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Promoting Play in Kerry

Play is more than playgrounds and it is not just for young children. An urban regeneration project in Tralee is making that their mantra as they rethink the idea of play and its role in developing social wellbeing.

 From urban play areas with no fixed equipment to a shelter for teenagers to hang out, the Mitchels/Boherbee Regeneration Project aims to give people the freedom to play and socialise in their local environment.

 Dolores McElligott, a Community Worker with Cork Kerry Community Healthcare in Tralee, leads the Promoting Play Committee which was established to develop a play strategy for the area.  

“A key factor in the regeneration of the area was involving the community. We had a particular interest in play and wanted the whole environment to promote a culture of play. Traditional

playgrounds aren’t the answer anymore as we now understand that children need less structure in their play,” explained Dolores.

An overarching principle of the regeneration is community participation and local ownership. The community participation element is chaired and facilitated by the HSE Community Work Department.

 tralee play web

The interagency Promoting Play committee, co-ordinated by Dolores, includes representatives from HSE Health Promotion and Physiotherapy Department; NEKWD, the Local Development Company; Kerry County Council; Kerry Travellers Health and Development Project; the Gardaí; St Brigid’s Family Resource Centre; Tralee International Resource Centre; and Kerry Local Sports & Recreation Partnership and Kerry Diocesan Youth Service (KDYS). The interagency collaboration and support of agencies involved has been crucial in the success of the initiative.

The committee aims to develop an awareness of play and promote its value. The committee is keen that the regeneration area be a playful area for all.

Dolores looked to Belfast for her inspiration, linking up with Play Board NI, a non-profit organisation in Northern Ireland that has been successfully promoting play for many years.

“When I started looking at the Play Board model five or six years ago, people thought I was mad. They thought that we had more to worry about than play areas. But play is so important for social and physical development. Generations ago, children played miles from home, now it is more likely to be just metres from their own doorsteps. They are not getting the chance to develop the skills to assess risk, test boundaries and develop their own confidence,” said Dolores.

According to Play Board, play is what children and young people do ‘in their own time for their own reasons’.

“Play takes many forms: doing nothing in particular, doing lots, being boisterous, showing off, being contemplative, overcoming difficulties; etc.”

In 2015 Alan Herron, Director of Play Board NI, travelled to Tralee and walked through the regeneration area and then met with community representatives and agencies in Tralee to highlight people’s right to play and reiterating how play promotes good mental as well as physical health and supports the development of social wellbeing.

“We started small, holding a play audit, looking at the area and how can we make it better to promote play and social gathering. Dr Niamh Cherry Moore of UCD’s Department of Geography also came to Tralee and held a workshop on Play in Regeneration Areas from her studies in similar projects in inner city Dublin. This workshop was invaluable in again raising awareness and creating a change in both attitudes and behaviour at the very well attended inter agency workshop. It really helped to broaden peoples’ horizons and those present quickly accepted that playgrounds are much more than a fenced off area. Information really is power.” 

The first phase of the Play Project is based around the Aras an Phobail site, the purpose-built integrated services building which also provides a base for local and government agencies to provide various services to the community. There is also some streetscape play features in adjoining streets and this May the Committee are launching a Regeneration Walkway which provides a way to help reach the recommended 10,000 steps a day to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The walkway uses local historical landmarks as counters and encourages you to increase your fitness and reacquaint yourself with the local historical highlights of the area.

“We were lucky to have Aras an Phobail here. There is a lot of footfall into this building, lots of open space around it that we could use. People of the local community feel a sense of ownership of this building so it is ideal for our play space,” said Dolores.

“It is all about giving the community a sense of pride in their environment. We have seen how playgrounds have been installed in various areas and then vandalised but that is far less likely to

happen in spaces that the community have been involved in. Murals and artworks have been painted on the walls by local youngsters and they have been treated with total respect.”

A street play event was held in the community space in July 2018 and its success highlighted the change in the way local people are using the area. Children are playing on the coloured pavements, etched with mazes and hopscotch and local workers are meeting up for an outdoor lunch or break.

“We wanted to get everyone involved. There were your old-fashioned street games and lots of water play. All the materials were very basic and inexpensive. It was about getting people moving and socialising without boundaries,” she said.

“It is vital that all plans and developments are inclusive and have the support of the community. Play matters more than physical developments and the built environment. Many people these days don’t have gardens so these public spaces are vital in promoting physical activity and play.”

The Promoting Play committee are currently working collaboratively with Kerry County Council and other agencies in attempting to develop a teen shelter in the area. A youth shelter is a structure designed to meet the social needs of young people - a sheltered place to sit and talk, ideally with wifi access.

“We recognise the importance of giving teens a place of their own. Usually, they are forced to congregate in groups in public areas and may lead to antisocial behaviour or people are worried

about the possibility of antisocial behaviour. But teen shelters are proven to work,” said Dolores.

The committee also arranged for 20 local people to become trained Community Play Volunteers. "This is the first time that this approach has been taken down south, certainly it is unique for Kerry. It’s all about going back to basics with playing, it’s about the right to play.”

For Dolores, the biggest change was in the way the council and other agencies came to think about play. “There has been such a change in culture over this process and a big buy-in from the council. You can’t underestimate the massive shift in attitudes to play and how we think about play.”

For further details feel free to contact Dolores McElligott at