This is part three 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.

"Play work is kind of a funny term. It’s made up of two contradictory words (don’t you usually have to choose between work and play?!) and although 'playworker' as a role has been around for a long time, it’s not nearly as commonly understood as other roles where people work with children and young people, like 'youth worker' or 'support worker' or even 'playground assistant'.

A child who’s using a wheelchair is being supported to cross the road at the traffic lights over and over again. He soon becomes more interested in the traffic light control box than crossing the road, and sits investigating it closely, as he pushes the button and it moves through its cycle over and over again. His supporting adult sits to one side until he’s ready to cross again.

As a playworker, your job is simply to enable children and young people to play. This means ensuring the environment is safe and stimulating, as well as being on hand to respond to children’s ideas and any problems they’re having, to make sure the play continues. It also means stepping back and not interfering when it’s not necessary, remembering that the child’s agenda comes first - this is often the tricky bit for adults! Playworkers need to be able to help children access the space with whatever needs they have, without compromising or directing the play where they can. This requires flexibility and creativity, and I saw plenty of this over my time observing at The Yard.

There is a road which winds through a large portion of the outdoor space. Some tear around it on karts and bikes, whilst others tentatively shuffle trikes and balance bikes. The faster children seem to know the space so well that they can make room for those who need it whilst not compromising too much on their need to go fast. The watchful playworkers are on hand to intervene if necessary; explaining the one-way system, reminding them how to use their breaks and offering encouragement to the less confident. The playworkers' interventions ultimately enable these two very contrasting levels of need and ability to co-exist.

When children have more complex support needs, play is something that can get left behind; health needs, restricted mobility, increased vulnerability, and lack of understanding around danger and risk can take precedent. As a result, a lot of children don’t get to do very much without an adult right by their side, but at The Yard there’s a chance for a bit of distance and this is something playworkers facilitate. Their presence offers reassurance and gives permission for children’s supporting adults to step back, but they don’t need to simply replace the adult by the child’s side. At The Yard, risk is appreciated as a meaningful part of play. Playworkers are skilled in understanding and managing risk, so they don’t stop it all together, but work with children to negotiate risk, intervening only where necessary.

Two children are playing in the under fives area; one is standing on top of a semi-circular foam wedge, rocking from side to side, the motion getting steadily wilder. A playworker who has been watching the situation suggests they move the wedge into the middle of the soft mats as it’s gotten a bit close to the wall. They move the wedge together, but before the child’s able to hop back up to rock again, the other child decides to lay down across the top of the wedge. Adjusting quickly, the first begins to stack bits of soft play in towers around the second. When the towers are complete, she climbs onto the wedge. Both children now lying down, they rock and kick at the towers, the pieces falling down around them, causing much amusement.

Sometimes the risks or challenges don’t come from the environment itself, but from having to share it with others with vastly different interests and needs. No matter how big the playground, a child’s play can always be bigger, and so with so many children in one space, well, it’s not always going to be a peaceful play utopia! Some children struggle more with these situations than others, negotiating boundaries with other children, compromising over space and resources, and figuring out communication can all be obstacles. Just as common is the child who really wants to interact with and play with others but just can’t quite get it right. There are a lot of ways I see playworkers helping here – they can be a flexible third party in these interactions, find a way to help children communicate and understand what they need from each other. I watch a playworker negotiating with a child over where to stack his planks of wood and barrels so that they don’t stop another who is doing laps of the track in a go-kart. A playworker steps in to play chase and tig with a child who is getting frustrated running about the playground in search of interaction but only finding children very focussed on their own solo play.

Three are engaged in a high-speed chase around and on the soft play. It’s not quite clear what the objective is but one is brandishing an inflated inner tube and there is a lot of squealing. Perhaps tiring slightly, two flop onto a bean bag, one declaring, ‘I’m sinking’ as the other chucks the inner tube to one side. Soon the chase kicks up again, but things start to get a little too much for one child, who seems to be struggling with wanting to stay in the play but not quite knowing how. He begins to get a bit too rough with the others who don’t seem to know how to react. A playworker steps in waving a large teddy bear; ‘The bear’s attacking me!’ Through the intervention, the play reverts back to something all three children can engage with, as the playworker helps scaffold their interactions and enables them to communicate with each other.

Seeing playworkers in action makes it clear that the environment isn’t the only thing that makes this space accessible and welcoming for so many different children. In the final part of this series, I’ll be looking at what they’re all here for and why it’s so important - the play itself."

Visit Max's Play Radical website