MARCUS VEERMAN IS ON A MISSION TO PROVE THAT CHILD’S PLAY IS THE MOST SERIOUS BUSINESS.
We are, it seems, in the midst of a severe global playtime drought. A 2016 study showed that the average child in the UK spent less time outside than a maximum security prisoner. One-in-nine children hasn’t set foot in a park in at least a year, and a third have never played in mud. In general, kids spend less than half the time their parents did outdoors, and when they do escape, it’s to closely supervised playgrounds where the range of imaginative play is severely constrained. In developing nations, the problem is even worse. Underfunded schools rely almost exclusively on rote-learning, while impoverished communities lack the space and time for children to explore, play and be themselves.
For Marcus Veerman, founder and CEO of not-for-profit Playground Ideas, the evaporation of playtime is more than just a question of parenting philosophy – it’s an issue with profound, lifelong ramifications. “The research is clear: for every dollar we spend on play provision for children below school age, society receives an eightdollar return.” Apparently, early play interventions improve children’s social skills, self-control and problem-solving abilities, leading to a 44 per cent rise in high-school graduations; a 42 per cent rise in yearly earnings; and a significant reduction in family breakdown.
Playground Ideas is Marcus’s contribution to the power of play – an online resource centre offering blueprints, information and on-theground assistance to people trying to construct playgrounds in some of the world’s most impoverished areas. The idea grew out of time spent on the remote Thai-burma border in 2007, where he ended up building 40 playgrounds in two years. “There was this endless desire from the local community to improve their schools,” he says. “Teachers aren’t stupid. They know that rote-learning doesn’t work, because you’re stopping the child from doing what they naturally want to do at that age: learn through play.”
The focus of Marcus’s playgrounds is imaginative play. “Most playgrounds are devoted to physical and sports play, but if you’re missing that extra imaginary element, you’re missing out on all the social and brain development that free-form play can provide.” This means playgrounds built from recycled and familiar materials; spaces that reflect the local community, but can also be altered by the kids using it. Think rocks, car tyres, rolls of carpet, computer keyboards, rope and long planks of wood. “Stuff like that is genius for kids, because they can build cubbies or cars or sit around and have a picnic. That act of creation is so powerful in developing kids’ brains.”
So far, Playground Ideas has helped build more than 2000 playgrounds, servicing one million children in places as diverse as Cambodia, Guatemala, India, Ghana and Kazakhstan. There’s no single formula for these setups – each one is dictated by the resources the communities have on hand, as well as the kids’ background and location. “I remember one playground we made for the cancer ward of a Philippines hospital. It had slides and a cubby house, but also a makeshift doctor’s surgery and pharmacy, because that’s what these kids needed in order to explore their lives.”
Ultimately, play cuts to the core of what it means to be a child.
“We think of schools as being solely dedicated to the provision of information,” Marcus says, “but that feels so limited. I think if we could expand our thinking to bring in some of the lessons of the playground, it wouldn’t just be good for kids in the long run – it would elevate childhood to a whole new level.” ................... Playground Ideas was a community finalist in the 2018 frankie Good Stuff awards.