The five times-table and why we treat children like shrimp…

A few weeks ago, we had a great meeting with Michael Follett at OPAL (The OPAL Primary Programme – Outdoor Play And Learning). Michael’s work is focussed on play for primary school children and he’s passionate about providing play spaces that accommodate all play needs for all children (not just the needs of the boys who are good at football).  We found plenty to talk about. And our conversation threw up some thought provoking numbers.


It starts early. Five is the school year by which many primary schools have taught their pupils that boys have a greater right to occupy space than girls. The biggest areas of the playground are set aside for football, and the boys who are good at football claim that space as their territory with the full support of the staff. For readers who are interested in why girls who want to play football at primary school are pushed out, have a look at the brilliant (if depressing) paper by Sheryl Clark & Carrie Paechter: Why can’t girls play football?’ Gender dynamics and the playground.

We also discussed the Animal Welfare Act: five is the number of animal “needs” that must be met under that Act. These needs include having an environment appropriate to their species and age; and being provided with appropriate space and facilities to ensure the avoidance of stress and allow the exhibition of normal behaviour. We thought this could be useful when persuading stakeholders to think about play space that accommodates the needs of all children and young people. Unfortunately, it turns out we can’t use this Act to argue for better space for children and young people because to benefit from this legislation an “animal” must be “a vertebrate other than man”. So tough luck for children and shrimp.


The “Power of 10+” is a concept pioneered by the Project for Public Spaces in the early noughties as a way to help communities think about what makes a great place, neighbourhood and community. The idea is that if you can provide 10 + things that attract people to one spot, you’ve started to create a great place. The ten “things” don’t have to all be huge or expensive, just points of interest that will make people want to linger and engage with a space. So don’t just fill a space with one MUGA: have a pitch space, but break it up; add seating and stepping stones; some shelter (a big tree? a sail?); swings; a pitch for a coffee/ice cream van, some art, some grass; wild flower planting with a path through it…. we got to 10 without really trying. A rich environment will attract more teenage girls. It will attract more people generally.


So I have taken a bit of a liberty here because studies suggest there are either fourteen or sixteen types of play and I’ve averaged them. Whichever classification is used, when trying to make space for girls we need to realise that locomotive play – i.e. play that involves running jumping, kicking a ball, skating etc – is not the only kind out there. However it is the play type that dominates the design of play space for teenagers in the form of MUGAs, skate parks and BMX tracks. And these spaces are dominated by boys. So perhaps stakeholders need to talk about other ways that teenagers can enjoy their right to different kinds of play. 


This is the number of years ago that 6 pilot projects were tested by Eva Kail and her team as they worked with teenage girls to make the parks of Vienna more attractive to them.  Twenty years ago… and we still can’t find good examples in the UK of people making park space for girls. Why? What is holding us back? 

Since 2000, gender mainstreaming has stayed at the core of planning in Vienna. Recent developments include Mädchenbühne (translates as “girls’ stage”- but used for performances by anyone and everyone) built in one of the most famous squares in Vienna, suggested by local school-girls when asked what they wanted to see in the area.  This is the equivalent of asking schoolgirls what they would like to see in Trafalgar Square and then acting on that. To British ears that sounds like a completely mad idea – who would even think about it?  We would.

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