As the summer begins to wind down, so does the Play Lab programming that was organized way back in the spring. The main series of the summer has been Cardboard Playground, which feels more defined with each iteration. There is one more Cardboard Playground on September 10th, but have already started to reflect on the what and the why and the how of these installations. I can't help but draw connections between Cardboard Playground and two powerful pieces on play from the past year: writer Amy Fusselman's Savage Park and filmmaker Erin Davis' The Land.
Cardboard Playground has been the most visible project of Play Lab in the four years that Play Lab has been installing materials in community spaces. It is the first time I tried to get people to come out JUST for Play Lab; in the past, Play Lab has been a compliment to other community events like concerts and picnics. Each week in Bellingham, the newspaper puts out a section that recommends five things to do in the coming weekend: Two of the three events have been featured. This is exciting for me, and a bit anxiety producing. Play Lab is still mostly in my head, but something has people excited - perhaps it is the increased sharing of stories about play from large publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times. Each Cardboard Playground has had at least 50 visitors, with more and more repeat players with each installation. It exists because situations where there is nothing to copy, no rules to follow, and no specific product expectations are rare: Play Lab is an opportunity to just explore materials in a space that draws people in to play.
Although the execution is different, Cardboard Playground was inspired by my growing awareness of adventure playgrounds, most of which are in the UK and Europe. I revisited The Land recently and found myself even more deeply engaged watching the children's actions and listening to the words of the Playworkers.
Cardboard Playground does not have materials for fire-building, or a zip line eight feet up, but most adults still see risk. The balance between child-directed play and adult oversight is difficult to navigate, because it involves humans - basically walking variables. When children and families arrive, I tell them to “be safe”. But, I realize, my definition of safety is different than theirs. I am comfortable seeing a baby crawl under a large piece of cardboard, into the secret unknown space that exists for them alone under there. I bring first aid supplies to Cardboard Playground because I would rather a child have an amazing time and a cut on their finger than an overly structured experience with fretful adults who keep saying "no".
In the film The Land, one of the Playworkers talks about the difference between risks and hazards. When we take risks, we know that something is risky: we are willingly choosing to interact. A hazard, on the other hand, is something that we are not aware of in the environment, creating a danger that is less avoidable. A nail sticking out of an old piece of wood? I can remove that hazard. But, giving children a big pile of wood to create with implies other risks: splinters and thumbs hit by hammers and collapsing buildings. Do you see the difference? When children experience splinters and hammers and a lack of structural integrity, and they are given the space and time to understand what is happening and why, they learn from those experiences. Isn’t risk-taking the best way to learn about risk? Won't they have more awareness of avoiding danger from those risks in the future?
The challenges of a temporary installation like Cardboard Playground are overwhelmingly related to risk. Because children are not dropped off, their adults stay close by. Oftentimes adults create a construction with a little bit of child input; sometimes adults heed my advice on the signage, step back, and let the children take charge. Even this, though, gets a bit muddy: adults often cut, tape, support, change, and make things for children either without being asked, or far earlier than they need to. Dr. Alison Gopnik's new book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, addresses this idea, specifically as it relates to parents. A review of the book in the New York Times summarizes: "...children are such naturals at learning and playing and innovating that parents should just loosen up and let them do their thing. "We can’t make children learn," [Gopnik] writes, "but we can let them learn.""
That is one of the striking elements of Playwork and adventure playgrounds: the adults with the deep understanding of the balance between safety and development. Rather than be yet another place where children must do things a certain way in order to reach an outcome identical to those around them, open-ended play spaces are meant for discovery, exploration, problem solving, risk, challenge, mistakes, and development.
This may not sit well with everyone - and it certainly did not sit well with Fusselman when she was first brought to Hanegi Playpark, aka Savage Park.
“I looked up at the trees. I was astonished to see that there were children in them. The more I looked, the more children I saw. There were children fifteen feet high in the air. There were children perched on tiny homemade wooden platforms, like circus ladies dressed in glittery clothes about to swan dive into little buckets. There were children sitting up there, relaxed, in their navy blue sailor-type school uniforms, chatting and eating candy on bitty rectangles of rickety wood as if they were lounging on the Lido deck of the Love Boat. There were children in creaky homemade structures like this in the trees all over the park. There were children, preteens, crouching fifteen feet up on the roof of the playpark hut and then - I gasped to see this - leaping off it onto a pile of ancient mattresses.” (Savage Park, p. 37)
Risk and challenge and problem solving - these ideas are at the core of places like Hanegi Playpark and The Land. In the excerpt above, Fusselman also touches on the social layer that is naturally embedded in these spaces: children, connected with each other, in a place where they are heard, respected, and trusted. That is work that I have been unable to fully match (so far) with Play Lab. When children - and only children - are working together to create and manipulate and play and explore - they do not get sidetracked by an adult agenda. Both Davis’ and Fusselman’s stories highlight this intricate and delicate work done by the adults who are paid to work in these adventure playgrounds - Playworkers. These trained adults support children by curating the space (bringing in materials, creating play prompts, removing hazards), and by stepping back and truly letting children explore. When you watch The Land, you might find yourself gripping your seat as children make a fire in a pallet shack with a ceiling. The Playworker sits just a few feet away, exuding calmness and truly assessing the level of risk. An intervention from a Playworker is not an arms-flailing-and-yelling-stop situation. The Playworker watches, and understands that kids need to explore to figure things out. There are times to step in, and there are times to step back.
Cardboard Playground is, obviously, not a permanent, ongoing space where children can explore and take risks and start fires. Perhaps it can evolve if my community is interested. Regardless of the future of Play Lab and Cardboard Playground, there are still plenty of things that we most people consider “risky” happening at Cardboard Playground. The majority of the time, if a toddler gets a hold of a pair of scissors, they are snatched away with a gasp. A child with scissors is a learning opportunity - how can we be safest with that tool? There is a moment I love in The Land where a child is sawing a piece of cardboard that is wet and slick with snow. The saw slides around, the child keeps adjusting the cardboard and the saw, and I imagine that most of us would stop him from that work. But, remember the difference between a RISK and a HAZARD. When we are constantly after a child telling them not to do this, be careful with that, watch out for that, its sharp, stop that, do it this way - what is a child learning there? They are learning to avoid risk, they are learning that someone else will be around to regulate their behavior at every moment. They are told what the problem is rather than discovering it for themselves - and to step back even further, they are being told that a problem exists. The children at Savage Park and The Land watch out for each other, helping and supporting through play and exploration. Their connections with the other players is deep.
Many wonderful moments happen at Cardboard Playground that are “just right” for children - especially for very young children. The environment is prepared for exploration without hazards, and when children are left to their own devices, they have many wonderful ideas about what to do.
Although I might define the biggest “risk” at Cardboard Playground as scissors, they are an approachable risk. You can look that risk in the face and say, okay. I am going to model carrying scissors - children learn from the world around them. I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that a child with scissors is synonymous with a child being dangerous with scissors. I am going to stay in the mindset that this experience - whether they get hurt or not - allows a few more neurons to fire and connect in the “scissor schema” category.
Risk is a child using a tool that has the potential to harm her if used incorrectly. Hazard is giving a child an inappropriate tool that cannot get the job done, and the child may get hurt out of frustration. I have experienced this over and over again when cooking with children. Cutting bananas and strawberries with plastic knives to make a fruit salad is an appropriate cooking exploration for two year olds. Cutting raw potatoes with a butter knife? Not so much. When we step back and think about the decisions we are making to avoid risk, we are also taking away factors that will engage children; and if we expect them to persevere, those experiences won’t teach them about problem solving. We are the ones who gave them the raw potato and the non-serrated knife. We are the ones who have the opportunity to sit around with children in a group with raw potatoes, passing them around and asking, how might we make this into smaller pieces? In Early Childhood, at least, we have the time and freedom to do that. And as we do that, we are supporting children’s learning about how stuff really, truly works. They may suggest something they have seen in their home kitchen. Adults may also have ideas to help children expand, and because adults and children alike have experiences with food, there is already an entry to a dialogue. Glass jars for markers and hot glue guns for making are not hazards, they are risks: risks that can be discussed through dialogue and mastered through exploration.
Cardboard Playground is still an evolving idea that can never truly be replicated between sessions, mostly because of all of the factors involved. Different people come and go; the physical location of Cardboard Playground changes. The cardboard itself is a factor: I have observed significant differences in events when there is more very large cardboard available as compared to when I have only gathered smaller boxes and pieces. These factors of people and space and materials are never the same, keeping me, as a playworker, on my toes. I need to understand the possible risks and how far to let these little humans, most of whom I am just meeting, go with these tools and materials. I don’t like to jump in and offer “help” when people arrive. I say I am available, there are tools and materials. If I offer to cut duct tape or make a structure more stable, what learning opportunities are the children missing out on by me, quite literally, doing the playing for them? This is akin to what I say to children when they ask me to draw a cat or a person for them in preschool: but if I do that for you, how will you figure it out for next time? Fusselman articulates:
“Allowing babies, children, and young adults to spend as much time as possible with the lowest level of interference in the highest-quality environment we can provide for them - that is, an environment that we have not engineered ourselves and do not completely control, an environment we don’t fully understand, an environment that includes devils and angels and accidents and trees and swings and lunch - this is another approach. It also has its drawbacks, the major one being the pain of our own uncertainty and vulnerability, the process of making peace with the unknown, and the requirement that a noninterfering adult Be Here Now.” (pp. 87-88)
The Land, Hanegi Playpark, the forest, a friend's backyard, a city street: the world is a place full of new situations, even for adults. I am not suggesting that children do not need us or that we should not help them. But perhaps if we give children a bit more space and time, and we treat them as capable and trustworthy, we will all see more confident, playful, inquisitive children. You can't be inquisitive if everyone is telling you to stop, or if there is nothing novel to explore or do.
Favorite Playwork Resources
The Playwork Primer by Penny Wilson
Evolutionary Playwork by Bob Hughes
Planning for Play by Lady Allen of Hurtwood