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The importance of playing with fire

Erin Davis filming everyday adventure play at The Land.
Erin Davis tells how the “mess and the junk” of The Land, an adventure playground in West Wales, inspired her new documentary. She’ll be here on Wednesday, August 12 for a Philly film screening and discussion.  

By Erin Davis

Several years ago I worked with two kids New York City and we did all kinds of things: read books, rode trains, museums - the works.  One afternoon I took them to The Imagination Playground and they loved it. I didn’t realize this visit would, in its circuitous way, result in my new film—The Land..

The Imagination Playground is The Rockwell Group’s multi-million dollar, groundbreaking play environment that opened in New York City in 2010. The space, carved into a busy section of southern Manhattan, has sand, water and most famously features a beautiful set of oversized foam blocks that kids can move around and use for building and pretending. These light blue blocks are called “loose parts” and dramatically expand play opportunities in the space. 

It was fun to watch. The kids were busy, they were moving, using their bodies and imagination to change the environment.  Research demonstrates that they were “learning” as well. Geometry, physics, spatial reasoning, conflict resolution aka “sharing” and collaboration, not to mention working out tension, anxiety and even burning a few calories. There were dozens of kids from all over the city active in the park having a blast.  

And lining the perimeter next to me, I couldn’t help but notice, were the caregivers.  A snaking panel of eyeballs surveying every move.  Maybe not obsessively and not even ‘hovering’ but the kid/grownup ratio was high.

I realized that these animated players in this exciting new space were missing one of the most essential elements that defined my own childhood play memories: Privacy.

They were being watched.  I wondered, and I still do, what it is for these children to have surveillance baked into their childhood? What would it have felt like, for me as a kid, if my babysitter was 10 feet away while we made mud pies and butt jokes in the back yard?  What is this control that we have over the children simply by witnessing their every move and how does it affect the potential for their play?  I was hooked.  And the hook dug deep, right into the gut. 

A short, sad history of the city playground
Playgrounds emerged in major cities at the turn of the century when industry brought families into the urban space from their rural homesteads.  Cities needed places for their children to play to keep them occupied during the day, but also out of the way of one of the greatest hazards to childhood (then and now) - traffic. 

Slides and climbing structures were tall and exciting. Staff known as “Parkies” distributed loose parts (before they were called such): balls, bats, jump ropes etc. and brought the items in at the end of the day.  As we all know, over the century city playscapes devolved.  The Parkies were dropped, as was the height and interest of the climbing structures. 

But kids, deep down, I will argue, are still basically the same as they were in those pre-industrial, rural days.  They are active, they are curious, smart and wicked, they enjoy challenges of their own creation. When given the opportunity and the proper conditions kids will climb, hide, build dens, make up stories, maybe practice swearing, take risks - they will build a world and culture of their own.

What kinds of spaces can our cities and towns provide to compensate for what their lives have lost - independence, freedom, privacy - as the world around them evolved and changed? The question stands as importantly now as it did then.  I found an answer in The Land. 

A mess, junk, and sometimes sunlight - a "glamour shot" of The Land.

Re-embracing the mess and the junk
I had read that The Imagination Playground was informed by something called “adventure playgrounds” in Europe.  As I looked deeper I began to hear more about The Land, a junk playground in a working class community in North Wales.  The Land embodies an interesting paradox--it both reminded me of the ways I played as a child yet stood in striking contrast to the landscape many kids face today. 

An eight-foot privacy fence surrounds its perimeter, hammers, goopy mud, and fire pits take the place of slides and swings. And at the heart is a dedication to the idea that children can and should control the content and direction of their own play; that they are capable of creating a play environment on their own. and should be supported in doing so.  Despite, or because of, the mess and the junk, the play I witnessed at The Land was familiar, it was raw… it was true. I attempted to capture it in my film The Land.

Here's a film clip showing life inThe Land, where kids master a handsaw, boil water, swing in a pipe, and, yes, play with fire!

The Land changes every day as the children who play there transform it. The play is vibrant and raw, and there are no parents present. Instead within the fence you'll find a staff of Playworkers, trained adults who support children in their play. They don’t wag their fingers or blow a whistle, but instead gently and mindfully maintain a supportive and enriching environment for kids to do what they do best: their own thing. 

It's a challenging and magical profession that enables for the kids something that is not exactly privacy, but it’s pretty close. This 'junk' or 'adventure' approach - with its mess and seeming lack of authority is counterintuitive and difficult.  But it is deeply informed by a rich history of considering children, their natural talents and the environments in which their play truly thrives.  

The staff and supporters of The Land know that freely chosen play serves the whole child. And that cities and neighborhoods that are safe and playful for children are healthy for everyone.  This philosophy informs them at every step.  In this, they provide a bold model for best practices towards which we can all strive. 

Guest writer Erin Davis is an artist, filmmaker, radio producer and educator living in Vermont, USA.  She studied documentary at The New School & The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, in the studio with Albert Maysles and in the field on films like The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant and Remote Area Medical.  Her radio work has aired on NPR's All Things Considered, WNYC's Studio 360, WBEZ's Re:Sound, ABC Radio National, Australia and elsewhere.  Her favorite game is catch. 

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.

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