Nature Play Areas

Target Article: Making Nature Play Areas That Work

After reading the above article, I am feeling fairly critical about the state of playground design in the profession of landscape architecture in the US. A landscape architect so often specifies playgrounds, and so often does so inadequately. There’s more to a natural playground than painting it brown and green literally or metaphorically.  The pictures from the 4th Avenue Playground in Minneapolis left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. Why, if we’re trying to effect a shift in the paradigm of playgrounds in the US, are we still defaulting to the same generic stuff we see at every park? This kind of thing shuts me down. Landscape architects are designers, so why do we rely on the industrial model of generic assemblies to do our work for us? (Short answer to that is probably “fear of litigation and maintenance requirements”). The article suggests there exists an essential continuum of “nature play” that consists of loose parts on one end and traditional manufactured structures on the other. Nature, of course, is an incredibly problematic term, but this is the first I’ve heard it ever conflated with being manufactured. The Venn Diagram they show about halfway down the article doesn’t make much of anything any clearer to me (a Venn Diagram can only ever show one type of relationship, it’s not that useful a tool). We’re shown, on the left, a “play equipment” bubble floating outside a “gardens” bubble; in the middle, “play equipment” merges with “plant, water and other features” – where the heck did gardens go?; and then on the right, “wild places with natural materials” sits on its own as a “nature space.”

Look, I’m going to be honest; most manufactured playgrounds I’ve been to are pretty bad. That’s my opinion, and you’re welcome to disagree with me, but I’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve grown up in an era characterized by cookie-cutter equipment, and it’s really little wonder to me that video games have been winning out. A trip to the woods was infinitely more stimulating than a day on the playground. And yes, one could argue that many manufactured playgrounds are heavily used – a sure sign of success and good design, right? – could also be the sign of a captive audience. When there is no alternative, you make do with what you have. I did it when I was younger, but I’ll tell you I had a lot more fun wandering off than I did climbing that ubiquitous staircase, going down that same old slide, swinging back and forth, over and over and over and over in the same darn place. My interactions with other kids were what made those repetitive motions worth doing. Otherwise, I wasn’t getting much out of it. One can’t expect that going through the same motions of picking out a jungle gym to plop into the middle of a landscape is going to change anything, no matter how much we finagle that landscape. We’re still relying on the equipment to direct our play – and that’s our BIG mistake. We need to bend manufactured equipment to the will of play, not let it determine what we’re free to do.

“bend manufactured equipment to the will of play” Image Source: earthplay.net – Rusty Keeler

But hey, people are working hard for the greater good, with good intentions. I am actually incredibly happy that people care and work hard to make these places happen. What bothers me, though, is the lack of both research and vision. To have plants and water alongside play equipment is like throwing a bunch of random chemicals into a beaker and hoping for a positive reaction without understanding how each component comes together in the process. All the while, hard-working researchers, designers, and playworkers have been exploring these reactions for decades. There’s tons of literature out there about playgrounds, and plenty of examples for how they can be done well. Yet, a profession built upon understanding, designing and orchestrating outdoor environments is stumbling around in the dark, trying to reinvent “nature” and “play.”

The article ends with a quote: “We have yet to replace a manufactured play area with only natural materials play, but that may happen someday as smaller nature play nodes are being embraced and requested by families and neighborhood groups.”

Rest assured, these places exist and are very successful. It’s time we rip off the bandage that is our dependency on manufactured play equipment. Here are just a few places that have already taken this leap:

Ithaca, New York

Leiden, Netherlands

Germany

New York City

Orange County, California

There’s hundreds more around the world. Plenty of examples exist for how one can design a playground without defaulting to generic (and expensive) crap. Do this, not that.

That is all.

Lucky Doesn’t Even Begin to Describe It

I’m not sure what’s stranger, that I wound up attending school in a town with FOUR playground design firms, an adventure playground, and an annual play symposium, or that I discovered my obsession with designing for play independently of knowing that these resources existed. Regardless, here I am amongst stars and heroic play advocates. I’ll be attending (and volunteering at) the aforementioned Play Symposium tomorrow and Saturday, and will surely gain some new insights into the world of play as the bigfolk facilitate it.

I’ll be meeting with Rusty Keeler again, as well as Erin Davis, Morgan Leichter-Saxby, Suzanna Law, and others – So I am stoked! Any insights or breakthroughs I do intend to share.

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The schedule goes something like this:

Friday

  • 8:30 Coffee & Bagels, Check-in
  • 9:00 Welcome / A Culture of Play at Ithaca Children’s Garden
    Erin Marteal, Executive Director
  • 9:45 Fits and Starts and Garbage Piles
    Erica Larsen-Dockray & Jeremiah Dockray, Santa Clarita Valley Adv. Play
  • 10:30 PlayCorps – Adventure Play in Providence Public Parks
    Janice O’Donnell, Partnership for Providence Parks
  • 11:10 Play Break
  • 11:30 Pecha Kucha
    Designing Anarchy – Alex Cote, Ithaca Children’s Garden
    Our Playground – Jill Wood & the Kids of Adventure Playground,
    The Parish School
    Learning to Playwork – Suzanna Law, Pop-Up Adventure Play
    Rebuilding the American Dream…Through Play – Tricia O’Conner,
    Lake Erie Adventure Play (LEAP)
  • 12:15 Lunch Break and Conversation
  • 1:15 Playwork in Practice
    Morgan Leichter-Saxby, Pop-Up Adventure Play
    Suzanna Law, Pop-Up Adventure Play
  • 2:15 Play Break
  • 2:45 Let’s Talk – What are your burning questions?
    Morgan and Suzanna, Pop-Up Adventure Play
  • 3:45 Saturday Preview & Reminders
  • 4:00 Off you go for exploring, relaxation, and dinner
  • 7:00 The Land and Panel Discussion at Cinemapolis:
    Erin Davis, Director
    Joan Almon, Alliance for Childhood
    Morgan Leichter-Saxby, Pop-Up Adventure Play

Saturday

  • 8:45 Coffee & Bagels, Check-in
  • 9:00 Welcome to Day 2
    Erin Marteal, Executive Director
  • 9:10 Inspiring Places for Play (and Ruckus)
    Rusty Keeler, Earthplay & Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone
  • 10:00 Troubling the Spatial Politics of Adventure Playground Funding
    Reilly Wilson, CUNY
  • 10:40 Play Break
  • 11:00 Pecha Kucha
    Time to Move: Salutogenic Environments for All – Beth Myers, Cornell University
    Little Creatures Seek & Find, Kristin Eno – Little Creatures Films
    US Fish & Wildlife Service – Adventure Playground? – David Stillwell, USFWS
    Embodiment, Ethnography & Reflective Playwork – Morgan Leichter-Saxby,
    Pop-Up Adventure Play
  • 11:45 Home Action Plan Workshop
  • 12:15 Lunch and Conversation
  • 1:15 Walk to Ithaca Children’s Garden
  • 1:30 Visit, Explore, & Play
    Ithaca Children’s Garden staff and partners
  • 3:30 Closing Circle
  • 4:00 Adjourn – Thank you for sharing your time with us!

“Every playscape built should be unique, depending on the philosophy of the school, the skills and talents of the community, and the landscape of the local area… It doesn’t matter how expensive or fancy your ingredients are. What is most important is that you provide children the opportunity to experience each ingredient.”

–Rusty Keeler


Bibliographical!

Hit the books!

Hitting the books!

As I write this, I am in the process of assembling a bibliography from the mountains of text I’ve been surveying. As I mine these metaphorical ranges, I’ll be posting any veins of wisdom I think might be instructive. In the meantime, here’s a nice set of resources for your consideration, all available for free as PDFs. When you’re done there, here’s another set!

Publications Available at These Sites Include:
Design for Play; Managing Risk in Play Provision; Nature Play; Growing Adventure; Design Guidance for Play Spaces; Rope Swings, Dens, Treehouses and Fires; Making Sense: Playwork in Practice; Play as Culture; Play at School; Best Play: What Play Provision Should Do for Children; Places for Play

Links:
http://www.freeplaynetwork.org.uk/pubs/index.html
http://www.playlink.org/publications

Been A While, Crocodile!

Apologies for the extended hiatus on publishing anything in this blog. I’ve been pooling an ever-mounting mountain of resources which I intend to dole out in heavy doses. I have not been idle while this blog was asleep. Recently, I have been making my rounds, meeting play advocates local to the US Mid Atlantic, New England and Canada. Each new connection sparks many more, which propel me further along this whimsical web of ideas, inspiration and insight.


Today I would like to direct your attention to an article published in Playground Magazine. You can find the PDF here. The inspiration to post this article comes from my long-standing advocacy for “immersion” in video games. However,  any act of play can be immersive so long as players engage their imaginations – this doesn’t require much. That said, there is something uniquely charming about a theme park, derived largely, I believe, from its immersivity and spectacle. This is a very hard thing to achieve, and Disney definitely demonstrated a mastery of it, but it doesn’t come cheap and takes a lot of smart and creative people working together to get it right. If you’re on a budget and working from scratch, designed immersion is probably not the way you want to go. There are many cheaper, less heavy-handed options one could employ that children would dive right into. Children are clever inventors, with imaginations many of us bigfolk envy, and if we let them run the reel, they’ll inevitably surprise us with how lost in play they can become. If you’re going for designed immersion, though, make it massive or move on.

Our kids throw around the word ‘epic’ like they are in Mythology class. To them the word describes an essential quality so awe-inspiring one is lost for words. That’s what you have to be to design for immersion. Museum exhibits sometimes approach this quality, though suspension of disbelief for me is easily shattered by informational signage. You have to try really hard to sell your world to an audience, because a robot-shaped jungle gym isn’t fooling anyone. That robot needs context – where was it made? – what was its purpose? – does it still function? – is it missing parts? – can you fix it? – what was it doing before it stopped moving? – does it have any friends? – why can you go inside it? … I would discourage anyone from explicitly answering these questions in the design, but the environmental context must complement the world you’re trying to immerse someone in. This term is not literal; immersion is a metaphor. Immersion requires surrounding someone in an idea, as if immersing them deeply in water to see what’s in it, and blurring out anything ‘outside.’ For homework, I recommend you go watch the movie Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. You’ll be fully immersed in the spirit world for the better part of two hours. Be compelling and sell us your story. Sell us your world by enveloping us in something rich and breathing, hopelessly inextricable from its surroundings, of utmost purpose and sincerity. Build that, and we will come.


“If you watch young children play, you will notice that they create games, characters, situations, whole worlds in which they immerse themselves with intense concentration.”

–Daniel Greenberg


The Philosophy of Play

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Once upon a Central Park, 1969, Richard Dattner of Dattner Architects set forth a manifesto called ‘Design for Play.’ Not long ago, I posted similar sentiments that as designers we are beholden to the imperative to design for play – not how to play. Dattner’s book of the same substance is one I am currently pouring over. Dattner’s words have coaxed forth numerous questions in me concerning the essence and meaning of play.

A recent professor of mine, to whom I owe a great many things – not least of which the inspiration and encouragement to pursue the design of ludic environments – used to run an exercise with our class on definitions of key words and concepts. Rather than regurgitate the (albeit considered) dictionary’s laundry list of popular uses, he recognized the process underlying the construction of definitions: experience. A friend of mine once described dictionaries as historical documents useful as starting points, but not to be referenced as instruction manuals. The importance of experience in defining anything is fundamental and essential. The exercise our professor ran us through was not unlike the exercises I imagine dictionary authors must also engage in.

With a concept like play, simple definitions are contentious and its philosophical variations rather divided. Dattner attempts a definition of play in his first chapter, and outlines his philosophy of it immediately. For him, work and play are opposite ends of a dichotomy. He writes that it is the ‘reason’ for acting, rather than the ‘activity’ itself, that determines whether someone is working or playing. This is one philosophy of play which I think is important to earmark, because I encounter it often.

In his elaborations of this philosophy I found that Dattner defined and redefined play frequently. In the spirit of my former professor’s exercises I challenged myself to indulge the author’s philosophy and play at extracting his definitions of play. In this way, I took on the role of my professor, observing and recording, and Dattner became my subject positing his experience as definition. Here are Dattner’s definitions of play, extracted for you from his chapter on the philosophy of play:

Play is:

  • supremely voluntary
  • doing what you want to do when you want to do it
  • a manifestation of internal needs and wishes
  • a necessity we require of ourselves
  • a full expression of personal freedom
  • exercise or action for amusement
  • freedom, room or scope for action
  • similar to magic
  • extraordinary
  • a process of mastering
  • concerned with the achievement of goals
  • about process not product
  • its own reward
  • freedom or abstinence from work
  • re-creation of ourselves
  • engaging in freely chosen activities that restore our sense of completeness
  • impossible to “do” – it is an end in itself
  • a manifestation of choice; [choice manifestation]
  • freedom
  • theatrical

Dattner also briefly defines what play is not.

Play is not:

  • professional athletics
  • bound by reality
  • deprived of freedom of action or expression
  • restricted or hampered

Reading this chapter certainly fanned the flames of my pursuit of play theories, and had me filling the margins with notes. Rather than agreeing or disagreeing with Dattner, I observe that these are some of the many definitions and negative definitions of play, and hope to discover many more from you and other readings.

If this post had you considering your own definitions of play I encourage you to post your thoughts below. I also gratefully welcome recommendations for further reading.


 “Work can be forced, but play, like love, is a supremely voluntary undertaking.”

–Richard Dattner


A Massive Playscape for All Ages

A ten-story, 600,000 square foot, abandoned shoe factory in St. Louis Missouri got itself a major makeover in 1997 when artist Bob Cassilly got the idea to convert it into a grand playscape now known as City Museum, offering adults (and children) an escape into youthful exuberance with massive slides, climbing structures, a full-service bar, an aquarium, ball pits, extensive caves and tunnels, spiral stairs, and miscellaneous doodads galore. It is encouraging to see play places being built at adult scales. City Museum, welcome to my bucket list.

City Museum, Photo Courtesy of Christopher Jobson

City Museum’s Monstrocity, Photo Courtesy of Christopher Jobson

Professor of Lego

I have some heartening news to share for playphiles everywhere – a Lego Professorship has been announced at Cambridge University. What a brilliant idea! I’m excited to see academia so excited about the importance of play. I just wish I were further along in my studies so that I could apply. Perhaps one day.

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Lego Professorship of Play in Education, Development and Learning


“Play is the highest form of research”

–Albert Einstein


To Fathers Who Encourage Play

I’ve wanted to be like him my whole life, to fill the shoes I’ve since grown out of, and though we’ve both changed a lot, I still compare myself to him. It is a privilege to have a father in my life, a privilege I have shamefully taken for granted. Privilege is weird that way – a concept as much guiltful as it is enviable. But growing up with a father around does not complete the package of privilege I was born with. This best of men in my life set out to ensure I’d feel loved, to encourage my curiosity, to listen to my inane ramblings, to trust me (vigilantly) with fire and sharp objects and to mend me when I lost control of them, to let me wander even when that took me on whirlwind river runs that would’ve made Huck cackle and Pan crow.

Father and brother before a big adventure

Father and brother before a big adventure

Not only would my dad let me wander, he taught me to love it. A regular Sunday pastime of ours guaranteed soggy shoes, muddy knees, spiderweb masks, and fingers deeply buried in sand hunting for fossilized fortunes fallen from million-year-old mouths. We never did find the fabled Megalodon dentition we dreamed of, the holy grail for tooth trackers, but 1000 things as fun and a lifetime of love for the mysteries of nature – worth more than the most pristine jet fang. I owe him for cultivating the passions that drive me to explore farther and deeper, to reach for a dream and to appreciate those things I never expected to find.

Exploring misty mountaintops

Exploring misty mountaintops

We are very much alike in our differences. My father loves and knows more about the cosmos than I could ever hope to, while my eyes are set firmly on the terra before me. Yet, whether we’re staring up-and-out or down-and-in, it was my dad who taught me how to see. He taught me that the growing things have names, and in learning them I would have access to their secrets and gifts. He taught me that when I had questions without answers I could still reason my way to good ones. No surprise that I clung to science and the natural world, to naming trees and learning landscapes. The real surprise is how we made play of some serious business. Science is meticulous, methodical, complex, and infamously unforgiving of belief or myth – which may run counter to what many of us understand play to be. Superficially cold and unfeeling, it’s not hard to see the dark side of science. Looking deeper I think you’ll find true science to be an utterly human discipline, driven by curiosity, passion, love and caring – it is an attempt to understand the universe on its own terms – a suppression of ego and expectation – it is marveling at the unimaginable – it is playful, repetitive tinkering – it is dreaming and storytelling – it is hands-on, dirty, messy fun. My father understood the essence of good science and called it by its right name: play. Our journey through history, mysteries, muddy earth, swollen creeks, mossy trees, craggy mountains and winding country roads – began with the promise of play. There was the world and we would wonder at it in our own way – as a companion in our playful indulgence.

Confidence in climbing

Confidence in climbing to new heights

Some things we learned:

  • Pine needles, thrown with practice, make aerodynamically excellent darts, and scalps tempting targets.
  • Fire doesn’t keep mosquitoes away as well as we might wish, and its smoke hurts to breathe. It is awfully fun to scorch marshmallows in.
  • A good walking stick is hard to find, but worth holding onto. Sand clean and coat in flaxseed oil to keep it around longer. Give it a name.
  • Often, the best part of the trail is leaving it behind for a bit.
  • The root of a Turk’s Cap Lily is edible. Barely.
  • Some trees are better for climbing, others are for falling out of.
  • Black bears can bite through “unbreakable” bottles – and are especially determined after rummaging through the pack of spices.
  • Painful, frustrating, exhausting adventures are neither comfortable nor glamorous endeavors, though they make magnificent memories – which last an awful lot longer than their associated discomforts.
  • A game is only as good as the storytellers playing it.

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Miles of marsh

I’d have a difficult time itemizing all the things my father taught me. By now many of his lessons are so deeply internalized, I take them for granted and no longer recognize them as lessons I had to learn. With increasing frequency I find myself acting in ways that remind me of him – a laugh here, a reaction there, the way I explain new things to the unfamiliar. Much play is made of mimicking society and the people closest to us – and some twenty years or more later, I find myself revisiting those familiar plays and remembering how much they mean to me. We don’t forget the fun we’ve had – we integrate it into our being. And this may be the most valuable lesson yet, one that has taken me quite some time to learn: play becomes who we are. Play often, freely and young – and don’t let age slow you down – keep playing, keep discovering the richness of life we are all entitled to and which is available in abundance all around. My father never stopped, and neither shall I.

Here’s to you, dad! I love you, man. And cheers to all the other wonderful parents out there who are around to play with their kids. We need you.

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On Cooperation and Competition in Games

Cooperate or compete – a dichotomous key in the Tree of All Games. Having little desire in my heart to prove myself against others, preferring instead to celebrate the accomplishments of my companions, I’ve had nothing but love for the cooperative game for as long as memory serves. Beyond taste or preference, I believe this is due to a deeper compulsion. The cooperative game, I put it to you, is a higher form of play, predicated by its lesser, necessary ancestor: survival. In cooperation we all succeed or fail as one, beauty of being in either consequence. It is a subversion of the instinctual mechanism of self-congratulatory egoism and dominance. In it, we may observe all the striven-for virtues of humankind without need of heroism and vilification. Compassion, selflessness, devotion, courage, empathy, modesty, patience, respect, thankfulness, humility, understanding, unity, compassion, kindness, generosity, forgiveness – as if on the cooperative compass floats a needle that avoids the magnetic poles to point true north.

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The rare, cooperative board game. Pandemic is tons of fun.

In competition, we sate our pangs for success by equating it to overcoming others, to besting our brethren. There are winners and so must there be losers – heroes and villains – the righteous and the unworthy. The price of personal success: another’s failure. Balanced at the surface, akimbo at its core, playing against each other sows some insidious vices. Defeated, we may punish ourselves and submit to indentured inferiority. Enraged, we may retaliate and trade reason for blindness. Pedestaled, we may begin to believe in our own divinity, making idols of ourselves. Exalted, we cast shadows over others in oppressive indifference. Fun, that riotous celebration of life, is not in the winning. Fun is playing together. It resides in the process, not in the end points of agency.

In cooperation, we play against the game itself. Its virtual rules challenge us to best it, to overcome indifference and unite in strategy and force. It is a barn raising. It is a dead lift that is as light as a feather. It is a society post-privilege. In cooperative games the weak link is not a single person but a failure to unite – together we are not a weighted chain of snapping links, but a gravity made stronger by every union. When it is time to cast our paper balls at the rubbish bin, those in front control the turn of the key in the Tree of All Games; turn it backward to win against those behind – or turn it forward in assistance, serve the alley-oop, where even if you’ve lost, you’ve won.

Let us play more together. For that I am always game.


“A choir is made up of many voices, including yours and mine. If one by one all go silent then all that will be left are the soloists. Don’t let a loud few determine the nature of the sound. It makes for poor harmony and diminishes the song.”

–Vera Nazarian