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My Journey: Sarah Parker, Play Out Hartlepool

Play Out Hartlepool CIC exists to promote the importance of outdoor play for everyone. It is run by Sarah Parker and her vision is to:

  • Help and encourage local children, families and young people to play outside for all the amazing health benefits, developmental growth and fun that brings.
  • Give children, families and young people experiences in their local green spaces to grow our community’s knowledge of and love for nature.
  • Grow an appreciation for play in our town.

Sarah, tell us how and why you started Play Out Hartlepool.

I’ve been a qualified teacher since 2005, and had 4 kids in that time, the first being twins. I took some time off to raise the kids and moved to doing long-term teaching supply work. It was Covid that made me reevaluate where I was professionally, and what was good for children developmentally.

During Covid we did a lot of outdoor learning with my kids, and I was concerned there weren’t other children outside other than mine. When the kids went back to school and I returned I noticed there were a lot more overweight children, and I wondered if it was because they were not as active outdoors as much. Through consultations with local parents I unearthed a lot of local issues about outdoor play, the lack of confidence parents had in it, and the lack of green spaces, with no gardens, just yards to play in. Also, the quite formal nature of education means children don’t always get to learn through play as much as they would like to. That learning would take place within 4 walls and a whiteboard.

People also haven’t got equipment for outdoor play such as wellies and waterproofs. If it was rainy or cold they would think it wasn’t a normal thing to go outside. So it was then that I thought I’d like to do something more about this, address these issues, and help people.

I spoke to Julie at Hartlepower, one of my directors, and she thought I had a good idea in Play Out Hartlepool, so I thought I’ll run with it and see what happens. I registered in July 2021 as a CIC and got some funding from the NHS Resilience Fund for the following school year. I did some outdoor play work in schools, set up a playgroup, and it’s gone from there.

What’s the response been like?

Lots of people love it as an idea, say “that’s brilliant” and reminisce about their own childhood and the freedoms they had. Children nowadays don’t have that freedom. We’ve done a lot of surveys with parents and their children’s playing out habits. Kids just don’t have the independence that our generation did. I used to go out from age 9/10 for hours without my parents. Parents nowadays don’t feel confident letting their children walk to school by themselves, and there is evidence children need to build confidence gradually. When they get to 14/15 we expect them to be independent and yet they haven’t managed the small levels of risk running up to it.

Parents would say “I wasn’t sure if my child was able to climb on this thing but I can see others doing it so I’ll let them”. There has been lots of positive feedback about the post Covid interactions between children, many whom have been on their own for 12-18 months. In schools, teachers have given feedback saying “they’re a different child playing outdoors with you compared to in the classroom.” They’re developing skills to interact in different ways, and developing different levels of creativity. Kids who’d been disruptive in the classroom had developed leadership skills, they were organising other children, showing imagination and thinking outside of the box. We’re realising these children are capable of doing these things but not in the right environment. Really positive stuff.

We work lots in areas of Hartlepool that need a lot of investment, there is poor housing and no green spaces. Recently we have been trying to support parents to set up ‘play streets’ which are temporarily closed to traffic so kids can play, but it’s also meant people have enjoyed community engagement, with play and fun for everyone. We run a multi-generation session in an old people’s home with the older people joining in. So often we interact and work in bubbles of the same ages or interests, but by running sessions like this, it’s been really good for people’s mental health and got different generations to mix and interact, which reduces isolation and helps people to understand people who are different to themselves.

Our Play Streets scheme is part of a national network set up by a group of parents in Bristol who started off with just putting some wheely bins across the road. They helped me get going in Hartlepool with things like templates for the Council to arrange road closures. That’s just one arm of what we’re doing and it’s really great to support residents with this. But what if you’re not part of a street that does that? I travel around and try to encourage people that getting outside is really vital for your mental health, but also try to make the play ideas really accessible so you can do them yourself near your own home.

For some people getting outside is a really big deal. They may face high anxiety, have young kids and struggle to get somewhere on time. Just travelling 15 minutes somewhere versus just outside, for some it’s a big deal. We’re getting people to the beach who’d never been, taking family groups to the beach on public transport, so they can gain the confidence to do it themselves. There are loads of people who rarely go, for financial, mental, and cultural reasons.

What is the social mission of Play Out Hartlepool?

We want people to understand and be enthused by the idea that playing outside is really important. Accessing green spaces is really important. And they can do it for themselves. We’re running these micro groups, but also communicating to councils and schools there’s a huge mental health crisis in children, and it’s actually really easy and inexpensive to promote and improve mental health through playing outside.

How many staff do you employ?

It’s just me! We are advertising for a post at the moment though, and do have 4 volunteers.

What are your funding and income sources?

We’re 50/50 grants versus meeting our own costs. So we do rely on some grant funding but are trying to build the contracts side to become more self-reliant. LARCH been really helpful, providing new ideas. I’ve been working with Ruth from LARCH and found it invaluable as another sounding board, both for ideas and how to organise things. Ruth’s been fantastic at being someone to chat through things with, especially as I’m working on my own.

What are your plans for the future?

Having talked with LARCH, we’re now hoping to develop a wider volunteer base, and provide training for volunteer with opportunities for them to gain valuable experience. We’re developing different products to sell such as training, CPD qualifications to sell to schools and councils, and outdoor courses for children in schools based around curriculum areas such as maths.

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned since starting your journey?

There are so many! When I started out I didn’t know anything, but have realised that relationships are the key to everything. Being able to talk things through with people, networking and people helping you out and giving you advice. Also start as you mean to carry on, set a standard at the beginning and make sure it’s high, both morally and ethically.

Do you have any regrets or mistakes made you’re willing to share?

When I first started out, and even until fairly recently I struggled with pricing events and also with calculating how much time I spend doing things. It meant I often underpriced things or events take much longer to prepare for than I have allowed in terms of pricing. Making sure I have included everything when pricing and being realistic about how long things take to prepare and set down from is really important. If not I end up working crazy hours and not getting very much for it!

What would you say to someone else considering starting up a social enterprise in the Teesside area?

They should find their local support organisation, find your local experts. I wouldn’t have been able to do this if it wasn’t for them.

Describe what a typical day looks like for you.

I have 4 kids so I wake to my alarm or a child! I get 4 kids ready for school and then will pack my car full of equipment to do a session. This usually involves mess, paint, mud and energy! Oh and lots of chalk, so end up with lots of clothes covered in mess! I’ll probably eat lunch on the go, something quick and snacky. The afternoons might be more of the same or possibly meetings and planning, then pick the kids up and cook the tea. I do lots with my local church, so my evenings might mean I have 20 people at my house for tea some nights. Me and my husband enjoy watching box sets and I enjoy my allotment too, and spend 5 hours there at the weekend. I also have 4 guinea pigs and a chicken to look after too.

How has LARCH helped you on your journey?

Whilst I had a lot of understanding about child development and was really passionate about what I wanted to do, I didn’t have a very good grasp about business. I found it very scary the financials side of things. When you apply for funding or contracts there was terminology and things I didn’t understand like projections. They terrified me a little bit, to the point where I’d put off thinking about them. I was more reactionary rather than thinking really clearly. Thanks to support from LARCH and learning about the financial side has really given me more confidence to apply for bigger funding pots. I now have the financial language skills to clearly express what I’m doing.

Our thanks to Sarah for her time giving us this interview.

To find out more about Play Out Hartlepool visit their Facebook page.

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