This is part one 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, 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.

"When I first walk in on a Saturday morning, the quiet family session is in progress. I walk past the very well stocked dressing up collection, managing to resist the urge to find myself an outfit, and around the soft play island in the centre of the hall, where a couple of children bounce and roll about fairly gently whilst their adults relax nearby. There are shiny stars, a rocket and colourful lanterns hanging from the high ceiling, piles of bricks and an eclectic collection of action figures waiting on a low table in one corner, and colourful bubbles and lights visible from the windows into the sensory room. I poke my head into the art room to see a group sat around a table of tell-tale slime ingredients (glue, shaving foam, food colouring…) while a playworker leads a nice and messy tutorial.

Outside, both sandpits, wet and dry, are occupied with a couple of sensory explorers and one very serious looking builder-scientist who is experimenting with the flow of water into the wet sand pit. I can hear squeals and giggles coming from somewhere towards the back of the space, but I can’t see the source. Perhaps they’re tucked away in one of the huts or hiding out behind the fort. The solar dome, a kind of half-football shaped see-through house, wheelchair accessible boat swing, hidden walkways and sensory garden are, for the moment unoccupied. The race-track, or quiet country road depending on your inclination, is similarly still but the line of scooters, bikes and karts sitting nearby suggest it won’t stay that way for long.

A child paces back and forth between the sandpit and a partly grassy mound with a concave front made up of loose dirt and roots. A miniature quarry. Considered and confident rather than urgent. He picks up leaves, hold them up to investigate and shreds them. He grabs handfuls of dirt and watches it fall through his wiggling fingers. He stops, turns and runs into the building, emerging moments later, bouncing a ball with two hands, running along the track to the other end of the playground. Later, I spot him sat on the corner of a wooden platform bouncing a different ball.

One of the wonderful things about a space like this is that, depending on who you asked, you’d get an entirely different description. Tired parents and carers might lead with the spacious kitchen, coffee making facilities and sofas, but when it comes to the children, they focus on what they do here, how they play. For some, the art room is the centre of their Yard world, for others the hiding spots amongst trees and bamboo, or for the messy ones, the stream and sandpits. There is a framework used in play work developed by theorist Bob Hughes; it breaks down play into 16 different types. (Read more about play types from Play Scotland). Some of these are perhaps more obvious, like creative play, rough and tumble, and imaginative play – think painting or moulding clay, wrestling or trying to give each other piggy-backs, and walking an invisible dog around the playground. Other types, like mastery play or recapitulative play, might need a bit more explanation. Mastery play is about exploring how the physical world around you works. An example of this I’ve seen at The Yard many times is children digging ditches and making streams in the sandpit. Recapitulative play taps into our early evolutionary instincts. That might not immediately ring bells, but if you’ve ever built dens or nests, pretend or real fires, or gone to ‘war’ with your playmates then you know recapitulative play.

A child is working away at setting up roadworks towards the back of the playground. He drags cones, barriers and signs into place. When he spots me watching, he tells me; 'This is my sort of thing you see'. He’s very precise and takes time to evaluate his work between tasks, stopping to prod and squish the slime he made earlier from time to time. His intervention has blocked off an entire part of the road. A small traffic jam builds up until its spotted that he’s actually allowed for a detour route off the path, around a tree and down a slight hill. Traffic resumes usual pace; roadworks stay in place as a small groups’ play is changed by a solo player’s actions.

To someone new to thinking about play like this, 16 may seem like a lot, but if you spend enough time somewhere like The Yard, you’ll start to question if it’s enough, as play types blur, cross over, and become more niche and nuanced. Social play at The Yard is something that I observe as having many layers and different types within it. A lot of the children who attend The Yard might struggle with social interaction and expectations out in the world. Here, with those expectations somewhat removed, they can explore ways of being social that make sense to them, they can test rules or boundaries, and find new ways to negotiate and communicate with each other through their play.

A game of zombie tig is being set up. The explanation and negotiation of rules and allocating of roles is lengthy. For some, this is fun and provokes a lot of giggles, for others it’s frustrating and they have to go away and come back. When the game is eventually underway, a chase cuts across the path of a go-kart. The driver stops watching the action excitedly and then hops out of the kart to join in, shouting, ‘There’s a killer on the loose!’

Part of the idea behind thinking about the different play types is that it’s important for children and young people to have the opportunity to engage in a range of different kinds of play experiences. The Yard provides plenty of those opportunities with the environment alone but there is more to it than that.  In the next part of this series, I’m going to look at how they facilitate all these different kinds of play, in a way that’s inclusive of children and young people with a range of different needs, interests and abilities."

Visit Max's Play Radical website