Juggling the benefits of outdoor play

Sheffield Wildlife Trust Winter Play project in Millhouses Park: Lily Butler (7) stilt walking

Sheffield Wildlife Trust Winter Play project in Millhouses Park: Lily Butler (7) stilt walking

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ON a damp and blustery January Saturday in Millhouses, it was perhaps surprising how many people were interested in juggling and plate spinning.

“Yes, we’ll have a go at that,” said Jim Lafferty and immediately tried to impress his three-year-old son Leo with an attempt at three balled circle juggling.

Sheffield Wildlife Trust Winter Play project in Millhouses Park: Jan Breider playing with home made juggling balls with Merla North (5)

Sheffield Wildlife Trust Winter Play project in Millhouses Park: Jan Breider playing with home made juggling balls with Merla North (5)

Millhouses is a family park even in wet and windy January, so the ‘Positive Activities for Young People’ youth workers Jan Breider and Trevor Tomlin had no trouble getting adults and children interested in their circus skills activity afternoon, even though the plate spinning was regularly curtailed by a brisk north-westerly.

Jan and Trevor are part of a consortium of agencies in Sheffield, often under the auspices of the council’s ‘Kids Can Do’ project, who offer activities for young people that help them get out and about, respect their local green spaces and generally feel more positive about themselves and their city

The pair work for Sheffield Wildlife Trust’s ‘En:Volve’ agency and both hope that the current government will see fit to continue the national PaYP projects (as they’re known to those in the field – often literally).

The Wildlife Trust’s youth workers often lead activities in fields and parks to help children discover bugs, birds and other wildlife but anything that helps young people enjoy Sheffield’s many green spaces is on the agenda, said Jan Breider.

Sheffield Wildlife Trust Winter Play project in Millhouses Park: Leo Lafferty (3 3/4) plate balancing

Sheffield Wildlife Trust Winter Play project in Millhouses Park: Leo Lafferty (3 3/4) plate balancing

Hence the outdoor plate spinning.

“We want young people to feel positive about their local environment and we hope that this will help them have a better awareness of their own community,” she said.

“The feedback we get is that they might come to this park where we’ll show them ways they can enjoy green spaces and then they take it away and do those things in other places.”

Saturday’s activities included methods of making your own clown masks and circus equipment.

“A lot of kids think everything has to be bought, so we try to do things that don’t cost any money,” said Jan. “For example, we use a lot of recycled things and today we’re showing people how to make their own juggling balls.”

Part of the problem is that there’s been a generation when playing outside in your local woods, fields and parks has been actively discouraged by many parents, said Jan.

“I think it was in the 1980s there began to be so much fear around that people stopped letting their children out. They didn’t go to the park or go and play in the woods as there was always a fear that something would happen.

“People wouldn’t let kids do anything unless it was fabricated – they couldn’t climb trees any more, so they went to their local indoor play centre instead, with its foam walls.”

Such places can still be fun, she hastened to add, but why not do both?

Being out and about helps young people learn how to be safe and streetwise, she added.

“I think that Eighties attitude is beginning to go. We still want to protect our children but we’re becoming more aware that we’ve been doing it too much and becoming over-protective.”

Jan and her colleagues “risk assess to the hilt” so kids can take part in more risky activities safely, she explained. But tree climbing still seems to be out of the equation for organised groups.

“We don’t generally do tree climbing as we would have to risk assess the branches,” Jan said.

Which is a bit ridiculous, she observed.

In some parts of the city kids are out and about and have no problems with being streetwise. In such areas the project aims to improve community spirit between all generations.

On one occasion, after a den building session in a park, an older resident said to Jan: “You’re wasting your time with this lot. They’ll only wreck it after you’ve gone.”

“The children said they didn’t build dens usually because they’d get told off.

“So we suggested speaking in a different way. We said to them you automatically assume older people are on your case and they automatically assume you’re up to no good. So if you swear, you’re just behaving how they think you’re going to behave.

“So we said, instead why not just tell them you’re allowed to build dens?

“A week or two later the same gentleman came down and his attitude had changed.

“The kids had spoken to him a bit and he came down and said he’d seen them making their dens and the ones they’d built were still there. They hadn’t been wrecked after all.”

It may have just been one small victory but that kind of thing makes you feel good, said Jan, as the children of Millhouses (and their parents) stilt-walked and juggled and chased their plates in the wind.

“This is the best job ever,” she said, positively.