Playful Planning, and Planning for Play

These days, most of my time is spent planning for play and creating play installations as Play Lab.  

It has taken me away from this online space more than I expected, but I'm thrilled that my work is to be out in the community 2-3 times per week, supporting children's explorations with open-ended materials.

The first community Cardboard Playground of the summer is this weekend, but I had my first "private" Cardboard Playground last Sunday.  I was at the Farmer's Market yesterday, with a play dough bar that was a big hit with kids of all ages.  I've just finished a run of drop in play in that studio, where we have explored everyday materials as toys.

Before working on Play Lab full time, I did not think much about engaging in play myself.  For classroom planning, I always trusted my instincts: if an idea popped into my head I would write it down and bring the materials and idea to the kids, letting them explore.  

In the classroom, there was more flexibility with the potential success or failure of a play prompt: If something wasn't working, we could simply sweep it off the table.  If it was deeply engaging, we would find a way to keep it around so children could revisit it.  One of my favorite (and most space-invasive) materials explorations was a weaving that began with a single piece of twine attached to the ceiling and taped to the table below; over the course of a few days more string and ribbons and tape and flowers and paper and little bits were added.  We had to relocate snack and meals to be picnic style on the floor, but that wasn't a problem - it was bonus fun!

With Play Lab, I head into the community with a plan for the playscape, but I do not know how people will interact with the space and the materials.  That classroom flexibility isn't there: if its a flop, I can't just pack it up and go.  That means I need to play around a little bit more and take a few tangents so I can be aware of the situations where children might need more support.  I want to be as prepared as I can to provide a positive experience for players.  That does not mean there are not problems to solve throughout the day - those problems are part of the play experience, embedded in this kind of play. If a child wants to make a hat from cardboard, it is easiest for us, adults and facilitators, to step in right away and make decisions for them, from design to execution.  We won't be as necessary to that process, though, if children have the right kind of support before that potential problem arises: an adult who can point out resources, or the way another person solved a problem, and then step back.  Knowing how much, and what kind, of support to give is different with every interaction, every situation.

Moments like the one in the video above are not situations that I can predict, but the interaction in that clip is in line with the opportunities I hoped to create when Play Lab began:  chances for children to take the lead and try things out, without an adult sweeping in prematurely.  I thought about that yesterday at the Play Dough Bar installation, also:  every child interacts with open ended materials differently, and when they take the lead, they are following their instincts and curiosities, making deeper connections to the stuff they're using, and the ideas and concepts related to their play.

As Play Lab grows, so do the play opportunities I can offer to children.  In July, I'm hosting a few summer camps at the Play Lab studio, which are structured more like the classroom play prompts I created during a decade of preschool teaching.  Perhaps selfishly, I'm using the opportunity to play around with technology, and ways for children to make it their own.  During a Playful Textiles camp, we'll tinker with sewn circuits (with conductive thread!) and I need an understanding of where and how things might be challenging along the way.  I need to play and tinker to deepen my understanding.

The same goes for the art and technology day camp.  We could all create the same scribble bot - or we can play and tinker with the components, prototyping and exploring.  This way the kids can take home their drawing robot, but they don't need to be attached to that specific product.  The components - batteries and a motor - can be discovered and explored, giving them a potential new life after its work as a drawing machine.  I had fun playing with components for an afternoon, and I was able to take it all apart as I tested, redesigned, and tested some more.

As much as there is to be done in a company that is only one person, it is essential that I take time to play, and to reflect on that play.

Its easy to get up and go in the morning when your day is filled with supporting children as they are deeply engaged in play, talking with parents and families about the importance of play, and getting to play yourself.