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Celebrating Lady Marjory Allen

Our Chief Executive, Katie Ghose, reflects on the legacy of Lady Marjory Allen (1897-1976), who inspired our Lady Allen Playground in Wandsworth.

Lady Marjory Allen was a children’s advocate and a play pioneer who believed that disabled children should have access to adventurous play. Today, her legacy lives on through Kids.

A lasting legacy

From the inception of one extraordinary playground in London, the legacy of Lady Allen has been stitched into the fabric of Kids. The specialist adventure playgrounds we still run today, and the dozens of other services we provide, enable children with disabilities to have fun, make friends and feel free.

Speaking with colleagues, hearing of Lady Allen’s incredible work and watching some very special video footage of Lady Allen speaking over 50 years ago, it struck me just how much Lady Allen’s ethos, values and approach are very much alive today. Every day they are expressed in our belief that every child should have an equal opportunity to play, learn, grow and thrive.

We prize play – during the Covid pandemic, our nursery playgrounds were the only outside space that some of the youngest children had access to. Our short breaks workers push the boundaries so that young people with complex needs can experience real outdoor adventures. And our adventure playgrounds are filled with kids careering around, climbing walls or in a quiet spot on a log, doing what they want to do.

Lady Allen said, “All children need a place to play. They need space, informality, and freedom to move around and make a noise, to express themselves, to experiment and to investigate. Disabled young people need this freedom even more than others. In surroundings which stimulate their imagination and challenge them to face and overcome risks, they will be given opportunities to build their self-confidence and independence.”

She talks of being troubled that a large group of children was being excluded from this opportunity to play. “It was a gap that had to be filled,” she said.

Lady Allen said, “They can take dangerous risks and overcome them. It is a place where they can meet their friends. And where they can make new friends in a very free and permissive atmosphere.”

The inclusive and magical environment is the same today.

Our approach to play

Between the children and play workers, we create a safe environment that allows and encourages risk to be taken, so new challenges and interests can be explored. When recent storms took down a couple of trees on the site, our staff team made sure the trees were properly felled before the children came in. This meant we could then spend the session with the children sawing the trees down into logs of all shapes and sizes, and then further sessions using these to make insect houses, build dens and create a BMX course.

When the site also opens to the public for two hours of every play session, non-disabled children can come in and experience our approach to adventure play, and more importantly experience an environment where disabled children are the leaders, not the followers.

Lady Allen said, “The primary objective is that children will be happier when they leave than when they came.”

Fostering their own independence is key for our children’s happiness. One of the most tried and tested ways we’ve done this in the Lady Allen playground over the years is with bikes. We have bikes of all shapes and sizes with any number of wheels. It never fails to be an emotional moment when a child can finally push off and ride away on their own bike, accessing a feeling of speed and freedom that is entirely new and of their own making.

The importance of specialist playgrounds

My favourite Lady Allen quote: “You very rarely see a bored child here.”

That is as true today as it was then thanks to the dedicated team of playworkers who nurture each child’s own vision of play. In 2024, most mainstream playgrounds are still not accessible to children with complex needs. Specialist spaces are precious and our team are amazing at showing how to let go, to try, to be silly, be free, take risks and have fun.

I showed a government minister around a Kids playground recently. As we wandered around, we dodged kids on scooters, we followed a girl who invited us to play football and jump on a big swing, and from time to time children would come and talk to us. It wasn’t our space, it was theirs – and that was Lady Allen’s vision. In this spirit, many years ago, the kids decided that one of the hills on the Lady Allen site would be perfect to dig a tunnel through. So we did! And the tunnel remains there today.

Thank you Lady Allen for your plain-speaking, problem-solving passion for play. We are here to give all kinds of children and young people all kinds of opportunities, and we will carry your legacy on.

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