Ahead of its summer holiday play programme, Abigail Treffry, development manager, at Barra Children’s Centre, reflects on its first term of Play Ranger sessions and the unique challenges of providing play in a rural island setting.
Barra Children’s Centre is a community organisation delivering services to children aged 0-12 and pre-school families on the remote islands of Barra and Vatersay in the Western Isles. The islands are linked by a causeway and have a total population under 1200. Unlike most areas in the Western Isles, we have a really steady birth rate and primary school roll with around 100 children aged 5-12 on the island. Access to opportunities, rural isolation and extreme weather during a long winter are significant issues for local children. Although children here do have more freedom to enjoy the outdoors than many of their mainland peers, around 60% of primary age children live in scattered rural settlements and have no access to public transport to meet up with friends. There has been limited investment locally in outdoor play areas or school grounds.
Before we received funding from Go2Play to support trial Play Rangers sessions, our previous experience with this age group was running weekly youth club sessions from November to April – aimed at providing opportunities for children to socialise with their peers and enjoy active play, games and craft activities indoors during the winter. Sessions are based in the dining area and games hall of our local school. Funding from BBC Children in Need has supported Youth Club for three years, and also enables us to run subsidised bus transport to and from sessions. Children have consistently asked us to extend the activity into the spring and summer and take it outdoors, but finding sufficient volunteers, and a good base for sessions have always been barriers as the school has limited outdoor space.
In 2015, we opened a new Big Lottery-funded extension to our own building, primarily for activities for pre-school children and families. We quickly learned that improvements to our indoor and outdoor space for the benefit of under 5’s worked well for older children too.
We were awarded funding from Go2Play in November. Planning for sessions took a while, and involved a steep learning curve. We benefitted from attending a Go2Play and Play Scotland outreach event in Oban and also from training at Stramash outdoor nursery.
The Play Ranger toolkit and other online resources helped us to draw up new risk benefit assessments for the equipment in our outdoor space and its use, operating procedures for the Play Ranger sessions, and a session handbook containing information on dynamic risk assessment and the Play Principles. This formed the basis of in-house staff training and is now circulated to parent volunteers.
After input from a parent and child survey, we decided to operate a two tier registration process with children under 8 signing in at the beginning of each session and all over 8’s having open access. The under-8s wear sports bibs for quick identification (and mainly don’t mind); are supervised on a ratio of at least 1-10 and go to the sports pitch in groups under supervision. The over 8s are able to go the play park nearby and wander around the surrounding area if they like, but are told to stay within earshot of the klaxon that we sound at the end of the session if they need to get the subsidised bus home.
Sessions so far have been a lot of fun and have benefitted 50 children overall and 83% of the target group of under 8s have attended. Children battled strong winds for the first two sessions, excited to get their hands on new den building equipment. They have enjoyed lots of free, imaginative and adventurous play, mainly in our grounds. From the very first session to the latest one, children still tell us Play Rangers is better than Youth Club ‘because it’s outdoors!’
Our reclaimed boat, along with ropes and buoys are really popular along with the sand and water play, mud kitchen, loose parts, and outdoor games equipment, as well as just having a great space to run about in. Outdoor craft activities like stone or shell painting, clay, playdough and basic craft kits like masks or card blanks have also been really popular as has a ramshackle version of crazy golf –made using equipment on loan from Active Schools and obstacles created, initially by adults and then by children, from our nursery loose parts collection.
We’ve learned a lot in a short space of time, about how we can support children to enjoy adventurous play whilst remaining in our comfort zone in terms of our skills and experience.
While under 8s have been having a fantastic time and numbers have been consistently high, it’s been more difficult to engage older children by simply providing resources and supporting free play. As sessions progressed, we introduced more structure to activities on the sports pitch, introducing team building games, tig and dodgeball. The turning point came two weeks ago when we created a team obstacle course incorporating sports day activities too – balance beams, logs & scramble net with sack race and egg and spoon race sections. For the first time in five weeks, the boys who had been playing football on the other side of the pitch (and would have been there regardless of our input) came over to take part in the session.
We’ve had great support from parents so far. We asked parents of under 8s to volunteer on a rota basis and volunteers have brought additional skills to sessions (the rota includes a primary teacher, classroom assistant and nursery staff who are all enthusiastic about the project) and this week, we’re looking forward to a visit from our local authority’s Outdoor Learning Manager, who’ll be delivering an outdoor cooking session along with guidance on how we could incorporate fire into our sessions on a regular basis. Hopefully, with a little more learning and lots more fun, we’ll be able to incorporate sessions into our core activities so that local children aged 5-12 have access to weekly play sessions which meet their needs year round.