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.
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