By: Alex Cote — For more from Alex, check out her blog, PlayBound.
“These rocks were never intended for climbing but some of the kids can and I convinced the rest of the staff that it was okay.”
“One of the kids started a store this morning and there were no other kids to buy things so we announced over the walkie-talkies to all the staff that there was a store and he got a steady stream of customers the rest of his visit.”
“The kids are out there in the tall grass. Last I heard they were catching crawfish. Not sure what they’re doing now but they’re having fun and they know where I am if they need me.”
These were things the playwork staff said at three different play sites across the country: a zoo, a children’s museum, and a school adventure playground. After having driven across the US from Ithaca, NY to Val Verde, CA I am so inspired by the quality playwork that’s happening in unexpected places – places that are not as conducive to playwork as adventure playgrounds – and yet, there playworkers were, making room for play in the cracks.
At first glance, the play area, “kidZone“, at the North Carolina Zoo seems ordinary – there’s a chalk wall and a labyrinth and a recirculating creek. All lovely, but at a zoo there are often so many rules about how to use the areas that the play is constantly interrupted and restricted by well-meaning adults. Enter Linda Kinney, who manages the playspace at the zoo, and her deep understanding of supporting play guided by her Masters in Playwork from the University of Gloucestershire in the UK. She and her staff make sure the site is stocked with loose parts and make sure that caregivers know that it’s okay if their kids climb the giant boulders, sit right in the stream, and chalk the playground walls. Linda is working constantly to find the gaps where play can exist in an institution where animal play is usually more of a priority than human play.
The New Children’s Museum in San Diego, CA is a beautiful space with children’s exhibits designed by modern artists. Those of us in the adventure play world might immediately write off an adult-designed playspace, but, I’ve come to find that playwork can make even highly designed spaces more conducive to play. The museum playworkers, led by Megan Dickerson who also has her Masters in Playwork from Gloucestershire, help visitors connect with the different spaces through play. They rely on knowledge of many of the same playwork concepts as those of us who work in more flexible spaces use: play cues, the play cycle, etc. especially in the new exhibit “Make/Shift” which is a loose parts play area. Other than their interactions with children, much of their work is advocating for play with adult caregivers who visit and working with adult artists to make their pieces more play-friendly.
At the Parish School in Houston, Texas, Jill Wood runs Adventure Playground (AP) – an after-school program on its own lot where the children build their own structures and decide what to do with their time – whether it be catching crawfish out in the tall grass, or battling bad guys with sticks, or many other games we don’t know about because it’s their play, not ours! Adventure play and playwork as an after school program work so well because these kids really own this space; even the adults who work there have no idea what half the creations have been used for. Many of the kids who attend spend hours and hours immersed in play there every week for their entire childhood. The space grows with them as they change it to suit their needs. The time there feels slow and full of possibility.
While playwork was born at adventure playgrounds and is easiest to implement when the space is as child-controlled as possible, it is possible to practice playwork in other settings. The playworkers’ vow is to provide for play; sometimes in order to do that, they have to find the cracks.