Siblings are harder to read than kids who’re just friends. Siblings have had their entire lives to build up dynamics that are deep and have shared understandings of their rules for their relationship that may or may not make sense to an outsider (healthy or not).
Oscar and Rudy were no exception. This wasn’t the first time I’d met them and I’d already seen and been warned that they fight. A lot. Today, S was swinging on the tire swing, doing tricks and seeing what different ways he could use it. He narrated his tricks loudly within my earshot, which I took as an invitation to be his audience, so I was sitting on the edge of the swing…
A junkyard playground in New York City is empowering young people by giving them space and ownership over their decisions.
Yoni Kallai promotes self-directed play through his work as a circus acrobat and as a board member and staffer of play:ground a unique junkyard playground in NYC.
January 10th, 2017
In raising my two children in Brooklyn, I have spent countless hours of my life with them across the street from our apartment in a classic public school concrete slab of a playground. It did not take long there to realize that I was alone on the playground in my parental approval of letting kids climb in trees or even, dare I say, go up the down slide. Despite my years as an educator, this was the moment in which I realized something had shifted since my own childhood; this was my first insight into Helicopter Parenting, caregivers who are over-involved in their children’s lives to the point that it is incapacitating to the child’s development and well-being. This story is perhaps familiar, but my solution certainly was atypical.
The same overprotecting parents I met on those types of playgrounds would describe the democratic free school down the road that my children attended as the “do-as-you-please school,” a term that certainly was not new for this type of school. And when my partner and I began a free play summer camp at that school, it so happened that many of those same parents amazingly enrolled their children there. I found myself preemptively trying to stand in front of the pushed-over-couch-fort-wrestling-arenas and crystal-paint-sawdust-glitter-potion-creations their children were making when parents came to pick them up at the end of the day. And then something remarkable happened: these same parents started re-enrolling their children and giving our camp great praise, despite their children being sent home (enthusiastically) exhausted up to their ears in paint and mud.
It was at the same time as these parents were discovering the joy of their children having time– perhaps the first time in their lives– to make their own decisions about their play in our self-directed summer camp that I came across Hanna Rosin’s excellent article in The Atlantic, The Overprotected Kid. All of a sudden, what I had naturally stumbled upon in my parenting and my teaching had a name, a profession, and a whole history behind it; I was introduced to the world of junkyard or adventure playgrounds and the lives of playworkers, the staff that work on these little lands of youth liberation.
As I soon learned, the concept of adventure playgrounds is to create a space where children and especially children’s play is respected. In many ways, adventure playgrounds are refuges where youth rights are protected and children are given space and time to make their own decisions without adult judgement. Some of the key elements that make this possible are loose parts, the moveable junk parts found on adventure playgrounds, and playworkers, the adult staff that work there.
Junk materials work best as loose parts since children implicitly understand that junk has no value to adults. Therefore, children can take ownership of the material and do with it as they please without fear of repercussion. If they want to cut it, bend it, burn it, or leave it out in the rain, they know they can do so without hesitation. Their laboratory for discovery and imagination is left wide open.
Playworkers are the staff on adventure playgrounds who I like to describe as the lifeguards, never interfering with the play but there if ever needed both for safety and to assist in providing new materials. Playworkers go through rigorous training (one can even go so far as to get a postgraduate degree in playwork in the U.K.) and learn things like how to tell a risk from a hazard (risks are calculated dangers one knowingly takes, hazards are dangers we are unaware of and try to avoid).
The rich history of adventure playgrounds started with the Danish landscape architect C. T. Sørenson, who first proposed of the concept of “waste material playgrounds” in a book in 1931. The first one physically opened in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen during World War Two and soon spread to many parts of Europe and even as far stretching as Japan and the United States. These playgrounds reached their height and then all but dried up at the end of the 1970s / early 1980s in the United States, with only three having lasted through that period at all. Today there are seven in the U.S., including the one I helped start in New York City this last spring.
After having read the article about adventure playgrounds, I began researching, only to find that there was little information about them and that they are almost non-existent on the East Coast of the United States, where I live. In discussing it with my friend Eve Mosher, we realized we had the same dream and vowed to meet once a week until one was opened in New York. That was two and a half years ago, and while we did succeed in opening our playground in such a short amount of time, we still meet at least once a week with the other seven volunteers on our Board dedicated to this project. We have realized just how much needs to be done in order to maintain a space for youth rights in a city that has all but forgotten about children in the profit-thirsty developer landscape.
Along the way of opening the adventure playground, I met Yoni Kallai on a winter’s day in an abandoned factory at the end of the industrial wasteland of Brooklyn. His partner was opening a circus there, and he thought the back yard might make for a nice adventure playground. And although our playground ultimately did not end up there (instead we went with free land the government provided us on Governors Island, an island off the southern tip of Manhattan), our initial meeting continued and became a whole team of free-play enthusiasts that became our Board of Directors.
Interestingly enough, my first encounter with the concept of adventure playgrounds came through the same article by Hannah Rosin. I found it coming from the direction of circus, as a partner acrobatics performer and teacher. After reading the article and researching about it, I got to be introduced to Alex by Abby, a facilitator at NYC’s Agile Learning Center, where I was volunteering as a partner acrobatics teacher. Abby used to work for Alex in the camp he ran.
I reached out to Alex and met him at The Muse Brooklyn, my partners circus space, that was being built up in Bushwick after moving from Williamsburg. The space has a big back yard and I figured we could use it for the playground.
As time and the reality moved on, we ended up opening play:ground on Governors Island. And I was lucky enough to be able to take a bit of a circus break and join to be a playworker during our summer camp that spanned over 6 weeks.
While it was clear to us, members of the board, that most kids would love such an opportunity and that some families would welcome it with open hands, we didn’t expect how successful it would be. We ended up having around 3,000 children visiting the site over the course of 4 months. Most of them visiting on the weekends which were open for the public free of charge. The summer camp itself was at full capacity all summer long and one week we even hired an extra worker to allow another 5 kids to join. Practically all people who passed by the playground were drawn to it even though it looks like a messy junk yard and not similar to any other playground in the rich city of New York. During the summer camp we had to turn many people away as they wanted to enter but we were open only to the campers.
A story worth sharing from the summer is a 12 year old girl we had on the first week of summer camp who had a big loud presence. At first many kids were afraid of her. She talked “big and frightening” which to kids is often the same as actually doing what is said. Later in the week as she was navigating the game developing day after day she became the leader of the “flower tribe”, working to make peace between the “fire tribe” and the “mercenaries”. It was beautiful to see her soften as she realized both kids and adults liked her (I later learned she isn’t used to that) and didn’t think of her as a bad person. This translated into her coming back to several weeks of camp and while she would be rough at times, she had her soft moments and even when she was rough she was careful.
On the last week she was there, a game developed in which she wrestled me (I probably weigh 3 times her weight, but know how to keep it playful and not just overpower her) and that included making scary faces and sounds, grabbing me as if she will use her nails to hurt me, but never following through, soaking me with water and more. To an outside person this could have looked bad and might sound like too much. To me it is clear that we were playing and giving her space to workout whatever she needed.
On the other side of the spectrum, we had a 6 year old boy who was rather shy and timid. He would ask me and the other playworkers to ask other kids to play with him because he was afraid they would say no to him. We tried to find a balance between doing as he asked and encouraging him to ask for himself. In an adult lead camp or activity such a challenge would often not be given the time and space needed for that boy to get rid of old fears and overcome this challenge of human interaction which does not get measured in standardized tests. That same boy offered me what I jokingly think of as a “back handed compliment”. He said I was the best teacher he ever had. I say “back handed” because I don’t think of myself as a teacher in that setting but realize he had no other word for a non family adult who’s taking care of him.
Numerous kids asked us if we have a school for them to go to, told us it was “the best summer camp ever” and “see you next year!” Several kids who were signed up in one of the earlier weeks of the summer convinced their parents to send them for another week or two with us. In my eyes the main thing we were offering the kids, which they obviously craved, was freedom. The camp didn’t have mandatory activities, other than sharing the few rules of the playground the children didn’t need to sit and listen quietly while being talked at, they were allowed to use hand tools, build, destroy, imagine, read, wrestle and even be bored (which didn’t happen often).
The first season was a big success and we look forward to reaching an increasing number of families with the concept of free or self-directed play. We recognize that play:ground offers a setting that allows for a wider range of possibilities for kids to choose out of, but that parents, teachers and any adult in a setting with a child can exercise children’s rights for self direction in a much larger scale than we see today. The benefits of such freedom are well documented by Dr. Peter Gray and others.
Alexander Khost is a father, youth rights advocate, artist, and web developer. He is the co-founder of play:ground, a junkyard playground in NYC.
Yoni Kallai promotes self-directed play through his work as a circus acrobat and as a board member and staffer of play:ground a unique junkyard playground in NYC.
How often do you hear that the ‘health and safety culture’ cannot be resisted? That fear of litigation makes people unwilling to accept the slightest possibility of accidents or injuries? The implication is that risk benefit assessment (RBA) – the balanced approach to risk management that I and others have developed – is a waste of time.
My response – that RBA is making a difference, and that the legal benchmark is to be reasonable, not to eliminate all risk – is sometimes met with scepticism or cynicism. “That may be true in theory,” the argument goes. “But in practice, as soon as a child is hurt and a claim comes in, the lawyers and the insurers just pay out, no matter what the merits of the case.”
This is why I am pleased to share the news that the charity Hackney Play Association has successfully fought off a claim…
A new literature review suggests that unsupervised play fosters resilient kids.
Kids’ play spaces are too sanitized and too safe. That’s the takeaway from a new literature review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The authors analyzed 18 studies on the benefits and consequences of unsupervised, exciting play for kids and teens ages 7 to 15.
Their conclusion: Missing out on “risky play” comes at a cost.
It’s important to note how the term “risk” functions here. No one is suggesting, for instance, that kids head out into the backyard and juggle knives. They’re not advocating for a culture of kiddie parkour. The authors write:
We use the word “risk” in the context of risky play to denote a situation whereby a child can recognize and evaluate a challenge and decide on a course of action.
What does that look like? “Risky” play can encompass behaviors that offer a jolt of adrenaline, whether it’s scaling a structure, swinging, or running amok in a way that’s a little rough-and-tumble. The authors distinguish between this type of play and play that’s flat-out reckless (or, for that matter, infrastructure that’s inherently dangerous—such as playground equipment that poses the risk of head entrapment or strangulation).
“Risky” play encourages kids to think critically, and appears to have a positive impact on child health. “We found that play environments where children could take risks promoted increased play time, social interactions, creativity and resilience,” Mariana Brussoni, lead author of the study, and assistant professor in University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health and Department of Pediatrics, said in a press release.
The authors weigh the benefits against the risks that can be associated with high-octane play, such as bone fractures. (Falls send as many as 3 million kidsto emergency rooms in the U.S. each year.) They conclude that “play at height was not related to fracture frequency and severity,” and that wild recreation does not appear to be correlated with other measures of aggression.
Study recommendations include designing more structures that allow kids to actively engage with the environment, such as through manipulating tools or climbing trees.
One example: the Land, an “adventure playground” in North Wales. Inspired by the topography of a junkyard, the place is filled with muddy puddles, rubber tires, wooden pallets, and cement tubes—nary a slide or sandbox in sight. It gets a little wild. “If a 10-year-old lit a fire at an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling. At the Land, spontaneous fires are a frequent occurrence,” wrote The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosinlast year. But the kids aren’t left to create mayhem entirely on their own: there’s a staff of adults who are trained to keep a close eye on the play and intervene when necessary. (Rosin reports that no kids have sustained injuries beyond a scraped knee.)
I was fortunate to have had a very playful childhood in the American midwest. It included roaming through back yards with a crew of kids of various ages, making up our own games. Most adults I talk to have similar kinds of stories and believe that these were valuable experiences and meaningful times in their lives. I’m interested in the discrepancy between what we remember enjoying as kids, and what we tend to allow children to do once we’ve grown up.
Rosin, who visited the site with her own child, quotes Tim Gill, the author of the book No Fear, which interrogates our risk-averse ideology:
[We have] an idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation. Now our working assumption is that children cannot be trusted to find their way around tricky physical or social and emotional situations.
That critique seems echoed by the recommendations of the authors of the new study, who wrote:
Given the progressive decline of risky play opportunities, there is a need for action to slow or reverse the trend in order to promote and preserve children’s health.
According to these experts, we need to allow, or even encourage, kids to cause a little mischief—for their own good.
Close your eyes and imagine the most nourishing play you can conjure up from your childhood, either alone or in a social setting. What were you doing? Where were you? How did it feel?
PART TWO: QUIZ
What do you think these things have in common?
These towers of awesomeness in Berlin, Germany.
This little fort world in Berkeley, CA.
This woodsy play space in Mercer Island, WA
Aside from the clear commonality of being super cool-looking, what they all have in common, is…..drumroll please………they all were built by kids. Welcome, friend, to the world of the ADVENTURE PLAYGROUND.
(Welcome, also, to the frantic, impassioned inside of my brain. Welcome to the places I have feverishly thought and schemed and planned about for the last whole lot of months, with a few sidetracks into more ‘realistic’ directions, brought on entirely by myself. Luckily, I came…
Tomorrow, 3 August, tens of thousands of children and young people from across the United Kingdom will be out playing, celebrating Playday – the national day for play, when hundreds of local and regional play events are taking place to promote the importance of children’s right to play.
This year’s Playday theme, ‘Play Matters…’ celebrates the many benefits of outdoor play: climbing trees, making dens, jumping in puddles, making mud pies, rolling down hills, playing with water, chasing, hide and seek, climbing.
Playday national coordinators, Play England, Play Scotland, Play Wales and PlayBoard Northern Ireland issued a statement, saying:
“It will be no surprise to learn that when children talk about their preferred play experiences, they more often than not cite outdoor play as their favourite activity. This makes sense; the outdoors is the very best place for children to practice and master emerging physical skills. Frequent and regular opportunities…
It is obvious that children’s play experiences and everyday freedoms are hugely shaped by the places where they live. So anyone who cares about these issues should also be concerned about the qualities of neighbourhoods, towns and cities, and about how they are planned, designed and built.
Human habitats are changing fast. In particular, cities are growing and changing faster than ever before – and more and more children are growing up in cities. How should play advocates, and advocates for more child-friendly places, respond to these changes? This post tries to answer that question.
The post brings together some key strands of my thinking over the years on child-friendliness, outcomes and advocacy. It is a very lightly edited version of my response to a discussion on play and the environment that was initiated by the International Play Association (IPA), of which I am a member. You can find the IPA…
This Saturday at the beautiful Blaise Castle Estate there will be a Goram Fair: a special free event for children and families celebrating the legend of Bristol’s giant Goram! There will be stalls, activities and rides on a vintage fun fair, a giant adventure story trail, puppet show, horse rides, falconry, walkabout entertainment from a magician […]