Dr Stuart Lester (1951-2017)

written by Wendy Russell

It is with immense shock and sadness that we report the sudden and untimely death of our dear friend and colleague, Stuart Lester, on Thursday 11 May. After many years working on adventure playgrounds in the northwest of England, Stuart went into playwork training, and then he joined us part time at the University of Gloucestershire in 2005, as Senior Lecturer in Play and Playwork, while also working independently. These words are my own personal story of 16 years of collaboration, support, challenge, discovery and friendship.

Stuart’s contribution to the play and playwork sector nationally and internationally is both unique and significant. He has been an inspiration to many, in his quiet, playful, subversive and life-changing way. Those who knew him talk of his mischievous streak, his sparkle, and also of his huge generosity of spirit. Many have spoken of his playfulness as well as his intellect, of his gentleness as well as his capacity to challenge our habitual ways of being in the world. He was indeed a quiet revolutionary, working as an advocate for children’s play both in academic and grass roots circles with organisations as diverse as local playwork and community organisations, the International Play Association (IPA), local and national governments, museums, zoos and heritage sites.

The first time I worked with Stuart was in 2001-2002, when we developed and piloted a quality assurance scheme for out of school settings in Manchester. From the start, we both wanted to do things differently. We were particularly aware of the limitations of measuring quality through rigid standards. Although we had to write the standards for this scheme, we used a framework (the Manchester Circles, now the basis for Play England’s Quality in Play) that acknowledged the relational and interdependent nature of ‘play environments’, and even threw in a few wild cards, such as this indicator: ‘There is a prevailing playful feel to the setting’. (‘How do you measure that?’ they cried; ‘you don’t,’ we replied, ‘you feel it’.) Since writing this scheme our ideas have changed radically, but the principles persisted.

A couple of years after Stuart came to work at the University, we worked together on a literature review for Play England aimed at updating the evidence on the value of play in order to inform the then developing English Play Strategy. This was published in 2008 as Play for a Change. It was at this point I realised Stuart’s amazing ability to devour ridiculous numbers of articles and books and weave them together to offer a coherent argument about the value of play for children. Again, we raised a challenge to traditionally dominant perspectives and overly simplistic cause-and-effect claims whilst also being aware of what the play advocates wanted to give the politicians. Other work followed, including writing Children’s Right to Play in support of the IPA-led campaign for a General Comment on article 31 of the UNCRC, and researching into the experiences of local authorities responding to the Welsh Government’s Play Sufficiency Duty.

Alongside this, he was a constant support and inspiration to our students, who nominated him for the student-led teaching award of Most Inspiring Lecturer in 2014.

In developing his PhD research, Stuart deepened his interest in continental philosophy, and particularly the work of Gilles Deleuze and those who have been influenced by him, including ideas from post-humanism and the new materialisms. I know of no other scholars of children’s play who are taking this approach, and it has been fascinating, if mind-boggling, to work with him on this. Most of these writers have little if anything to say about children’s play. Stuart’s great gift (or one of them) was to spot small everyday moments of playing and read them through these concepts and turn this into a whole other way of appreciating the value of the nonsense, ordinariness and triviality of play for being well. It became an approach that he used in his work with students, policy makers, practitioners and others. Stuart and I were due to return to Australia later this week to tour four states talking with politicians, parents, and a wide range of practitioners and advocates about these ideas.

Apart from his fierce intellect, Stuart was fundamentally a lovely human being. He was totally committed to his work advocating for children’s right to play and as a lecturer, always making time to speak to students and support them. But most of all, he was playful, with a mischievous sense of humour and a recalcitrant streak. We will miss him horribly. The world is a poorer place without him. Our thoughts are with Mary, Tom, Ben and wider family.

If you have a message you would like us to pass on to his family, please reply here or email us at wrussell@glos.ac.uk

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54 thoughts on “Dr Stuart Lester (1951-2017)

  1. Very sad to hear that Stuart Lester has died suddenly. A lovely man, a playworker in every sense of the word, and also an academic who rigorously questioned what playwork meant. And just great fun to be with. The floor could suddenly be electrified, and no matter what age you were you had to think laterally about how to escape to the next…well how could know what?
    He will be sorely missed by me and the playwork folks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such lovely words Wendy and appropriate for a lovely man who will be sadly missed by many. I worked with Stuart on Beswick Adventure Playground- Stuart was a pleasure to work with. I’m so glad I got to chat with him a few weeks ago after not seeing him for years.
    My condolences to Stuart’s family and friends who I’m sure are devastated by this shocking and sudden occurrence.
    X

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My academic journey into play started with Stuart’s ‘Play and Space’ module. I am so glad and grateful that it did: frankly, it changed my life forever. Thanks, Stuart.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stuart was one of life’s gentlemen. His work inspires so many of us and will be his legacy. But his greatest legacy will be the impact he made on those he met. He was a man of intelligent conversation, cheeky wit and had a soul filled with kindness and joy.
    How lucky for those of us able to call him our friend. His last visit to Australia 2 years ago made such an impact that he and Wendy were invited back to do it all again! My heart is breaking that he and Mary never got to make that 2nd trip together – his excitement about the trip ahead made me laugh, it will be my last memory of him. He had a childlike enthusiasm for life that was contagious. Heaven is s more playful place with him in it and the hearts of the many people that knew him have a hole that will never be filled.
    Love to Mary and the boys xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Shock and disbelief what a passionate Man of play and adventure. Worked and learned from Stuart at Manchester adventure playground aka mapa. you had play in yr heart and spread the word so children could play freely. fly high my friend condolences to your family you will be missed r.i.p Stuart xx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was shocked and saddened today to hear about Stuart’s passing away. I first met Stuart on Beswick Adventure playground about 30 years ago and then worked with him on Play and Adventure training. His style was gentle yet challenging and thought provoking. I hadn’t seen Stuart for many years but recently caught up with him at a WAC Board of Trustees meeting….it was good to see him and in just a few minutes I was reminded of his passion and enthusiasm for play work. Stuart will be missed but remembered for the contribution he has made to the world of play. Thinking of Stuart’s family at this difficult time…and sending love xx

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  7. I am so glad that I had a chance to get to know Stuart and find out about his special way to look at the world. We shared a breakfast talking about life, learning and our own children. My love goes to his family who were so important and fascinating for him.

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  8. Very sad to hear about Stuart’s death.
    He inspired a lot of people through his play work training in Manchester.

    My thoughts are with his family.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The past few months working with Stuart have been both fun and inspirational. He challenged my thinking in a playful and supportive way. I have so many more questions for him and stories I wanted to share. He will be sorely missed by the whole team at Eureka!
    Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this sad time xx

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  10. Such a shock ,well said Wendy , a tribute to a man I will miss for his sense of humour, his intelligence and his enthusiasm for Play , he will be sorely missed.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I would like to pass on my condolences to Stuart’s family for their loss.
    Stuart’s was an inspiration to everyone who worked with children. I feel very honoured to have had the pleasure of meeting such a lovely man and talking about children’s play and the thought provoking questions he brought up when discussing play. He will be sadly missed such a an enthusiastic talented man. X
    A lovely tribute Wendy. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I admired Stuart’s ability to totally bend people’s heads and take them on a challenging journey, but leave them feeling inspired, supported and thrilled that they had escaped from the land of the trolls with a mopister in hand. I will miss his friendly manner and thought provoking works.
    Sending lots of love to his family.

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  13. A very fitting tribute to both the man and the Playworker, Wendy. I was looking forward to spending some time with both of you in Australia in just a few weeks time. A shock and a loss personally and professionally, I’m sure, yet Stuart will live on in his research and written works.

    Thoughts with Mary and family.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Such sad news. We were so looking forward to seeing Dr Lester in Australia this year. A great loss to the sector for certain. A lovely tribute Wendy.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Such sad news. Stuart was a wonderfully playful person and really inspired me when I was at Gloucester uni. I remember Wendy having to clean up after a game with raw eggs in the new extension. Stuart seemed thrilled about the mess!! He will be missed. Condolences to his family.

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  16. Gosh what a shock! I met Stuart during the Manchester Circle years when he was delivering course after course in Manchester. I had never experienced such training before! I had not long set up my own out of school club when I started the training. I was staggered (I love using this word – a word picked up through conversations with Stuart, ha!) by the radical concepts around play. This along with Stuart’s lovely, friendly, humorous and engaging way of teaching – he quickly became a legend, and all my staff over a number of years accessed his Playwork training. I had so much admiration for him – I even followed him to Gloucester to begin a degree in Playwork! Which is when I sadly last saw him. What sad news to hear, he was such an inspiration to so many, I remember everyone on the courses ended up loving him – no matter how much he challenged their views. His ‘classes’ filled with a diverse mix of people would always end up filled with laughter, movement and interactive discussion – his teaching style, way with people, humour and mischievous spirit was incredible, unique and contagious. Stuart Lester was not only an inspiration, but made an actual difference to thousands of children’s play experiences. What a loss! May his work live on. A truly remarkable man – miss you 😦 xx

    Liked by 1 person

  17. With the loss of Stuart a light has gone out in the world and it is a poorer place without him. He always had a twinkle in his eyes and never failed to make me smile when he came into the office. I will miss him greatly. Please forward my sincere condolences to Mary, Tom, Ben and the rest of his family. Hxx

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I am so sorry to hear this sad news. What a man! The best trainer I ever met. Stuart opened my mind to Play in a warm and fun way. He challenged my attitudes before teaching and inspiring me. His obvious love of children and the high value he attached to play will stay with me forever. Thank you! RIP Stuart and condolences to the family.

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  19. Sincere condolences to Stewart’s family and friends. He was such an inspiring, unassuming, kind & warm person. We looked forward to every visit he made to Northern Ireland & he had such a great impact-which will always remain with me. Thank you! RIP Stewart

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  20. Thanks for the beautiful tribute Wendy. This is so terribly sad: a huge loss to all of us working to support children’s play. First and foremost my deepest sympathy and condolences to his family, who must be devastated to lose him so suddenly and so young; and to his closest colleagues: especially to you and Hilary and the rest of the team. I know you have lost not just an amazing colleague but also a great friend.

    I see Stuart as a thought leader in our field, bringing complex, often radical ideas from philosophy, politics and many different scientific disciplines to bear on simple but profound questions about childhood, space and what happens when children play.

    He had a wonderful knack, no matter how startling, challenging or exciting his ideas were, of never taking them or himself too seriously. He taught about the essential playfulness of human nature by playing and inviting us to play with him, without ever being patronising, condescending or selling his material short.

    Stuart delighted in understanding the world from perspectives outside the norm, shining new light on things that we thought we knew, or had stopped questioning. He helped us to see the world afresh and start our own new inquiries. He seemed always enthused to take us with him to the point where complex theories no longer seemed complex at all. In this, he was the best of teachers; infusing knowledge with a sense of wonder, but never obfuscation.

    His legacy is immense. I firmly believe the ideas that he has elucidated so brilliantly in his writing have the power to change the world; contributing to an understanding of children, their place in the world and their role in the human story that is substantially different – truer and more honest – than the one most commonly held.

    I‘ve lost a wonderful tutor and a lovely, supportive colleague and ally. I will miss him greatly. The world has lost a great mind and a pioneering advocate. His work continues.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. So sad to hear this, Stuart works got me through my SVQs and his insight to play was amazing.
    Thoughts are with his family at this very sad time. RIP Stuart

    Liked by 1 person

  22. So sad to hear this news. Stuart was such a lovely man who always took the time to encourage me, inspiring and challenging me to think deeper and change things for the better. A great loss but his huge contribution to play and playwork will live on.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. What can I add that has not already been said. So very shocked and saddened by these news. Our lives touched briefly when I was at London Play, International Play Association and most recently when Wendy and Stuart contributed to the book I edited, The Role of Play in Children’s Health and Development. I must confess that I did not always understood what Stuart was saying but went away reflecting. I suppose that sums up Stuart for me – making you think. I too send my condolences to his family, friends and colleagues, especially Wendy whose words expressed best what we all feel. Thanks.

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  24. What a shock to read this. A lovely tribute Wendy and my thoughts go out to Stuart’s family at this difficult time. I will think of him with a smile and feel good to have known him, even if it was only for a few minutes when he was signing out his keys from us here at Reception. He always had a gentle way about him and will be missed by all here at Oxstalls Campus. May in be playing up in heaven!

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  25. Such a wonderful fun , caring man. I did my level 3 childcare training with him. I’m in shock seeing he has passed away rip Stuart xx

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  26. Great sadness over the unimaginable loss of an ex-colleague and a good friend. Thank you Stuart for the play training memories. I wish I had a real ‘magic spell’. Too soon Goblin!
    My deepest condolences to Mary, Tom and Ben. Beautiful Tribute Wendy x

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  27. Stuart’s legacy will live on in the 100s, probably 1000s of playworkers he inspired His play course is still by a country mile the best, most practical,useful,impactful and most importantly, fun training I have ever been on and truly changed my practice. His support and challenge to all involved in play helped us to keep children at the heart of what we do. He will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with the family of this amazing man.

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  28. Such a sad loss. I was lucky enough to meet Stuart on a number of occasions and attend some of his training workshops.
    An intelligent, playful gentleman, he will be sadly missed

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  29. Stuart has given me endless support, encouragement and confidence over the years both as a student at the university and professionally. I can honestly say this man has had a profound impact on my life and in my work he is never too far away from my heart and mind. Moving and heartbreaking tributes to such a inspirational and lovely man. Wendy has described him beautifully and perfectly. A legend a gentleman and truly unique. I feel honoured to have spent time with him again recently and will miss his influence terribly.

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  30. Very sad news .. Stuart opened my eyes to play and Inclusion back in the 1980’s and he was my guru of play. I have very fond memories of the training, various presentations wow , You will be missed . My sincere condolences to Mary and family x

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  31. Such a devastating loss.

    Stewart was a hero. ..a champion in the world of play, but he was also one of the most academically rigorous and supportive educators I have ever known. He made me see the world in whole new light. And see from the many sentiments here that I am not alone.

    Stewart, you were a beacon. Your light guided and inspired play enthusiasts the world round. We will continue to see that light reflected in those you have inspired for years to come.

    Stuart, you will be greatly missed.

    Liked by 2 people

  32. A beautiful, eloquent and touching tribute to Stuart Wendy, who really was a star; unique, inspirational, playful, fun and generous with his time for others and in sharing thought provoking and challenging ideas. My heartfelt condolences go out to Mary, Ben and Tom for their loss at this sad time. I also send out my condolences to Hilary and Wendy and all those involved in the playwork team; losing a beloved colleague and friend so suddenly is heartbreaking. I feel lucky that I have happy and playful memories of Stuart; making tinfoil creatures in a wood, undertaking quests (which often involved eggs) and playing with complex theories deepening and questioning my understanding of play.

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  33. Stuart was such an inspiring influential man. His passion and knowledge of play contributed greatly to Traffords play strategy. Thousands of children will /are benefiting from the increadable work, passion of the importance of play that made this opportunity possible. I carn’t thank him enough. RIP Stuart and my condolences to his family x

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  34. I first met Stuart when he was doing play work training around 1998, where he put me through my training in okay work and taught me the meaning of “Play” letting children take risks. The play team were amazing.. the plat schemes he supported us with.
    Stuart taught me so many games from den building, bridge making, newspaper games usually involving eggs or water.
    His grin was legend when you got it wrong but such fun. That’s what it was all about fun, enjoyment. He then went to do some work with Play England but kept his hand in still in Manchester. A few years ago Stuart started some work back at our Centre working with the team again and was great to see him. Hearing his amazing stories.
    I last saw him when he came to our big celebration at the centre to mark 25 years and it was a pleasure as always. More so that he remembers working with me and always remembered everyone he worked with.
    Play has lost an amazing person but his games/ and study’s are legendary. This will carry on with Play over many years to come.
    I would like to extend my condolences to his family.
    Shirley

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh how we will miss Stuart in our world of Play…. He was a gentle man, full of wisdom & passion… His wonderful contribution to Play will never be forgotten… It is such a shame that he was not able to return to Sydney again…However, he has inspired many on this side of the world and will continue to do so…..Such a devastating loss – life is so precious!

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  35. It is with a great sense of loss that we say good bye to Stuart.
    Barely a week goes by that we do not consult one of Stuart and Wendy’s, works on Play. Wales owes them a great debt for their work on the Play Sufficiency Duty, their research into the duty, called Leopard skin wellies, a top hat and a vacuum cleaner hose is one our most referred to works.
    Stuart was and will remain a true inspiration for us at the Conwy Play Development Team. Our thoughts are with his family and all those who knew him well.
    Rydym yn teimlo colled fawr wrth orfod dweud ffarwel wrth Stuart.
    Does dim wythnos yn mynd heibio heb i ni edrych yn un o weithiau Stuart a Wendy’s ar Chwarae. Mae gan Gymru ddyled enfawr i’w gwaith ar y Ddyletswydd Digonolrwydd Chwarae, a’u hymchwil i’r ddyletswydd, o’r enw ‘Leopard skin wellies, a top hat and a vacuum cleaner hose’, sef un o’r gweithiau rydym yn cyfeirio atynt fwyaf.
    Roedd Stuart, a bydd yn parhau, yn ysbrydoliaeth enfawr i ni yn Nhîm Datblygu Chwarae Conwy. Rydym yn meddwl llawer am ei deulu a phawb a oedd yn ei adnabod yn dda.
    Millie Boswell and Gareth Stacey

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  36. May I share a message from International Play Association (IPA)? Stuart was such a great advocate for play and was a real friend to IPA. IPA members throughout the world know Stuart from his writing, teaching and from the many IPA conferences and events where he shared with us his love of play. His infectious enthusiasm and sense of fun, spilled out in everything he did, while he brought new and deep thinking to his study of play which has influenced many of our members’ work in the field.
    Stuart co-authored “Children’s Right to Play- the Importance of Play in the Lives of Children Worldwide” for IPA and the Bernard van Leer Foundation. This paper played a significant part in the goal of a United Nations General Comment on article 31 and in that way made a real difference to the play rights of children around the world. In its final paragraph, Stuart and Wendy wrote of play’s unpredictability, spontaneity and nonsense. It would be nice to think we can uphold these qualities in a difficult world. With every bit of fun and nonsense we will remember our dear friend Stuart.

    IPA International Board and Council

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  37. Wendy.A fitting tribute to Stuart. I always enjoyed the times we worked together or chatted at play events. It is terribly sad that he has had less time than most but it was, I have no doubt, time well spent. We would all like to think that when we are gone we have left a legacy behind and Stuart’s influence, kindness and intellect will all be around for a long long time to come.

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  38. Stuart was an amazing advocate for children and play, I met him first when he came to the North of Ireland and he was such an inspiration, full of life and always a mischievous glint in his eye. Nothing was ever a problem when it came to play or the delivery of it. I loved listening to his stories and how he explained everything so easily, he was a gentle giant. He will be sorely missed, my heartfelt condolences to his family x

    Liked by 1 person

  39. Stuart was a gentle, playful, and radically thoughtful teacher. He had a beautiful mind. “A little nonsense, now and then, is relished by the wisest men”: Stuart, one of the wisest people I have known, certainly understood that (and perhaps relished nonsense more often than “now and then”!).

    I have been listening to Stuart’s old recorded lectures, and came across this bit, in which he humbly introduces the radical shift in perspective that he (and Wendy) gave to me and so many of us:

    “I would say that playing is a desire to see what more can be done… But it’s largely preconscious. It’s not a rational thought. It is a way of bodies moving restlessly with each other and with the materials in their environment. Now that’s quite a big shift in thinking that we have to make to get to that point.

    “But having got to that point, it may change your perception of things. It may change the way that you start to look at children’s play. And we start to become not so much focused on the type of play, or classifying it as ‘is this play, is it not play’ but more about looking at the ways that bodies, materials, symbols, histories and so on combine to produce that particular moment.”

    Stuart’s kindness and intellect changed my life; his teaching rewired how I see kids and space and play. I’ll be forever grateful for that shift.

    https://takeplayseriously.org/2017/05/31/not-a-bit-of-you-is-gone-youre-just-less-orderly/

    Liked by 1 person

  40. I’ve just googled Stuart Lester to see if he could recommend any play training and was devastated to read he is no longer with us. Stewart taught me everything I know over my first 4 years in playwork and if it wasn’t for him I and many others wouldn’t have half the understanding we have about play. He made his students feel like they were children again; back to being 6 and 7 year olds. Some of his methods had us falling about laughing but he always got his point across. This world is a much sadder place without him. No matter how long it was between one telephone call and the next he was always willing to pass on his views, recommendations and support. Stuart Lester – a gentleman with a heart of gold. You will live forever in my heart.

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