, I suspect it’s a revving truck. In the background, another child is in the sand, watching water running down a piece of guttering and experimenting with what he can do to disrupt the flow.

In my time observing, I noticed something quite unusual about The Yard in relation to these ways of playing. The children who were mostly engaging in solo play weren’t on the outskirts of the space, as they so often are in other spaces. They were using every bit of the space, just as much as the parallel and collaborative players. Those children who prefer or need to play by themselves a lot were just as much a part of the culture and dynamic of the space as any other child.

Two children are transporting sand and water to the mud kitchen. A playworker checks in and is sent off in search of ‘sprinkles for the cake’. When they return, the sprinkles are accepted enthusiastically and attract another child, who joins in on adding them to the various mixtures. One declares, “I want it to be the best cake ever!” whilst another quietly and admiringly says, “It’s so beautiful”. A couple of children drift away while the remaining one shifts focus to adding more water, innovatively transporting it via a welly boot. Another child returns with a large whisk and starts to stir the mixture, and another is drafted in to dig up dirt as they become less selective about ingredients. A toy motorbike and some herbs from the sensory garden are added. The play continues for some time, with one consistent player highly focussed and others dropping in and out to contribute when they feel like it.

By not having that hierarchy of ways of playing, there seems to be more opportunity to flow between types of play. A child who might otherwise have played on the outskirts the whole time, is able to drift in and out of other kinds of interactions and play, while being able to return to their own company and interests when they wish. Conversely, a child who might have been afraid to explore their own play instincts, instead sticking closely with others the whole time, is more able to step away and do their own thing, knowing that they’re still part of the space and that interaction is there for them when they want it.

A child and a playworker are kicking about a ball in the quieter patio area; another joins them and quickly gets passed the ball. He returns it but then starts to spin and hum, perhaps not really there to kick about footballs. The kick about continues carefully around him for a few moments before he drifts out into the main playground.

In my two days at The Yard, I notice how many different interests, needs and ways of doing or being are continuously existing in one space. Be it different play types, how children interact with each other, whether they want to move fast or slow, or whether they prefer to seek out experiences energetically and explosively, or calmly and intentionally explore. In the next piece in this series I will be looking at how the playworkers use their skills and creativity to facilitate and encourage this."

Visit Max's Play Radical website