Should councils put a price on play
The decision by Wandsworth Council to start charging children £2.50 to use the adventure playground at Battersea Park has been met with widespread criticism.
Charging for access to a playground appears to jar with the public consciousness of play as a free activity, available for all to enjoy regardless of wealth, background or heritage.
The playground in this particular instance is an adventure playground - an important distinction to be made as adventure playgrounds satisfy a different need to the traditional playground, typically staffed and catering for older children.
Battersea adventure playground, now known as Battersea Play Centre, intended to bring the charge in at weekends for a trial four month period, stating that this was not a precursor for charging for entry for ordinary playgrounds. With the criticism showing no signs of abating, Wandsworth has decided to put this pilot scheme on hold. However, with council budgets being significantly cut, this proposal does throw up some interesting points for discussion: is it possible for playgrounds to generate revenue without charging for entry?
One of the most obvious ways of generating income is to create opportunities for secondary spend within or next to the playground. This need not be viewed as a cynical move to extract cash from families, moreover an opportunity to provide much needed refreshments to playground users.
Paul Collings, managing director at Timberplay, has worked with numerous councils to create hundreds of play parks. He commented: ‘We have been designing, landscaping and installing playgrounds around the UK for over ten years now and throughout our experience we have become increasingly aware of the difference a good playground can make to visitor numbers, dwell time and secondary spend.
‘A great playground can keep visitors occupied for hours, playing on the equipment and enjoying the atmosphere. Visitors to such playgrounds appreciate the opportunity to buy a coffee or an ice-cream for the kids, and those who have not prepared a picnic in advance certainly welcome a retail outlet for sandwiches and hot food.’
Great Notley Country Park within Essex had been attracting low numbers of visitors (estimated at 40,000 per annum) until they installed a state-of-the-art play trail in 2008. Since then the parks fortunes have turned around and it is now a key destination park for the surrounding area. Within a year visitor numbers had trebled, dwell time increased from one to three hours and secondary spend rocketed to £215,000 gross income. Three years after installation, visitor numbers and secondary spend are still on the up and car parking net income now stands at £100,000 per annum.
Aside from catering outlets and kiosks, a bit of creative thinking also throws up the opportunity to sell other items to support children in getting the most out of the play space. If there is extensive sand play then why not sell buckets and spades, or if there is a lot of water play there may be a case for selling play boats or water pistols. For younger children bubbles are always popular. What makes secondary spend outlets more palatable is that visitors have a choice whether to buy or not, dependent on their need and budget. In addition, the visitors that are likely to spend more are those seen as ‘day trippers’, those not from the locality,
Further to this, many parks and attractions are now offering play workshops and play schemes. Although this requires a significant investment to set up, police and monitor the schemes, there is potential to use these courses to generate much needed income. Den building, craft workshops, woodland treetop walks, foraging and rope swing workshops are all becoming increasingly popular, some having both adult and child appeal. If you combine this with childcare, weekends and school holidays these courses can raise up to £5 per hour, depending on what is offered and geographical location. However, the logistics of these courses can prove difficult for understaffed council departments to organise, so it may be more effective to look at running these in conjunction with a specialist agency who are well practiced in what sells well and what the pitfalls are.
A privately owned attraction in Somerset, Hestercombe Gardens only has a small play area, instead focusing on alternative play provision, workshops and events that encourage engagement with the landscape.
Andy Holden, education officer at Hestercombe, talked about what works for them: ‘At Hestercombe we have set out to attract children and young families in a way that helps these visitors understand what is special about Hestercombe and the facilities we offer. We collaborate with Somerset Leisure Ltd to offer a program of activities which all help children engage with the landscape in a traditional way, for example den building using natural resources or making bows and arrows or other rudimentary tools.
This program serves to boost revenue in two key ways, firstly the children and families pay to come along to the activities, and secondly parents/grandparents/carers dropping off children also commonly make use of the other facilities. As well as bringing new energy into Hestercombe, this program is also very effective in developing future stakeholders for us. By developing our client base from toddlers onwards we intend to forge lasting relationships with people who go on to care and support the future of Hestercombe.’
There is no reason why a similar strategy would not also prove effective for council-run parks alongside traditional play parks.
Specifically in the case of adventure playgrounds, there are opportunities to offer the facility for use to specific community groups during suitable periods, for example during school time.
Chair of Trustees for Haringey Play Association and experienced play professional, Nick Jackson, commented: ‘In Haringey we have found some success in teaming up with other agencies in the area, so they can benefit from the great facility they have on their doorstep and we can generate some much needed revenue. Typically these groups tend to be from the health and education services, for example children or adolescent groups from the mental health sector or local schools. Beyond this there is also scope to team up with suitable charities.
‘Children need play areas, particularly in major cities as the urban environment is simply not suitable for play. As a community it is our responsibility to offer compensatory play spaces to make up for the lack of play concessions throughout society. Certain core principles should not be forgotten, and providing play opportunities for free is one of these.’
There is also a case to be made for more industry support for community play spaces and adventure playgrounds. We have already explored how a well designed and innovative playspace can attract thousands of visitors to a locality, who will not only visit the park, but also the local shops and businesses. Some parks choose to promote the sponsorship they have received by way of a plaque with company logos, but there could also be opportunities for businesses to sponsor specific pieces of equipment with which they share a synergy. The benefits for the business are tri-fold, they receive a prime advertisement spot for the life of the playground, they benefit from the increased footfall the park generates and they also foster better community relations by demonstrating their commitment to health and well-being of the younger generations.
Perhaps the solution for the continuation of free playspaces throughout the UK demands a new approach. The easiest answer to bridging the revenue gap may seem to be charging a flat rate for entry, however the fallout from this may prove to be counter productive. Not only will the council undoubtedly face some condemnation, visitor numbers will suffer, the local community will become disenfranchised and without the lure of a playspace, parks will become underused. More significant, however are the possible long-term effects.
Free play spaces are one of the most effective ways of promoting health and fitness in the very young, tackling childhood obesity and consequently reducing spiralling healthcare costs. A trend towards wiping out free playgrounds may save councils a few pounds today, but at the cost of tomorrow.
Lilly Elbra is a play consultant, on behalf of Timberplay.
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