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.
The schedule goes something like this:
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
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.”
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
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.”
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:
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
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]
Dattner also briefly defines what play is not.
Play is not:
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.”
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.
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.
Lego Professorship of Play in Education, Development and Learning
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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Of significant interest to me in studying ‘play’ behavior is how it factors into the modern adult life. I am experientially convinced that humans do not cease to play upon reaching adulthood. However, the forms of play often undergo significant metamorphoses. After all, what are we doing when we spend an evening out at the bar with friends? Hours watching Netflix at home? Online gaming? Board games? Street sports? Shopping and ‘playing’ house? Going out on dates? Making love? Cooking something new? Paying to watch spectator events? Goofing around with our children and pets? Travelling?
Adults and Teens on the 21 Balançoires, Montréal, Canada
In adulthood, we often live out the adventures we imagine as kids – and because the adventures are real, they may also be stressful. There are no time outs. Frustrations abound despite all our efforts. But child’s play is ridden with stress too – that’s just part of adapting and growing! If you’ve ever watched children sharing a conventional playground, there are proverbial fountains of tears being shed (crying is an exceptional way to relieve stress, by the way). Sometimes we blame immaturity for a child’s tears on the playground – I have – but their reaction is completely normal. As we age, the expectation in most cultures is that we cry less and tolerate more. Maybe that’s fine, but becoming a ‘resilient,’ ‘well-adjusted’ adult does not imply we ought to lose our celebratory, whimsical spirit. We all desire to play, to let loose, to feel the burden of social obligations lift for a moment and find the freedom to explore ourselves, our physical environments, and each other. Unattached. Unfettered. Alive.
I strongly associate the act of play with ‘living.’ Whether or not this association is valid, I find myself entering adulthood wholly unwilling to part with play. It is essential to who I am as a person, and I see the value in it for others as well. On the matter of play in adult life, I have written one ‘critical literature review’ grounded in environmental psychology, and a few fictional narratives that explore it experientially via archetypal landscapes. I plan to make these available in an upcoming post, but will send them through another round of editing before I do that. In the meantime, I’d like to get some feedback from you, dear reader.
What are some ways you play in your adult life? Please share your play-habits in a reply below.
“It’s not that we spend five days looking forward to just two. It’s that most people do what they enjoy most on those two days. Imagine living a life where everyday are your Saturdays and Sundays. Make everyday your weekend. Make everyday a play-day…”
Have you ever had an experience so uncannily coincidental it seemed to affirm everything you’ve been doing with your life till now? When you get that unexpected answer from the universe after years of begging questions… I had a moment like that today. To say I feel tickled would be both apt and understated.
Story goes, I’d been asked by a neighbor to watch her two girls for a couple hours in the afternoon. I picked them both up and walked them back to my apartment, just a few grassy knolls away. As soon as we stepped inside, the youngest asked if she could watch TV. While I’m not against television entirely, I thought we should see what could be made of the beautiful weather and the playground that is literally ten paces outside my front door (I didn’t pick this apartment so much as it seems to have picked me). Without demanding it, I simply asked the girls if they wanted to play out on the playground and they both eagerly agreed. I grabbed my skateboard just in case they were curious. Part of me said, no, that’s dangerous they’ll get hurt! while another part of me reasoned, you’re here to watch them and can handle any accidents. I’m glad the latter part won out because it was right. Much of what I’ve been reading in literature on play suggests that some risk is essential for growth and learning. I’ve been a firm believer in the small-risks method of play since I was very young. Having been through the scrapes, cuts and tumbles myself, I can confidently say they made me more aware of my own body, abilities and surroundings. If you have seen a playworker in action or read anything about “adventure playgrounds” you’ll know that these small risks are an everyday part of the playground experience. A playworker gives children the space to play on their own and take small risks, but is there to respond quickly in the event of an accident. Having learned a little bit about this play style, I took on the responsibility of an improvisational playworker. I earned my fair share of scrapes and bruises from skateboarding in the past, and knew it was highly likely they’d get a little banged up, but were unlikely to get severely injured, especially if they were just scooting around on fairly level sidewalk.
I started by showing them how to push it around. Once they got the hang of that I showed them how to sit or lie down on it and propel it with their feet. They enjoyed these weird skating methods, but they knew better. “Show us how to skate for real!” they demanded.
“Alright, this is how I do it.” I didn’t have to take it far at all for them to be impressed. The youngest was completely awestruck by my simple feat and spent hours trying to perfect her skating skills. “How do you stand on it?” she asked. “With two feet,” I said. “How do you make it move?” was the next obvious question, to which I replied, “Take one foot off and push the ground with it.” She was a natural! I never expected her to take any more interest in that thing other than to kick it around the sidewalk, but she was gliding like a pro in no time.
So did they get hurt? Sure! But nothing more than a scrape, and possibly a bruise or two. I was as proud as any father would be with how they handled it too. The youngest scraped her forearm a little on the sandpaper surface while she and her sister were tugging on it in opposite directions. I could tell by the look in her eyes she was preparing for a full-on tantrum, so I simply asked her to show me her arm. No blood, just tiny white scrapes. I rubbed the area with my hand to soothe the burn and said, “Looks great! You’re a tough kid!” The tantrum in her eyes was nowhere to be found. She cracked a big smile and went right back to boarding. The highlight for me of her first run of skateboarding was when she kicked the fin to lift the board, grabbed the trucks and tucked the skateboard under her arm – like a real boarder! I didn’t even show her how to do that! She’s going to break some skater boys’ hearts in high school, I just know it.
While the youngest was preoccupied with scooting around on the board, her sister and I started digging in the sandy storm-drain area nearby the playground. For a while now I’ve been observing a trend where the $10,000 worth of play equipment on the playground gets used for 15 minutes out of every day, while the practically FREE pit of sand and gravel gets used for hour-long stretches at a time (or more!). This sends a pretty powerful, and clear message – one I hope to explore in future posts. The eldest and I started digging with our hands, but quickly realized this would be an arduous task if done for too long. I ran inside and grabbed three garden trowels to make quick work of our dig venture. We made all kinds of shapes with the moist sand we gathered from underneath the surface. All the while asking each other what this part was supposed to be or what we should add next. Her mind went immediately to a wall-village, in which all the inhabitants lived inside parts of the wall. “This part is the school for making money!” “This is the playground!” “This is the garden, so we need to add flowers!” and add flowers we did as her mother showed up.
Now this could have easily been the moment where a more worrisome mother might’ve had a fit at my letting the girls get all dirty playing in the sand or riding around on a skateboard. Instead, she was shocked at how happy her kids looked. The youngest immediately called her mother’s attention, showing her how she could move around on the skateboard with one foot. Her mother’s eyes widened, and I waited for her to tell her to be careful or to stop. Instead, she looked right back at me and explained why this was amazing. Evidently, the youngest had great trouble learning to walk not so long ago, and to see her moving confidently around on a skateboard was nothing short of a miracle. Apparently all she needed was a little inspiration, space and freedom to make short work of miracles.
Mom was equally impressed with the wall-town the oldest and I were diligently at work on. It’s not everyday she gets to see an adult and child making fun shapes and imaginary universes in the sand, though I do hope this changes. I explained that wetter sand holds together better, which makes shaping it easier. With mom now at hand, and with her interest thoroughly peaked, we got the go-ahead to add water to the mix! The youngest even stopped skateboarding to join us for this next part.
We used a water spigot on the side of a nearby apartment to fill a big orange plastic bowl full of water. First, mom dumped a bowlful into a small canal she and the youngest had dug with their trowels. We watched it travel down the canal and into a deep pocket, where it slowly sank into the ground below. When it emptied, they added another big bowlful. After a few sideways glances, they got the idea to expand their invention, and so began their great Maplewood Canal Project!
What isn’t pictured here is how intricate their work became! At its peak they had constructed a high pool for pouring in fresh water. It would run from this high pool down a channel, hook right, then hook left and descend quickly where it would hook left again and cascade into a huge pit. Once the pit filled up, the water would spill over into another channel where it traveled down an underground tunnel we dug earlier in the day which exited out into the terminal pool. At various points, the children added stone roofs atop the channel as decoration. While working, they found a spaceship-shaped piece of wood and used it as a boat in their canal.
In the end, what was intended to be a short hour and a half watching the neighbor’s kids turned into a five hour long romp in the sand and sun. We all learned a lot and, more importantly, we had a bunch of fun! Their mom looked so proud of her girls, and they looked pretty pleased with themselves too. After all, they accomplished a lot! I can only imagine how this kind of experience on a regular basis would help them grow into bright, confident teenagers. I look forward to our next adventure together, and I wonder too, how well we accommodate the play-needs of teens. More on that in a future post.
“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”