Resources Provocation paper

What if governance was more like an Adventure Playground?

Clore Fellow 2022, Vickie Beesley a facilitator, theatre director, and writer based in Scotland, explores governance in the cultural sector and how it needs a radical re-think – more akin to the operations of an Adventure Playground – if we are to cultivate an environment where anything is possible.

            As my Clore Fellowship comes to an end, the thing that stands out to me the most is that we are tired. Everybody working in Scottish theatre – and beyond – is so tired. Nearly half of the British workforce is at risk of burnout[1]; across the UK theatre sector, nearly two-thirds of women have thought about leaving the industry because their career feels too precarious[2], 28% of directors are seriously considering leaving because of ‘”terrible” pay and “unethical practices”’[3], and 45% of theatre staff in general might leave the profession due to bad audience behaviour[4]. Anecdotally in Scotland, many backstage and technical staff have left the industry already due to challenging working conditions, and many freelance creatives are struggling to find enough well-paid work to sustain a manageable living. It’s clear that the leaders of our organisations are exhausted too. One CEO commented to me that they felt like they were in a permanent state of existential crisis.

My job is great, but the timing of being in this role is terrible. I don’t sleep because I’m worrying about making sure the organisation doesn’t collapse.

Anonymous

Clearly the way we are doing things currently is not working. So how do we shift our leadership models to create something new? How do we innovate more, foster wellbeing among staff and freelancers, and create a sector where audiences feel welcome, valued and keep coming back for more? Enter the Adventure Playground!

            Put aside your knowledge of a regular playground with its slides, roundabout, swings, and safe, bouncy floor – a patch of ground curated entirely by adults. The Adventure Playground is different. Originating from children playing on construction sites and bomb sites during the Second World War[5], Adventure Playgrounds are seemingly rough and haphazard spaces. They appear on rugged patches of land and include no (or very few) set structures. Instead, there are loose parts to play and build with – planks of wood, ropes, giant tyres – and, because the playground belongs to the children, they are free to create and remodel it as they play. In BBC Radio 4’s The Imperilled Adventures of the Adventure Playground, we hear of children jumping backwards out of tree houses to land on crash mats below, children using saws and power tools to build their own structures, children playing with hens and spraying water at their friends with a hose pipe[6]. These are wild, energetic, and joyful spaces where “activities not usually condoned in other spaces where children play, such as digging, making fires or building and demolishing dens” is encouraged; spaces where the aim is to make children feel that “anything is possible”[7]. A place where anything is possible. Imagine having that feeling whenever you entered a theatre, gallery, museum or other cultural space; imagine working in a cultural organisation and feeling in your soul that anything is possible.

            Governance in the cultural sector needs a radical re-think if we are to cultivate an environment where anything is possible; doing things the same old way is not working. If we embed into governance four key principles that are central to the operations of an Adventure Playground, then I believe we would be one step closer to making our sector a wild, energetic and joyful place.

1. Play

At an Adventure Playground, “play is seen as an outcome in itself”, and the environment exists “for children’s innate capacity for imagination to bloom”[8].

            As Michael Rosen puts it, play gives “opportunities to invent, improvise, adapt, be creative with the world around you and with the world inside your own head”[9]. We actively encourage play in childhood because we innately understand its benefits. We know it makes children happy, we value that, and we recognise that it goes hand-in-hand with learning[10].  We learn both through the act of playing and from others playing alongside us[11]. The brilliant news is that this learning from play does not end when childhood ends, it is a lifelong perk. So much entrenched thinking comes from white supremacist culture. It tells us there is one right way of doing things, that the binary is to be trusted and that quantity is to be valued over quality[12]; this all contributes to the collective exhaustion. We need to liberate ourselves from this thinking if we want to not only survive but flourish as a sector, and create an environment where every individual working in the sector also flourishes. This learning begins with imagination because, as Chelsea Cleveland, Co-Founder of Hearing Youth Voices, puts it, “how are we going to create a new world if we can’t even imagine it?”[13].

            Our board rooms and leadership meetings should be full of play to enable imagination to thrive. We are so well equipped to do this as a sector – we literally make PLAYS. Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the USA’s National Institute of Play, states that the things creative people make “shift the tectonic plates of our world, changing how we think or do things, in ways little or big.”[14] We have an entire workforce of creative people capable of shifting tectonic plates. Artists need to be brought into governance sessions to unlock imagination through hands on creativity – role-play, dreaming, building, painting, sculpting, designing, embodying. If we bring play into governance we will uncover solutions and build “new paths the real world can follow.”[15]

2. Risk benefit

In an Adventure Playground, risk is seen as something to be embraced rather than feared: “Children should be encouraged and supported to encounter and manage risk for themselves”[16], and risk-benefit assessments are made ensuring health and safety requirements are met whilst also creating space for risky play.

Research led by Professor Helen Dodd at the University of Exeter discovered that adventurous play reduces anxiety and depression in children[17]. If children are given autonomy and allowed to take more risks in their playing then they “learn to manage unpredictability, to solve problems, and to make good decisions”[18]. Risky play doesn’t only refer to throwing yourself backwards out of a tree house; it includes social, creative and emotional risk-taking. With adults this could include operational, financial and structural risk-taking, too. As we take risks in a play environment, we are able to rehearse real-life situations, fail and try again without the fear of real-life consequences, and without our actions being widely scrutinised. Not only does this enable learning, but also we are able to practice our actions and emotions so that when similar events happen in real-life, the tension and fear we experience is reduced because our brains and bodies have practiced and know how to deal with it[19].

     Our boards and leadership teams should operate in a risk-benefit environment, having space to play with risk and then carrying their learning into real-life situations. A culture of risk-benefit and play should be embedded throughout our organisations, and in doing so not only would we come up with new and beneficial ways of working, but wellbeing within the cultural sector would improve, and we would create more resilient, less anxious cultural leaders and workers.

3. Community

Adventure Playgrounds are built for a community of children. Access is key, with any child being able to use the playground to its fullest at any time of year[20], and all the children have a say in how the playground is used and the right to modify it as they wish[21]. Adventure Playgrounds aim to be at the heart of their wider community, too, “supported and championed” by local people because this relationship is “key to long-term sustainability”[22].

A culture of what Mia Birdsong describes as “toxic individualism”, where we try to do it all on our own and in competition with others[23], is contributing to mass burnout. We are broadcasting to the communities we work in, strutting our wares in front of them, projecting our own agendas onto them and hoping a sustainable relationship will emerge. Clore Fellow Melissa Strauss’s AHRC research into governance in museums, observes that there is currently an “us and them” attitude that exists between people working in cultural organisations and the communities they are trying to engage with: “just using the word ‘communities’… implies they are out there, different to us…”[24].

We need our model of governance to shift. Thinking our current boards are exceptional enough to do this on their own is short-sighted. The idea of community care and structural care[25] should be embedded in the way we work; this is the key to long term sustainability. The people we are making work with and for must be intertwined with our organisations, with a genuine influence over what we do. We need to limit the amount of time spent at tables, shuffling board papers and using antiquated language. We need a more accessible way of doing governance – involving play, which is great equaliser, enabling everyone to contribute on the same footing, and working slower and in more interactive ways, so that a wider range of perspectives feed into our decision-making. This will put us in a better position for what adrienne maree brown calls collective and collaborative ideation where “it isn’t about having the number one best idea, but having ideas that come from, and work for, more people”.[26]

4. Playworkers

All Adventure Playgrounds are staffed by playworkers who are to be a resource for the children, and skilled in “the design, construction, modification and maintenance of adventure playground structure and features, to ensure the playground can evolve and change in response to the children’s wishes’’[27]. Whilst the children modify and co-create the space, it is the playworker who bears ultimate responsibility for safety, wellbeing and upholding the ethos of the Playground.

The work of Children’s Parliament has many mirrors with the Adventure Playground; children’s voices are important, they have stewardship of the spaces they meet in, and creativity and play are utilised to enable learning and expression. Co-Director Cathy McCulloch, also stresses that, whilst the voices of the children are of utmost importance, all of the responsibility for the running of the organisation, its output and impact, lies with the adults. It is not fair for children to bear the weight of responsibility, they should be allowed to be children[28].

And so it should be within our cultural organisations, too. A greater number of voices should be contributing to the governance of our organisations, but it is not fair to require all contributors to be weighed by the same level of responsibility; ultimate responsibility should lie with highly skilled, experienced cultural leaders. Opening up our governance does not mean we say yes to every suggestion that is made, but it does mean our leaders need to listen and respond to what has been said, offer feedback, be transparent about decision-making, and take responsibility for things that go wrong.

As we face multiple challenges in the cultural sector, now is the time to change how we do governance. We need to innovate, we need to find solutions that work for more people, we need to embed more voices into our organisations. The Adventure Playground, with its focus on play, risk-benefit, community and playworker responsibility, is an inspiration for how we could do governance better. Embrace it, and we could create a wild, energetic and joyful cultural sector where anything is possible.


Notes To Editor

[1] ‘Nearly half of British workers at risk of burnout: survey’, in Medical Xpress. March 29 2023, last accessed on April 14 2023, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2023-03-british-workers-burnout-survey.html

[2] G Masso, ‘Two thirds of women in theatre have considered leaving due to pandemic – report’, in The Stage. October 11 2021, last accessed on April 14 2023, https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/two-thirds-of-women-in-theatre-have-considered-leaving-due-to-pandemic-report

[3] M Hemley, ‘Third of directors thinking of quitting over working conditions – landmark study’, in The Stage. January 4 2023, last accessed on April 14 2023. https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/third-of-directors-thinking-of-quitting-over-working-conditions–landmark-study

[4] T Ambrose, ‘“I’ve been spat at”: half of UK theatre staff consider quitting over audience behaviour’, in The Guardian. March 28 2023, last accessed on 14 April 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2023/mar/28/uk-theatre-staff-audience-behaviour-abuse-drunken-theatregoers

[5] J McGuirk, ‘Sense of adventure: what happened to playgrounds that give children space?’, in The Guardian. July 3 2012, last accessed on April 14 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/jul/03/sense-adventure-children-playgrounds-architecture

[6] The Imperilled Adventures of the Adventure Playground, [radio programme] BBC Radio 4, UK. September 6 2021, last accessed on March 26 2023, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000zcf5

[7] Adventure Playgrounds: the essential elements, Play England. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/609a5802ba3f13305c43d352/t/60b8beb51b7c4d7e9ffdae86/1622720186909/Adventure-Playgrounds.pdf, pg 2.

[8] Adventure Playgrounds: the essential elements, pg 6.

[9] M Rosen, Michael Rosen’s Book of Play!,Profile Books in association with the Wellcome Trust. London 2019, pg 14.

[10] S Brown with C Vaughan, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Penguin Group. New York 2010,pg 101.

[11] Y Tyler, The Importance of Play in Adulthood and Childhood at TEDx Boggy Creek, on YouTube. October 22 2019, last accessed on April 25 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSx_csPHE0c

[12] T Okun, ‘White Supremacy Culture Characteristics’, White Supremacy Culture. 2022, last accessed April 25 2023,https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info

[13] ‘The Power of Play and Imagination with Chelsea Cleveland’, The Emergent Strategy Podcast, [podcast] Spotify. November 2022, last accessed on April 25 2023, https://open.spotify.com/episode/4DBIjpCxtcMRrfLf847RZg

[14] S Brown, pg 135.

[15] S Brown, pg 93.

[16] The Imperilled Adventures of the Adventure Playground

[17] S Weale, ‘Adventurous play boosts children’s mental health, study finds’, in The Guardian. May 20 2022, last accessed on April 25 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/may/20/adventurous-play-boosts-childrens-mental-health-study-finds

[18] ‘The Guardian view on child’s play: help kids be themselves’, in The Guardian. April 25 2021, last accessed on April 25 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/25/the-guardian-view-on-childs-play-help-kids-be-themselves 

[19] M Rosen, pg 173.

[20] Adventure Playground: the essentials, pg 8.

[21] Adventure Playground: the essentials, pg 7.

[22] Adventure Playground: the essentials, pg 8.

[23] M Birdsong, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community, Hachette Go. New York 2020, pg 3.

[24] M Strauss, Democracy at the Top, Clore Leadership and Arts and Humanities Research Council. 2022, page 12

[25] D Zandt, The Unspoken Complexity of Self-Care. October 17 2019, last accessed April 22 2023,  https://medium.com/@deanna/the-unspoken-complexity-of-self-care-8c9f30233467

[26] am brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, AK Press. California 2017, page 36.

[27] Adventure Playground: the Essentials, page 5

[28] Conversation with Cathy McColloch, on Zoom, April 5 2023.

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