An interview with Gwealan Tops Adventure Playground

– Janet King

Although the importance of play for holistic development, health and wellbeing is well documented, conventional early years education study rarely goes into any depth on the Play Principles that underpin the highly skilled function of the Playworker.


Lester and Russell (2008, p.93) remind us of the impact of attachment through play, building from the security of the primary caregiver, how children establish friendships and build emotion regulation contributing to flexible stress response systems. ‘The dynamic process of playing with others requires constant maintenance, reading and mirroring the intentions of others and using language forms in highly complex and creative ways’.


I spent a couple of days with Bridget and John, managers at Gwealan Tops Adventure Playground in Cornwall as a volunteer to see quality play environments at first hand.


Who are Bridget and John?
Since 2016, Bridget Handscomb and John Fitzpatrick have been the jobshare managers at Gwealan Tops Adventure Playground – an award-winning, highly respected, innovative Playwork setting which is Cornwall’s first and only staffed adventure playground.


What qualifications do they hold in Playwork?
Bridget has a degree in Playwork, PGCE in Lifelong Learning, and the Assessor and IQA Award, while John has a Post Graduate Certificate in Playwork plus a Training and Assessor Award.


What was their journey into their current roles?
John developed the ‘Beyond Quality’ quality assurance scheme for Cambridgeshire County Council and they both have been involved in implementing Play England’s ‘Quality in Play’. They have delivered Playwork qualification programmes  up to Level 5 and have provided a wide variety of training across London and neighbouring regions before moving to Cornwall. They have a strong commitment to, and experience of, research, editing and writing about play and Playwork. Practice-based research, reflective analytical Playwork practice and learning through discovery are integral to their teamwork approach.


What’s it like to work at Gwealan Tops Adventure Playground?
Bridget and John are committed to the playground as a learning organisation, recognising the experience, skills and qualities that people bring and what interests them, as well as how they support the organisation’s work. Together they induct, train, mentor and develop all staff and volunteers through their Young Volunteer Programme, and run training courses for staff, volunteers, young people, schools and the local community.


This in-house learning includes play, Playwork, risk benefit, safeguarding, teamwork and understanding childhood, all underpinned by the Playwork Principles. Regular team meetings, daily debriefs and in-house training are an integral part of their approach. They have a strong commitment to reflective Playwork practice and promote that approach at meetings, conferences and with other Playwork teams. They employ a wide range of methodologies to encourage discussion and reflection within their team, aimed at deepening understandings of children, play, Playwork and themselves.


What does the playground look like?
The playground is filled with a variety of wooden structures, wild areas and lots of space to roam, explore and create. There’s a large tarmac area with handmade ramps, donated bikes and a variety of loose parts allowing children to run, bike and play sports. Aside from the main structures, there are numerous opportunities for children to take part in arts and crafts, construction, different sports and hobbies. There’s a campfire area, a mud kitchen, a hut filled with art materials and a piano, bikes and a vegetable garden. The site is supervised by qualified and trained staff who support children’s safety, independence, adventure and challenge.


What are the key benefits of their setting to the children and young people who visit?
he impact of the adventure playground is various. Adventure playgrounds offer a unique form of staffed play provision where children can play in ways that they often can’t elsewhere. They provide opportunities for children to face challenges and risks, whilst supervised by skilled Playworkers. Children can run around, climb, jump, roll, balance, scream, play with mud and water, get dirty, make things, destroy things, dress up, read, be quiet, be on their own or play in large groups. In other words – be children. 

By having an environment in which the children are encouraged to explore, experiment, engage in challenging play and take risks, they will gain confidence and self-awareness and try more things out for themselves. Due to increased traffic and parental fears, children have less opportunity to play out by themselves and with their friends, than their parents did when they were younger. Bridget and John particularly want to encourage school-aged children the opportunity to have the time and space to play, to test themselves, to try things out, to make friends, to create and destroy, and to have fun without their parents or other adults looking over their shoulders.


What are the most important features of Playwork according to Bridget and John?
• Being aware that as Playworkers, you create the conditions – time, space and permissions – where children can freely play without undue adult intervention
• having experienced and skilled judgements about whether to intervene, and if so, what that intervention should be
• recognising own impact on the children playing
• imaginative, empathetic and creative ways of responding
• reflection – to deepen your understandings of yourself, children, and play
• being playful
• teamwork
• understanding that children are the experts in their play
• understanding that all children have the right to play
• being able to see the creative potential of e.g., a cardboard box.


What advice would they give to students interested in a career as a Playworker?
As a Playworker, every day is different. There’s enormous potential to learn and develop new transferable skills.

Some of the career opportunities as a Playworker are:
• after-school clubs
• adventure playgrounds
• play streets

• holiday clubs
• play ranger projects
• play in schools projects
• mobile play provision
• hospitals
• prisons.

Final notes
I would like to say a massive thank you to Bridget and John, the team and the children at Gwealan Tops Adventure Playground in Cornwall for reminding me that childhood is exactly that and the critical role of the playful approach for children in the moment and as an investment for their future. Thank you for a wonderful two days, I look forward to seeing you again soon.

If you'd like to meet our team, or see your setting or team featured in a future issue of Aluminate, please get in touch with our team at [email protected] and we'll book some time to talk. 

This article was first published in the summer issue of CACHE Alumni's quarterly member magazine, Aluminate.  CACHE Alumni members get access to a range of benefits which include Aluminate, video resources, e-learning, events and lifestyle discounts through our member benefits scheme, CACHE-Back.  Membership starts at zero cost, with fully funded memberships available because of our relationship with NCFE.  Sign up today to get immediate access to our full range of benefits and resources.