By Morgan Leichter-Saxby
Whether you first heard of adventure playgrounds a decade ago, a week ago or right now, it's increasingly likely that pictures like these will show up in your inbox or Facebook feed. There are images of historical adventure playgrounds, like this one of Copenhagen in the 1950s, and a recent documentary by Erin Davis simply called The Land.
The organization I helped found, Pop-Up Adventure Play, clocked 11,000 miles traveling to create temporary sites, called pop-up adventure playgrounds, all around the USA, and published a book on the experience. These sights and stories have resonated with parents, teachers, designers and community organizers all around the country, and world. They offer powerful inspiration in the fight against anxiety, high-stakes testing, medicalization of difference and more, because they highlight children's resilience, freedom, capacities, bravery and imagination. For many adults, one question (among many) rises, How on earth do you STAFF a place like this?
"Welcome to playwork, the decades-old approach to supporting children's self-directed, freely-chosen play without judgment or agenda."
We have a set of professional principles, and degree programs up to PhD level. Playworkers operate in adventure playgrounds, but also schools, public housing, hospitals, shelters, and anywhere else children can be found. The philosophies and practices of playwork are incredibly helpful for anyone interested in improving children's chances for adventurous play, as is information on risk/benefit assessments and an understanding of the difference between risk and hazard. You can learn more about the essentials of playwork practice at our introductory workshop in Philadelphia on August 12th.
The Extraordinary Uses of Scrap
At traditional adventure playgrounds, materials and tools stay out and offer children a long slow process that they can return to day after day. To introduce these ideas to a wider and more international audience, we developed the pop-up adventure playgrounds, bringing as much of the spirit and freedom of a traditional adventure playground into public space. These are free, public celebrations of child-directed play, staffed by volunteers and packed with lots of recycled and ordinary materials, such as cardboard boxes, fabric, tape and string. Our use of scrap is intentional, both because it keeps organizers costs down and because it reminds everyone that you don't need to spend money to have a wonderful time.
"For many, there is something immediately familiar and 'gettable' about cardboard boxes."
Parents will recollect Christmas mornings when their children played with the box longer than its contents, or recall their own childhood afternoons spent building forts in the living room, yard or abandoned lot. These memories are powerful enough, but during all-community events something extraordinary happens – people play together. Since the first one, in New York City's Central Park (2010), they've been held in more than a dozen countries around the world and cities including Shanghai, Bogota, Mexico City and Cairo. Each is different, and yet in each children and their families are able to, quite literally, build community through play.
Forts, Dens, and Hand Drawn Signs
Children usually start with individual box forts, or dens using bamboo poles and fabric leaned against a tree. Then as numbers slowly increase, roads develop. At one event in London, there were so many children building or riding scooters, that a spontaneous traffic jam developed! Others may drag their materials off into the site's corners for a more frontiersy experience.
"The creativity is real, as is the thriving, bustling village built to a children's vernacular, that rises, thrives and is gone by the afternoon."
Depending on the ages or the children, and whether their parents are there, they might build shops or homes, clubhouses or theatrical stages. Places evolve and are reclaimed by the next wave of inhabitants, so in the course of one afternoon a box fort might become built, decorated and abandoned before being absorbed by its neighbor for conversion into a long tunnel maze. Hand drawn signs may read “keep out” or “free pizza”. The chandeliers may be made from egg cartons but the creativity is real, as is the thriving, bustling village built to a children's vernacular, that rises, thrives and is gone by the afternoon.
Guest writer Morgan Leichter-Saxby is co-founder of Pop-Up Adventure Play, an nonprofit organization that applies the principles of the UK-based field of playwork in schools, neighborhoods, museums, parks, and anywhere else that children can be found. Morgan has been in the playwork field since 2007 and has worked in diverse settings around the world. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Community Design Collaborative.