Positive Relationships: Play Boat - All aboard!


One play provider thought beyond a bus or a truck and decided to offer children a unique form of water play. Annette Rawstrone reports.

Play has taken to the water in Milton Keynes with the launch of a 60-foot narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal.

The innovative project (see News, 30 July) is the brainchild of Milton Keynes Play Association (MKPA) executive director Andy Grout who saw the potential of using the canal, a main arterial route through the city, to reach a wide range of communities. Through the play boat MKPA will take water-based play out to isolated rural areas and deprived communities in the three local authority areas of Northamptonshire, Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire, covering a span of up to 40 miles.

'The idea didn't start off as a boat but a truck,' explains Mr Grout. 'We were going to call it the "Mighty Junk Truck" because we have a resource unit that takes in non-toxic commercial waste which our membership uses in very creative ways for creative play. We pictured a big American truck with a loud hooter that would go around the estates, but we realised that the vehicle would not get into the spaces that we wanted. I was looking at a map, saw the Grand Union canal that goes all the way through Milton Keynes and is protected by a green corridor, and thought we could also go above and beyond delivering equipment by utilising the canal and offering play opportunities alongside it and on the boat itself.'

The narrowboat, punningly named the 'Funion Bargee', is funded by a Big Lottery Playful Ideas grant of nearly £250,000 for a five-year project. The 35-foot internal space can hold up to 30 children while stationary and can move with 12 children, although it is not intended to be a trip boat. Mr Grout says, 'The idea is for it to be a different space for children to be in. Most of the time it will be static, moored in different places against the side of the canal, and children will come aboard.'

MKPA works with children aged four to 14, but the boat is intended as a resource for the whole community, with play activities offered to younger children and their parents in association with the Pre-school Learning Alliance. There is also the opportunity to use it as a training space for volunteers.

Activities On and Off

The bright purple and white boat was launched last month, in time for the summer holidays. It has already proved a hit with children.

'They think it's fantastic,' Mr Grout says. 'A lot have never been on a narrowboat, so it's quite an experience for them. They've also never been so close to the water and wildlife either. The other day we had the boat's side doors open and the children could peer out and see ducks close up.

'It's another area of play for them. They can have safe play around the water margins because they can see the wildlife and learn about conservation. We can moor up close to wildlife, do scavenger hunts off the boat and bring things back to do activities on the boat, or moor by woodland and do den building, or arts and crafts activities on the boat. There are great opportunities for interaction between the boat, canal and green spaces around.'

The boat also has the backing of SkillsActive, the sector skills council for active leisure and learning. SkillsActive chief executive Stephen Studd says, 'The key thing about play is to create a stimulating and different environment for children. The boat in itself is very stimulating and something that children will love. It will bring children into the outdoors, bring the canal alive and have activities onboard too. The challenge is going to be controlling the interest.

'Where SkillsActive steps in is the staff and people who supervise and create the activities. What goes on inside the boat coupled with the facilities and well-qualified staff is the key.'

The crew are all playworkers who are now trained in an area they never envisaged - boat handling. Mr Studd says, 'Over the years, playworkers have been very enthusiastic at picking up new skills. It is a profession that responds well to new ideas and skills. This is the lifeblood of the sector. Becoming helmsmen will just be taken in their stride.'

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