Summertime scheme where play's the thing

Overprotective parents have been accused of holding their children back by limiting play and seeing old-fashioned tree-climbing and den- building as accidents waiting to happen.

But the so-called "cotton wool" generation has not missed out on their right to take part in free play in schemes run by local authorities in Wales this summer.

Playworkers interviewed by TES Cymru say drop-in sessions for young people are fulfilling children's fundamental "right to play" by removing adult- induced constraints. Some are also actively encouraging parents to join in.

Janet Roberts, play development officer for Flintshire County Council, which runs free summer schemes in 71 towns and villages across the county, believes play is finally being valued as a vital part of childhood again.

Unlike the play-led foundation phase (FP) for under-sevens, the scheme's ethos is to allow children to choose their own activities within a safe environment. "It's about allowing children to develop naturally and make their own decisions," said Ms Roberts. "Children learn about life through play."

The mostly outdoor activities are child-led, and children between five and 12 can join in a range of activities from soccer to den-building.

Ms Roberts said society had become fearful of play pursuits deemed to be dangerous, but that staff were fully trained in health and safety and child protection.

While the free schemes are invaluable for working parents struggling to afford childcare, Ms Roberts believes they are not a substitute for it.

"It's important to have the right balance between children's and families' needs," she said. "The whole scheme is based on children's rights and the UN rights of the child. It's very idealistic, but the idea is that children have the freedom to come and go."

In Neath Port Talbot, the emphasis is also on safe play. A free scheme is held outdoors in 28 areas across the authority and continues come rain or shine.

Staff from the playscheme, which is run by the council's play development team, provide a wide range of resources - from footballs to cardboard tubes - and children are free to play with whatever they choose. Youngsters are also encouraged to get dirty and messy.

Catherine Davies, play development worker at Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, said unlike the FP there are no specific educational goals, but children develop social skills through play.

The Blaenau Gwent schemes are held in parks and although targeted solely at eight to 14-year-olds, parents are also welcome to join in.

"They get an opportunity to interact with their kids and see the benefits," Ms Davies said. "For example, parents probably wouldn't let them play with the messy stuff at home. I'd like to think they go away with a few ideas."

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