One thing about playing outside, is that you are inevitably faced not only with the elements, but with the weather and the seasons. These shape hugely what ingredients go into the play environment; what’s on offer to children. This can be a humbling experience for playworkers, as on these outdoor projects we feel more sharply how little we can control the play environment, and how vulnerable we are to the weather and seasons.

On the one hand, winter brings with it a whole spectrum of potential play experiences which just aren’t available during the summer: cold temperatures, frosts, ice, endless possibilities of water play in the rain; puddles, streams and mud; the bright moldable tactile aerodynamic quality that snow brings, and, when it’s twilight or dark, the very different and exciting world of playing with various sources of light, including the mesmerizing primal element of fire.

On the other hand, while being wary of sounding like a wet blanket, we have been faced with the practical difficulties that such a change in season brings. Often children simply are not being let outside to play when it’s really cold or wet or dark (or sometimes they just don’t want to go out themselves!). While we do our best to show the small faces watching from windows that playing is something that happens in all seasons, there are times when there is only so much of our own playing, reflecting and planning that can be done before we admit that, despite our warm socks and gloves (and sometimes hot water bottles too) we are simply too cold to go on, especially in the absence of any children to keep our spirits high.

Without bumping up against the world of hard rain, wind, snow and bitter cold, how would humans have ever built shelters and lit fires? While the drive towards Recapitulative Play might exist latently inside all children, how many get the chance to engage in this kind of play because they are driven to it by the urgency of actually finding themselves in a cold rainy windy dark place? The ‘play zoned’ spaces we work in, small and often physically barren pockets in amongst large housing blocks, may not be the best environment for this kind of play, with few traces of nature and limited possibilities for loose parts. But how many of these young people have the opportunity to wander in a forest?

We saw the numbers of children coming out to play drop off since autumn moved into winter, with most sites still having a small handful of die-hard fans who’d come out rain or shine, albeit it twilight or under a night sky.

At one site smaller more delicate play started happening when it got really dark. Tea candles were lit and formed circles in little holes cut from the earth, with golden fabric spread around the outside, transforming the space into feeling almost ceremonial; reflecting the reverence with which the fire was treated, while the children huddled around, immersed in the flame while feeding it slowly with small shreds of paper.

At another site, sparklers proved a great success, and gave children the opportunity to learn how to light matches safely and with care. It is perhaps unsurprising that in our society where it is unusual to have direct experience of lighting fires for everyday heating or cooking needs, and at the same time there are many horror stories about children and burns, that many children have little understanding of how fire works, and need to strike and hold a match many times before figuring out that the flame burns upwards, and which angle to hold it at so it neither goes out nor burns their finger and thumb.

Into the heart of winter, as afternoons got darker and darker, we moved some sessions to Saturday daytimes instead of after school, as we found children were less likely to come out when it was already starting to get dark at the beginning of a session. We have found we need to be mindful of not offering children a misleading sense of protection after dark. We need to respect that they are the experts about their own estates, and work gently to encourage playing out whilst also trusting families judgement about when it is not safe to come out. We have to remember that we work within a complicated ecological system, where play is one of many needs, and that our work is a process of listening, reflecting, and providing a mentality and space in which children can confidently push forward to make their own change. This is a slow and ongoing process.

*quote by John Ruskin