Youth clubs – Not what you think

London Essays – Issue 9: Play

Youth clubs – Not what you think

In every borough in London, organisations are bringing young people together to play.

By Rosemary Watt-Wyness

Play is a crucial component of childhood, a way to experiment with emotions, tangle with uncertainty, experience the unexpected, learn to respond to new situations, and create alliances, friendships and attachments. “Play, in all its rich variety, is one of the highest achievements of the human species, alongside language, culture and technology,” says Cambridge University developmental psychologist Dr David Whitebread. “Indeed, without play, none of these other achievements would be possible”. 22 But play is too easily dismissed as childish: for anyone beyond the age of childhood, play is too easily set up in opposition to work, suggesting that it’s something we need to grow out of, and that all these benefits only obtain when we are a certain age.

At London Youth we support what might once have been understood as youth clubs, but which are a far cry from what many adults may think of when they hear the term (deterioriating buildings, pool tables). Our 320 members are diverse community youth organisations, to which young people choose to go, and which champion their rights to play. In every borough of London are projects run by our members – who, every day, and most nights, are enabling young people to express themselves, play, and have fun. They offer provision that is open to all, both structured and unstructured. (Both approaches are important, and provision can vary according to the needs of young people.)

Vale of play to personal growth

Play has been described as activity that is “freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated”, 23 that “can provide opportunities for independent learning, and for building confidence, resilience, self-esteem and self-efficacy”. 24 This characterises how we think of fun at London Youth: we believe people learn best when enjoying themselves.

Our residential centres, Hindleap Warren and Woodrow High House, provide children and young people with access to outdoor activities in private woodlands under the supervision of highly trained instructors, sometimes offering them their first experience of the rural outdoors. Outdoor play and fun is at the heart of activities to develop social and emotional capabilities: it’s easier to encourage young people to develop their confidence, learn about communication and teamwork, and understand the natural environment if they’re having fun while they do it. Young people get the opportunity to get covered in mud, to orienteer on their own, and to hear stories about mythical creatures and ghosts as they explore what they perceive to be unchartered woodland territory.

Young people in Britain spend less than 15 per cent of their waking hours in formal education, according to the House of Commons Education Committee. 25 Schools are in any case faced with so many academic requirements that the pressure to cover the curriculum and meet government-imposed standards can crowd out activities aimed at broader character development. 22 Our youth peer-researchers hear young people saying they don’t have time for activities outside of schoolwork. Yet academic research points to severe negative impacts from play-deprivation for children and young people, “ranging from unhappiness to aggression”. 27 Young people’s struggles for emotional wellbeing and mental health are at record levels, especially in London.

The opportunity for fun provided by local community youth centres is proven to support wellbeing, happiness, confidence and resilience. A sample of nearly 900 young people who visited our Hindleap Warren residential centre, either with their school or their community youth organisation, showed that over two-thirds had improved self-confidence and were better able to manage their emotions at the end of their visit. More than 50 per cent reported feeling more motivated, confident, and competent in social situations.

Let me share two examples of what can be achieved.

Laburnum Boat Club, on the Regent’s Canal in South Hackney, is a long-running example of community-led activities welcoming and supporting young people. Laburnum Boat Club wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as a youth club; rather, they use participation in a wide range of water-based activities to support community cohesion and the personal development of young people and their families. The club provides a wide range of structured play for young people, including a different activity each week (bowling, kayaking, cycling), as well as kayaking courses, dedicated young-people-only kayaking sessions, and training for qualifications.

Play is core to Laburnum’s ethos, Deputy Co-ordinator Beth Ettinger says: “Everyone learns best through play, no matter what their age. That can range from silly play to structured, developmental play. In this kind of environment you can support young people’s social development: young people let their guard down and build relationships much more quickly because activities aren’t viewed as authoritarian. They come back because they want to and, once you’ve got this engagement, you can focus on their social development, or training, or schoolwork, or whatever it is. It provides a stepping-stone.

“On the water, there is structured coaching and structured activity, but there is also free time: letting the young people play around, splashing, making up their own games or, sometimes, just chatting. Laburnum provides some free space that they don’t have in other areas of their lives.”

Hillingdon Young Carers support children and young people who take on the practical and/or emotional caring responsibility that would normally be expected of an adult, and who often miss out on vital services and support despite being entitled to them. As well as a school liaison programme, the Young Carers focus on fun as a much-needed respite and a way of overcoming isolation with its damaging effects on emotional wellbeing. They provide Saturday clubs, after-school clubs, holiday programmes, day trips, and weekends away.

BH is a young carer for his mother who has mental health issues. For the past year he has been a non-school-attender and struggled to leave the house due to anxiety and lack of family support and encouragement. As a result, his social interaction was extremely limited and his physical health was suffering. The Young Carers project identified BH, began liaising with his school, and introduced him to their summer programme of activities. BH took part in a range of activities, including a trip to “Jump In” trampolining and an overnight residential at Woodrow High House to take part in outdoor activities such as archery, agility courses, high and low rope courses and woodland walks. BH’s participation over the summer helped to boost his confidence and self-esteem, and enabled him to form new friendships. He returned to school in September and chose PE as one of his GCSEs, largely as a result of the physical activity he had done with the Young Carers.

Playtime over?

There are organisations such as the Hillingdon Young Carers and the Laburnum Boat Club in every borough of London, supporting thousands of young people every week. Many face an increased demand for their work and, at the same time, serious funding challenges that threaten their ability to remain open. What funding there is rarely values fun. Youth support funding has been cut drastically and the remainder tends to be focused on specific, targeted outcomes such as social action, employment and crime-diversion.

Earlier this year, the London Assembly’s Siân Berry produced London’s Lost Youth Services, showing that at least £22 million has been cut from council youth services budgets since 2011/12 across the capital. At the same time, there has been a shift towards heavily targeted programmes that give support to specific groups with defined needs and a move away from funding universal, open-access provision. The effect is twofold: a lack of early help for young people whose needs may not be immediately obvious or who may not meet intervention criteria; and fewer opportunities for young people, particularly from less wealthy backgrounds, to engage in positive activities with a range of their peers through community youth organisations.

At London Youth we have looked at the impact of youth work on inclusion, in conjunction with our members and key funders such as City Bridge Trust, BBC Children in Need, and the John Lyon’s Charity. Our report concluded that too few funders valued the outcomes of “fun and friendships” highly enough or fully appreciate the role that play has in a young person’s development.

It concerns me that youth organisations may, in response to funding trends, start to edit their own narratives and become nervous of championing broad access and fun. Of course, targeted programmes for employment, community involvement and crime-reduction are important. Employment is critical not only to our economic future but to individuals’ emotional and physical wellbeing. Yet the focus on targeted outcomes must be balanced with the capabilities needed to achieve them: we shouldn’t forget that fun is also essential to enable young people to thrive.

There are some encouraging signs, including the Youth Investment Fund (part of the Big Lottery Fund), which has been set up to support local youth provision in disadvantaged areas, including in east London. We hope that increased focus can begin to build a better understanding and a stronger narrative around the case for public investment in all-round development of young people’s capabilities. The provision of spaces within our communities for young people to develop through play, delivered outside the formal setting of school, should form a key foundation of public policy.

At London Youth we will continue to champion open-access, diverse provision for play as vital to learning, confidence, resilience, self-esteem and personal development. Policymakers should be urged to think about youth settings as a locus for young people’s personal development beyond the predominant focus upon schools. Fun is at the heart of good youth work: it helps young people to thrive and to be the best they can be.

  • 22 Whitebread, D. (2012). The Importance of Play. University of Cambridge.
  • 23 John and Whenny (2004).
  • 24 Lester, S., & Russell, W. (2008). Play for a Change. London: National Children’s Bureau. NICE (2010). Preventing Unintentional Injuries Among Under 15s: Outdoor play and leisure consultation draft 2010. London: NICE. Coalter, F. & Taylor, J. (2001). Realising the Potential of Cultural Services: The case for play. London: Local Government Association.
  • 25 House of Commons Education Committee (2011).
  • 26 Whitebread, D. (2012). The Importance of Play. University of Cambridge.
  • 27 See also Seldon, A. (2011, 18 September). Schools should develop children’s character, not just their ability to pass exams. The Guardian.