My neighbour's little boy, George, is three. He has a terrific imagination. The other day I met him in the park. He was playing "George and the Dragons". It was a simple game. He was George and the grazing gulls were his dragons.
He ran this way then that, uphill then down, flapping his arms and causing the gulls to take off and land a few yards away - only to be chased again. The game continued for 20 minutes, much to the amusement of the gulls.
George's dragon game seems a bit repetitive to an adult mind, but this little boy was in his element, laughing and shrieking all the way. Nobody had prompted him to play the game - it was his game and he was enjoying it.
Although he did not realise it, he was using his imagination, exercising his heart and lungs, building muscle and testing the co-ordination of his arms and legs. Play, however simple, is a part of growing up.
The value of play to the development of children and teenagers is well highlighted in research. Playground equipment suppliers strive to achieve a balance of learning and fitness along with creativity. Between writing this article and publication, the budget deficit programme and comprehensive spending review will have been announced and the future of Playbuilder will be known.
We have seen the Playbuilder programme bringing communities together in projects both adventurous and inspiring. Play schemes have been designed to provide physically challenging environments through the renewal and improvement of facilities. Such schemes have allowed youngsters the experience of measured risk taking, as well as drawing them closer to nature, improving fitness, reducing antisocial behaviour and encouraging socialisation.
In an open letter to the Department of Education last month, GreenSpace, on behalf of its members and partner organisations, requested the completion of the programme, saying: "The budget deficit programme and comprehensive spending review must consider the savings made against the loss of benefits to our communities".
GreenSpace believes the Playbuilder schemes have redefined the social position of children, placing them at the heart of their communities rather than the marginalised edges, redefining their lifestyles, replacing obesity and inertia with activity and fitness and isolation with socialisation.
"With so much already ploughed in and gained from these schemes, the hasty abandonment of Playbuilder is at risk of seeing two years' worth of investment wasted," says GreenSpace general manager David Tibbatts. But whatever the outcome of the review and the effects of local authority cutbacks, the value of play will remain the same.
Sheffield-based company Timberplay recognises that "climbing is a basic need in children" but all too often this urge is stifled. "Movement through play, and climbing specifically, is essential for a child's development. Taking and overcoming risks is very important in order to develop self confidence and motor and balance skills," says managing director Paul Collings.
"The Climbing Forest provides plenty of opportunities for personal development, tackling and overcoming one aspect of the forest before moving onto another. The opportunities for play are varied and dynamic. Alongside this there is the need to develop communication skills, negotiation and reasoning in order to effectively play alongside other users."
No two climbing forests are the same. Developed to meet the requirements of the individual project, the Climbing Forest consists of oak trunks planted vertically, linked together with rope elements - bridges, rings or spiderwebs. The forests are best housed among well-established trees, which can actually be integrated to enhance the play value of the equipment.
The Climbing Forest is just one piece of the company's bespoke climbing equipment. Others include the Timberwood Tangle and the Climbing Structure. Each possesses different features, thereby creating different opportunities for play and development.
A greater edginess is now expected in outdoor play, where acceptable risk and natural tactile elements are big factors in the design and installation of successful landscape-led playscapes. Wicksteed has added brand new, scarily high and challenging items to its Adventure range. Creating a huge impact as well as providing play and exercise opportunities, the sheer size of these pieces is likely to impress.
Also new from Wicksteed, and designed to make a centrepiece for natural play areas, the Tree House is also huge and features a tube slide, challenging climbing nets, lookout platforms and trapeze rings.
Still with the theme of climbing, Wicksteed's Pick Up Sticks is suited to rural and natural urban play environments. Quirkily angled, with twisted wooden beams intricately interwoven, this item has the added challenge of nets for balancing, scrambling and swinging.
The latest equipment from Caloo picks up on the ever-increasing interest in outdoor fitness. The company has put together a cardio-based exercise bundle suitable for wider community use and ages from seven upwards. With resistance being powered by user weight only, these multi-station units are designed for use by all abilities in a fun, social environment.
Central to Inclusive Play is a focus on sensory appeal and ease of use to appeal to all children, without exclusion, and to offer an uncomplicated and visually striking solution to inclusion in play space design. Following the launch of its musical Orbs last year, the company has delivered a timber version developed in collaboration with the Ecology Centre and also has "mini" Orbs to offer intriguing visual and sensory stimulation by rocking the tactile bowl.
At IoG Saltex in Windsor last month, Inclusive Play showed a new "wind-up" talk post prototype called Buddy. It uses secure wireless technology and a bit of arm power to allow children to talk to their "buddy" up to 50m away. The unit, in a choice of timber or steel, is expected to be available shortly.
"Breaking down social barriers for children with disabilities is crucial and this unit can go a long way to helping," says Inclusive Play managing director Jo Walton. "The finished product will host an induction loop and is set at the optimum height for a wheelchair user."
Play and fitness items can also be a form of art in the park, or in the street, and still provide elements for fitness and development. Now distributed in the UK by Jupiter Play, an architectural range from German-manufacturer Conlastic offers smooth lines and a clean finish in high-quality steel.
The range of small pieces is intended for any designed space, the items being used to punctuate a play area or stand along play points in street design. Some of the elements are also sculptural statement pieces, designed to provide an eye-catching component.
Back in my park, when George finished playing George and the Dragons, his friend Emelia, also three, arrived. Showing off his new social skills, George organised "Sports Day" - a game in which the two children raced around the playground to see who could swing higher, see-saw harder and, of course, run the fastest. Play is invaluable.
The Children's Playground Company knows that the playground develops into a theatre, with a stage where children are the actors. There is no director and the script is called play. The content is determined by the imagination of the child.
Creative Theme playgrounds are offered by the company, using Robinia wood - the only European wood in resistance class I without chemical protection. It is strong, durable and attractive. The company holds exclusive rights for Robinia play equipment from Sik-Holz of Germany.
MOVE IT - IMAGINE IT
Developed for six to 14-year-olds who have outgrown conventional playground equipment, Playdale Playgrounds introduced Movers earlier this year to provide a challenging play environment with a sleek futuristic appearance.
The range is intended to complement play areas of all sizes and aims offer multi-user play equipment that promotes social interaction and teamwork.
Based in Cumbria, Playdale designed the equipment to allow children to interpret their own ways of utilising each piece. Young adventurers can reach dizzy heights with the Rota Bounce - a bouncing see-saw that turns through 360 degs - or try out the Rota Rock raised platform for freestyle spinning and rocking.
With a little creative thinking, children can be surfing or skateboarding as they test their skills on the sporty Air Rider while the Mega Swing - Playdale's biggest yet - can send up to four children on a multi-directional voyage over shark-infested waters or a flight to far-off lands.