This is part four of four articles written for The Yard about the play that happens at The Yard Edinburgh. 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.

"The Playwork Principles are a set of guidelines used by playworkers to guide and help understand what it is we do and why. They say that when a person is playing, they are 'following their own instincts, ideas and interests in their own way for their own reasons'. For me, this line holds the answer to why play is so important, but that can easily get lost in our very hectic and complicated world.

A dinosaur is being given a bath in the sandpit, the child doing the washing is chatting away about how the dinosaur had been eating peanut butter... Another is filling up a watering can, which he then brings over to shower the dinosaur. As he pours the water over, the other child sticks out her tongue and giggles, tasting the water.

We can talk about play in terms of development, learning, and physical health and wellbeing. We can talk about it using words like ‘attainment’ and ‘progress’ but that’s not getting to the heart of why play is so important. Those things are all side effects of play, but they’re not the ultimate aim, because the aim of play is the play itself. It is about the process, not the end result, and the process is a child having the opportunity to, as written in the playwork principles, “follow their own instincts, ideas and interests in their own way for their own reasons.” To me, enabling and allowing children to do this is another way of saying ‘You are valued for exactly who you are’ and that is why play is so important.

A child runs out wearing a space themed backpack, shouting, 'I’m flying!' About ten minutes later, I spot him on the other side of the playground, emptying balls from the backpack and lining them up along the inside of a tyre.

For children and young people who are disabled or have additional support needs, often the world doesn’t tell them it values their instincts, ideas and interests. They have to do a lot of adjusting to fit into spaces that just weren’t created with them in mind. The Yard is a space that exists outside of all those social norms and expectations that can be so disabling to children.

A child who has just arrived sprints past me with those zoom-zoom arms only children seem to have the energy for. He leaps over a line of tyres with confidence, barely appearing to need to look down, and arrives at the base of the rope bridge. He pauses, noticing there is another standing at the other end, but gives himself the go-ahead and begins to traverse. Inevitably, the two meet about three quarters of the way up. There is a short negotiation, where the only words spoken are ‘beep beep’, and the zoom-er graciously steps onto the net and takes the tricky way past. He steps off the bridge and runs straight down the ramp to traverse again.

Here, children can create a world that makes sense to them, among people who are excited to learn from them about what that world looks like. They can explore and experiment, and find new ways of interacting, doing and creating that are meaningful to them.

I walk into the play hall to spot a child in the corner of the room, unravelling a roll of duct tape, attempting to link a table and sofa with a duct tape bridge. He’s a bit skittish, glancing up at short intervals, indicating that he either obtained the duct tape illicitly or he’s just not sure he should be doing what he’s doing. His table-to-sofa plan not quite working, he moves on to trying to attach it to a door, clearly just really wanting to duct tape something to something. He spots me, drops the tape and runs to the door, giving my belly a pat on his way past.

At The Yard, children don’t have to explain themselves, they don’t have to hold back, or slow down or speed up. Their instincts, ideas and interests are valid, and important and respected. By the people who work there, the culture of the play space created by those who play there and the space itself. Just taking in the incredible range of play happening all around is evidence of this.

A child holds a Toy Story Woody doll in one hand and a soft cat in the other. He wanders out into the playground, seeming a little more reserved than the other children in the space at the time. He places Woody and Cat in the top of an upturned giant plant pot, and balances his body on the edge, rocking back and forth. After a few moments, he gets up and takes Woody and Cat for a walk along the picnic table, before taking them for a spin in a shopping trolley. Later, I see him driving around a two-seated go-kart, Woody and Cat sat safely next to him, along for the ride."

Visit Max's Play Radical website