After our breakfast, we left for the City Council Offices to meet our guide, Debbie. Debbie is the Community Worker for Play Development at Dublin City Council and was here to show us around some interesting play-spaces and projects in and around Dublin. Debbie’s role includes that of a Play Development Officer, yet because Dublin have only recently started to get the ball rolling on the ethos of Play as an entire separate entity of what children need, rather than amongst sport and ‘activity’, her role was quite stretched in the fact that there was only two Play Staff in the Council for the whole of Ireland. She and another lady are pushing forward the importance of play, not as an activity or ‘play’ as in playing sports, but free, child-led play and the facilitation of this. Her attitude was that of ours and we were in agreement that it needed more recognition just as  much and more as the Sports and Recreational opportunities were receiving. The focus on child-obesity and fitness is extremely supported with fantastic Leisure Centres and Sports facilities for children, but play-space and variety of the play available has been over-looked. The UK has been inspired by countries such as Germany and Sweden who have had this promoting of play a forefront to their children’s services. They have shown us what top-quality play-spaces look like and how our attitude to children in general should change. But we hope from this study tour, that we as Playworkers can inspire those in a position to encourage growth in Ireland’s play services. This change is going to be a gradual one, but they’ve already got the ball rolling and its looking good. If the government feel the need to incorporate children’s space into sport and leisure centres, then that’s what they’ll do. It’s there that’s important, and the children know it belongs to them. As we said today, children will play wherever they can. So that may be on a football field, or in a fenced-in playground, they will make play out of whatever resources they have around them.

The others had assumed the Post Office on the main strip was the Council Offices the day before, because of the grand architecture, so obviously was an important building… But when we got there, we were re-directed and finally found another grand building next to a castle. I think we’ve realised that there are many grandeur, finely built buildings throughout the centre of Dublin, yet not all of them are for fine, grandeur purposes. Which is nice. We had a lovely meeting with Debbie, including giant scones and tea. Very British! So considerate of her! We discussed everything to do with play in Dublin, from regeneration projects that she herself had been involved with, to the need for a change in attitude towards children’s play. Such as the idea that we want our children in clubs and schemes, but not because so they can do what they want and experiment freely with resources and loose parts – it’s so they can do structured activities, possibly timetabled and adult-led. These opportunities for children to participate in social, playful environments, developing many skills and their confidence, so on, so on, is great!! I’m not disputing this need for structured activity if the child enjoys it and wants to do it again and again, its only a brilliant thing. But younger children up to the age of 11/12 do need this freedom of spontaneity and choices where they can decide what they do, how and when. Debbie agreed that Ireland needed more ‘Playworkers’ with appropriate training and better pay, rather than what they call ‘Play Leaders’ that may be encouraging this structured playtime often too much.

We talked about the changes already being made in Dublin and therefore will have a positive impact on the rest of Ireland as a whole, like new play literature that has been produced for getting the word out to everybody about the need of play, separate to ‘sports and recreational time’. Also there are plans for the Irish Play Day! This happens on the 1st of July, and this is when the children will be home for the summer. In Ireland, school holidays last for 8 weeks! Some people in England may think this is crazy because of possible child-care issues, yet in Ireland you’d think it would spark more demand in children’s usage of playgrounds and public spaces, because they have so much free time during the summer. Dublin has around 100 playgrounds that they maintain, which, as more are being built new they are developing into more enriching experiences as the play-ethos grows.

We visited Charleslane Community Centre in Graystone, that had been built around 6 years ago along with new housing near by. The grounds in which the centre was situated, was huge. There was the main building with the facilities inside catering for all ages, there was a skatepark with some real risky-play happening, various tennis and football courts, a PLAYGROUND, a football pitch, shrubs and long grasses to hide in around the area, an athletics track with a field, and finally – an outdoor gym for adults. Well, we were very impressed with the variety of spaces and quality of each one. The skate park (above) particularly impressed me with its risky high drops and climbing wall. There was graffiti on the inside of the ramps, so the kids and teens obviously knew they had ownership over the space. The graffiti was said to be not encouraged, but hadn’t been painted over and just left for respect of the people who use it, their wants and needs in the space. The man who was taking us around the centre was Dominic Gunshenan who was a Community Development Officer and had been involved the making of it.

It was great that they had addressed the needs of the teenagers and younger boys who were in between those stages of play-park and skate culture. The younger children had a space that contained play equipment, where the parents could sit and watch their kids play. The playground was kitted-out with Astroturf which was peculiar as its very unnatural and would be more uncomfortable to fall on than grass – maybe this was an all year-round maintenance issue? The grass surrounding the playground we were told needed a cut, and we disagreed saying it was lovely long as it felt ‘wild’ and it actually complimented the uniformed playground it surrounded. Dominic was fantastic with his attitude and willingness to listen and discuss what the positives were about the area and what could be added to satisfy all play-needs of the children. I suggested that on a large area of grass that was awaiting talks with the children on what to do with it, that they could use the slope to their advantage and build levels of sand planes, that would hold a water pumping system that the children could manage. The water could be pumped around, encouraging children to work in teams, allowing them to have control over their play-space, and connecting them with these elements of water and sand. Dominic really liked this idea and we joked about children’s obsession with sand, and how most adults hate the stuff when it makes its way into all crevices!!

We had a cup of tea after visiting the athletics field and having a play on the adult gym equipment, and chatted about organisations back home that could give Dominic and the Centre some ideas about ‘natura play’. He recommended we went to see his brother play in a pub on Temple Bar, so we had to look out for a Dominic look-alike. We discussed the playground whilst eating a smashing meal in the pub we’d been recommended, and got into a heated debate about whether money in Playwork should be more carefully spent when planning play-space. We talked about the involvement of parents in the space and whether its good or bad to have that involvement or if it was beneficial to have the space as a family space rather than just for the kids alone. I was keen to get my point across that certain types of play equipment are used too commonly and can really make a hole in the wallet. At home whilst play-ranging I learnt that a buddy-swing (large round rubbery bowl on two chains) can cost up to 13 grand. So when a lot of money is spent on modern metal equipment, is it really cost-effective in terms of how much can the children (not the adults) get out of it. I suppose a ‘KFC’ park is better than nothing, most definitely, when the children have a place they can call theirs, but when we face hard times financially (and have always done so in the Play-Sector) we need to think twice before designing the playground, and realise what the kids are not getting out of it rather than repeating what we think is the done-thing year after year.

After a good day of seeing, eating, drinking and debating, I look back to when I child and I would play in mud, the trees, the ‘wendy-house’ at the bottom of the garden, and I would also love a trip down to the village park. This park didn’t have much to it, rusty climbing frames that would cut your hands as you  held on tight, worn away tarmac and grass verges that had been reduced to puddles and ditches. The monkey bars were, well, just normal monkey bars that were falling apart too – but I spent hours in that park. Not when my mum was there hovering or sat with a book, but when I got the chance each week to stay at my best-friends house that overlooked this park, and we were allowed to be by ourselves…

That, was just great.