Youth workers and VGC dispute future of Flanders’ playgrounds

It’s July, and the kids are at the playground. But instead of running around or playing on the swings, they’re working on an assignment given to them by their teacher. There are no summer breaks here, no holidays: only an endless cycle of study for all 12 months of the year.

“That’s what we’re afraid will happen under the new regime,” says Bert Breugelmans from Vlaamse Dienst Speelpleinwerk (VDS), an organisation that trains and advises playground workers in Flanders.

The issue revolves around eight playgrounds in Brussels. Until recently, they were managed by the Flemish Community Commission (VGC), the local representative of the government of Flanders. Since 2005, youth workers trained by the VDS have facilitated summer programmes on these playgrounds, including games and activities, and ensured the children’s safety.

From June, however, the VGC has decided to hand control over playgrounds to their adjoining schools and the role of facilitators to teachers. The change is part of an effort to improve the educational record in the capital.

By tying the playgrounds to schools, their focus will be on “practising the Dutch language in a playful but challenging environment”, according to the plan’s framework. The imitative also aims to “create opportunities to develop non-academic skills, counter loss of knowledge during holiday periods and reduce inequality, particularly among children from lower socio-economic and non-Flemish language backgrounds.”

For months, VDS has voiced its concerns over the plan, with a protest march through Brussels and a petition with 1,500 signatures. The basis of its criticism is Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises every child’s right to play time.

“The government has now made education the primary goal of these playgrounds,” Breugelmans says. “But you can’t solve the city’s educational problems by taking from children what little relaxation time they have. Playgrounds should be about having fun, not about forcing children to learn new things. Otherwise, it’s like having a school year that’s 12 months long.”

Like many of the youth workers, Roxanne Abels, who has worked at the playgrounds since she was 16, is unhappy with the government’s decision.

“I do believe VGC has good intentions and wants to tackle some pressing needs in Brussels’ education system,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s handling it the right way. Children need places where they can just be themselves without having to answer to the expectations schools might have of them.”

VDS has told the government and the schools that it wants to continue working with them on playground initiatives. “We might not agree on certain issues,” Breugelmans says, “but we can still try to give the children the best chance to play.”

Eighty or so youth workers now face the prospect of having no job this summer. Despite their experience and commitment, Abels says, they feel left out of the decision-making process.

With some fellow youth workers, she is trying to contact schools to see if they would be interested in employing them as volunteers.

“We’re looking for a school with a vision of playing and free time that matches ours,” she says. “We’ve strived to improve our playgrounds for years and were pretty much free to make our own decisions. This freedom has allowed us to create the best possible holiday for the children and volunteers.”

If it does not find a suitable school, Abels says, the group has discussed starting its own playground next summer.

Originally published in Flanders Today

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