Somewhat related to my last post is this extensive guidelines document written by Robin C. Moore. It’s worth poking around in here for advice from a widely respected natural play advocate. I haven’t read through it all myself, yet, but it’s on my to-do list. Read along with me if you like!
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:
- 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
- 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:
- 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.”
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.
“Play is the highest form of research”
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.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. 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. 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.
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.
I stumbled on this today and thought it was worth archiving and sharing.
Thanks for your thoughts On Adult Play, @littlehouseonthehill. And you’re right, play does not require any specific environment, because it is inherently spontaneous. There is some evidence, though, that play rarely happens in oppressive environments (one of many available corroborations) and can be stymied by careless design and management, among other things. As an aspiring playscape designer, I am trying to understand the forms play takes, what makes it special to each individual, and its common themes (if any), so that when it’s time to design a place for play there will be a solid theoretical foundation underpinning the shape we suggest our environments to take.
One theory I find myself ever more drawn to is that play is a creative process. I believe designers often take the play out of places by inadvertently hogging the act of play, creation, engaging too fully themselves. It’s wonderful to imagine things like giant mushrooms shooting up ten meters out of the ground with crawl spaces looping around inside, and a cushion on top for bouncing around on, but then a brave and imaginative person could have a nearly identical experience in the space of their mind with nothing but a cardboard box, a soft surface, and the memory of a mushroom. A designer might try to set out on a quest for creating that mushroom play apparatus, and it might be excellent, but they’ve spilled a certain aesthetic glaze over all the play that happens there. It becomes too specific – too distinct and controlling. A playful mind will surely come up with many other imaginings on an apparatus like that, but I believe designers ought to reflect more on what it is they do when they design. They play. They imagine new worlds out of a creative aether. Care must be taken not to use it all up before the users get a say.
What’s important in designing a place for play, I think, is to create a world which encourages other designers, the users, to give it shape. And I’m quite sure that’s no futile exercise, because the more I learn about creativity the more I am convinced that it is most electric in places that inspire thought, that shock and surprise, that are full and not empty, with loose and living components aplenty. Designing such a place takes a great deal of thought and consideration. And not to downplay the value of the now-conventional apparatus-oriented playground, or the thoughtful design behind it, but it offers only a fraction of its intended values with tremendous cost. I suspect that a reason for this is that more-and-more playgrounds have been carefully designed to suit litigious stakeholders, government officials, safety inspectors, parks departments and so on, and less-and-less the people they ought to be for – those who play in them. Navigating to that middle-ground between safety and risk is an important step in the design process, but when that’s our singular, primary agenda all we’ll ever see is the blandness of bureaucracy – identical, predictable and repetitive. Designs for everyone that serve no one. Who ever had an adventure without trials? The small scrapes and bruises in life are what give us confidence and remind us of our perseverances. A blatant hazard is something to be avoided, but small risks should be accepted with open arms.
To offer an anecdote, I had the fortune of falling out of a tree – when I could still count my years on a pinky plus a hand – and on the way down I embraced the broken end of a branch while trying to halt my plummet, hugging myself to the trunk. When I hit the ground I was shocked, excited, even proud of what had happened. I had fallen! I looked down at the slash across my belly through the free ends of my newly tattered T-shirt. Blood! A fascinating development – my mother’s nightmare. It stung, and I was fine. The one somber memory I have from that day is being wrapped up like a mummy, tighter than would allow easy breathing, as if my guts might just fall out, and told to take a nap, NOW! No ‘buts.’ …but how could I sleep with a heart full of adrenaline and endorphins? I was completely alive and had a new scar to prove it. I couldn’t wait to show my friends. For me, the challenge, that fall, and the cascade of reactions to it, were natural and fulfilling. I wear that scar proudly, still some twenty years later. I eye its faded form with longing for the perils of my adventurous youth, when I still had the courage to climb and was oblivious to the judgments of others. Some of my favorite memories are of those experiences which caused me pain, that were uncomfortable, that reminded me I was alive. I believe in the agency of others to paint their own scars, to climb what wasn’t meant to be climbed, to fall and submit to the consequences. I learned something about climbing that day, about physics and torsion, about where branches want to break, about contingency planning and the fiery concern of mothers. These were all perfectly beautiful things and it was I who brought them to life. My superpowers on a backyard playscape. My kryptonite the padded bed, the safe isolation and sedentary repose afforded by a nap.
What I suggest is that we ask ourselves this question often and sincerely: Are we designing how we play, or are we designing for play?
Design for play.
Also, check this out: Paradoxes and Consequences
“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
–William G.T. Shedd