Give the photo below a moment of your mind. What’s your gut reaction to this set up as an appropriate place for children to play? Is it safe? Dangerous? Appropriate for children? Inappropriate? What would you need to know to say “Yes!” if your child asked you if they could play here?
As has ever been the case, we live world surrounded by inherent risk. The fact we exist for more than a moment in time is beyond all odds. And yet we do. It was not long ago that we humans began the interesting concept of betting against ourselves by purchasing insurance. Essentially, with insurance, we are betting we will hurt ourselves. So we pay money to people we don’t even know that are betting we won’t. The winner is the entity that spends the least amount of money on dealing with the results WHEN we do get hurt. Rare is the person among us that has never been injured. I am not advocating for getting hurt. In fact, quite the opposite. Here is what I AM advocating for. I would like us to consider that one way to reduce the odds that any child gets badly injured just might be letting them experience lots of little hurts. Sounds like an odd argument, I’ll give you that. Here’s my argument: A) The world is full of risk. B) Every child encounters risk daily, with or without us present. C) I want my child to be able to identify and manage the risk she encounters. D) Children learn best through real experiences and repeated practice. E) Careful and reasoned exposure to risk allows children to practice identifying and navigating risk on their own. F) The cost of occasional bumps and bruises returns the benefit of experience that reduces bigger bumps and bruises down the road. This is not my idea alone. In fact, click HERE to go to a really good article on risk from the Children at Nature Network by Ken Finch.
But there are other payoffs to allowing children to play in the type of environment pictured above. This environment was created by children. In the process they learned physics, group cooperation, geometry, the properties of materials like wood, construction techniques, and much more. The picture below shows some of that learning in process. In a world where we have become almost pathologically averse to risk, we need to reverse that trend. Our safety depends on it. Just an opinion.
When children play with toys that self-define what they are… cars, castles, dolls, barns, … play is often limited to the boundaries of those objects. Cars do what cars do. Dolls do what dolls do. But when children are exposed to lots of loose parts that can only really be defined by imagination, the boundaries of their play expands. I only wish you could have heard the dialogue that went with this particular play moment. The ingredients of the moment are all pictured. The invitation to play is at the top. It is followed by the ingredients of play. It ends with one picture of play in progress. Here’s a fairly succinct link to information about loose part play theory from Surrey County in England. HERE
On Saturday, October 5th, as part of the first Children at Play Conference at Bernheim, a small community of play advocates and children gathered to explore how children play when they are allowed the opportunity to interact with their environment in ways that most “fixed equipment” playgrounds don’t. We provided lots of “loose parts” such as:
- cardboard boxes
- cut bamboo
- ropes, strings and cargo webbing
- straw bales
- sticks, rocks and stumps
- driftwood logs
- canvas tarps
- balls, plungers
We offered them knives and box cutters to use under supervision. We helped tie knots and move heavy things when assistance was asked for. We gave them drums and buckets and brooms. But mostly we stayed out of their way simply observing. When children have the opportunity to fully interact with their environment they play in ways that look very different from the way they play in most playground environments. They interact with each other more fully. They make up rules and social contracts with one another. They focus on a task and stay on focus for long periods of time. They problem solve. They problem create. They put things together, including their thoughts, in creative and interesting ways. Here’s a few pictures from the day.
I know that the readers of this blog are few. And I know that the few are not close. But… Next Friday and Saturday is the first Children at Play Conference at Bernheim (near Louisville Kentucky). I’ve been pulling the larger Children at Play Initiative that this conference kicks off for over a year. This is the start of an on-going effort to reinvent the universe of outdoor play spaces in my region. I know, in my bones, that this community will become a hot-spot for the most amazing outdoor play environments to be found. With a bit of help we will simply make it so. If you want to find out more about the upcoming conference simply click HERE.
Today the Portland Plays group pulled off an amazing day of play that included children in the visioning and planning for a playground that will help start the process of breaking the mold of play environments in our community. The people that pulled this day together should be really proud of what they did. The kids had a ball. When I told Ruby it was time to leave she almost cried. We can’t wait to help move this forward. Here’s just a very few pictures. I took hundreds (yes hundreds) but these few give you a sense of the day. There will be a conference at Bernheim this October 4th and 5th that focuses on creating this kind of play environment. Click HERE for details. If we can keep doing what the Portland Plays group did today our community will change for the better.