A CARDBOARD box can be transformed into a castle, a stick into a sword, and a rock into a mountain – all it takes is a little imagination.

Founded in 1974, Oxfordshire Play Association has always been about “play for play’s sake”.

And Meryl Smith knows this better than anyone as she was the organisation’s chairwoman for 35 years.

Ms Smith said: “When it started in the 1970s, people felt that children’s play and support for people providing children’s play was very important.

“There was much more community ownership of playtime.

“Most schemes or clubs were organised and run by the community and volunteers.”

Since then, with the rise of child care qualifications and health and safety concerns, things have changed.

Ms Smith, 65, said: “Now it’s all linked to education and health, and much more regulation has kicked in.”

The OPA’s new chairman is Oxford city councillor Mark Lygo.

He said: “This is a very big year for OPA – we have 10 activities planned across the county.

“What we want to do its advocate the message that play is fun and free.”

Banbury Cake:

  • Famida Aslam and Hayley McDowell in their cardboard box

The dad-of-two added: “These days too many children will stay indoors playing on computer games all day.

“We’re trying to make it as easy and low-cost as possible to get kids outdoors.”

Wendy Russell is a senior lecturer in play at the University of Gloucester, and has researched the benefits of play.

She said: “Play develops different areas of the brain to help us cope with unexpected development and a complex environment.

“Playtime also helps us build attachments to people and places, which is crucial for health and creativity.”

Ms Russell lectures around the country, and said the OPA was one of the most impressive organisations she’s come across.

“They are very active, and their events are always really well attended.

“Funding is dwindling but they are doing really good work with what they have got.”

OPA provides accredited training for those who work with children and young people, as well as supporting existing play groups and organisations.

One such organisation is the Sunrise Multicultural Project, which helps ethnic minority children in Banbury.

Famida Aslam works at the project, and received her training from OPA.

She said: “I got my QCF – Qualifications in Credit Framework – level two and level three training in playwork. It took over two years.

“What they do is of great value to everyone, it helps us be able to care for the children.”

Ms Aslam was speaking at a weekend conference for child care providers, where speakers and workshops passed on new skills and techniques on caring for children.

She added: “It’s fantastic, it helps with health and safety and shows you lots of new games.”

Childminder Bernadette Birungi added: “I have lots more ideas of how to interact with my children now.”

The Headington resident said: “This is the first time I’ve been to one of these and it’s amazing. I’m learning so much, it’s so inspiring.”

While OPA has a small team of full-time staff, their work relies on grants and funds, as well as donations from the Friends of OPA.

Banbury Cake:

  • Martin Gillett from OPA lends a hand at the tug of war stall last year

Manager Martin Gillett said: “We’re constantly applying for new grants, anywhere and everywhere.”

He admitted that recent years had seen a decline in funds, but said: “Funding is going down but we don’t want to start charging for our events, we want to keep them free. It’s about finding a balance.”

The OPA’s main source of support is Oxfordshire County Council.

In a contract between the two organisations, the council funds up to 85 per cent of each student’s fees so that more people can afford to become qualified in playwork. OPA has increased the number of workers in Oxfordshire who have playwork qualifications from nine in 2012 to 34 in 2013.

The council’s early intervention manager Maria Godfrey said: “Oxfordshire County Council recognises the importance of play, and we do everything we can to support OPA.

“Play is so important to health, and it’s about bringing families together in a healthy lifestyle.

“Just simple things like playing in the park or going for walks together is crucial for relationships.”

OPA’s most successful scheme is the series of play days which ran over the summer last year.

Each day costs £4,000 to run and in the past has been supported by grants from organisations including the Ministry of Defence, Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council.

Play days which ran in 2012 saw 16,200 people visit. In 2013 this increased to 23,000 people. One of these was Dr Grace Clifton, who has since become a patron for the OPA.

She said: “ I went to one of their big play days in Didcot, which was absolutely phenomenal.

“Parents don’t realise that there are these resources and services that they can draw on.”

The mum-of-two from Abingdon said: “Play days are not focused on one age group, so kids from two to 16 can all find something to hook them in.

“They’re quite sociable, so you can meet other parents and chat. There are also a lot of professionals around, so if you’re a parent who is maybe struggling, you can find out what support there is available.”


LAUREN Bolmeer took her nine-year-old daughter Keira to a play day organised by the OPA in Eynsham last year.

She said: “I reckon there should be more of these play days, children get bored in summer holidays.”

Ms Bolmeer, 26, from Witney, said: “I wish there were more survival things available.

“There’s not a lot of places for children to go and learn those kind of outdoors activities. Those sorts of things teach them skills that they can use later in life.”

Banbury Cake:

  • Lauren Bolmeer and daughter Keira

Ms Bolmeer, who works at Witney College, added: “Keira loved it — she loves making things and activities like that.

“Older kids are harder, they need more physical activities than the play day had. They’re starting to grow up a little bit but still young.

“They don’t necessarily need to spend more money on the play days, they just need to get more people to get involved with their community.”

Banbury Cake:

  • Claire Barr with daughter Megan Broome, and niece Orla Briggs

Another parent at the play day was Claire Barr, who took her two-year-old daughter Megan and her three-year-old niece.

She said: “It was fantastic. Everything was brilliant for kids, and there were things there we don’t have access to normally.

“The kids loved it, we were there for about three or four hours. The play bus was there, the fire service were there and let kids sit in their truck.”

The Ducklington resident said: “We definitely need more, and not just in summer, it needs to be at other times of the year.

“It didn’t cost a penny, everybody provided the things for free.”

Echoing the OPA’s call for more outdoor activities, she said: “I do want Megan to go outside more — we have an iPad in the house which is great for games, but we would much rather encourage her to play outside.

“That way kids get some exercise as well as having fun.”

2014 schedule

  • Saturday June 28, Oxford Road recreation ground, Littlemore
  • Saturday July 5, Manor Road memorial park, Wantage
  • Saturday July 19, Tucker Park, Faringdon
  • Wednesday July 23, People’s Park, Banbury
  • Wednesday July 30, Chipping Norton School
  • Wednesday August 6, Garth Park, Bicester
  • Wednesday August 13, Cholsey Meadows, Cholsey
  • Saturday August 30, Southern Road recreation ground, Thame
  • Saturday September 6, Blackbird Leys Park, Oxford
  • Wednesday October 29, Leys recreation ground, Witney.