Robin C. Moore’s Natural Play and Learning Places Document

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!

Nature Play and Learning Places: Creating and Managing Places Where Children Engage with Nature (2014)

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.

Flier

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

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

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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Design for Play

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.

Where do we go from here?

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


The Maplewood Canal

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.

image

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.image

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.

imageWhile 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.”

–Alan Watts