Play­ground ideas

MAR­CUS VEERMAN IS ON A MIS­SION TO PROVE THAT CHILD’S PLAY IS THE MOST SE­RI­OUS BUSI­NESS.

Frankie - - OUR PROJECT - Words Luke Ryan

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.

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