By Erica Quigley
Erica is one of our Playworker Development Course students and has been working steadily through the 12 modules. She has been reflecting recently on her practice, and, with her permission, we’ve decided to share some of her thoughts on our blog. She has written for our blog before, and we’re excited to have her back again!
I started taking play seriously about ten years ago. Watching children – in the woods, on post-and-platform playgrounds, and in parking lots – got me familiar with different kinds of play and how the environment and its norms can expand or limit opportunities. In each place and time, I asked, What’s on the play menu? (Bear with me through an extended food metaphor.)
Most kids seemed to subsist on the play equivalent of fast food; the ubiquitous spaces that landscape architect Helen Woolley cleverly dubbed “KFC” or kit-fence-carpet playgrounds. My research into adventure playgrounds led me to the conclusion that adults need to provide children with what I thought were the “highest forms” of play, which I saw as den-building and getting dirty and taking big risks with sharp tools. Could we take a page out of the local food movement and feed kids organic chicken and sautéed vegetables?
In my role as an environmental educator, I began providing loose parts in play areas and noticing how children used the objects in unexpected ways. I also came up against reluctant staff and safety fears. I didn’t make this connection at the time, but there’s an analogy here: community gardens are to factory farms what adventure playgrounds are to KFC playgrounds. Do-it-yourself spaces have lower material costs and are more responsive to local needs. However, they’re unpredictable and require specialized skills to manage. Frustration with the status quo can slide into extreme viewpoints; both the food and play movements sometimes hold up unrealistic ideals. All of your tomatoes can’t be organic heirloom varieties grown less than a mile from your house, and all children won’t have access to a playworker-staffed wonderland of kid-built forts.
As I visited more play spaces and worked on a graduate degree in landscape architecture, I came to understand the need for balance. Children need a balanced diet; a play buffet where they can pick and choose what suits them in that moment. Most kids play near home and school most of the time, and those environments are likely offer a mix of KFC and loose parts play, even if the loose parts are limited to the twigs and sand that have collected on the edge of the asphalt. I’m enchanted by the idea that a neighborhood could have as many opportunities for play as it now does for food: grocery store, takeout, street vendor, or vending machine. My goal as a designer is to create opportunities for different kinds of play within the existing context, while nudging adults to broaden their idea of what can happen there.
I’ve nearly completed the Playworker Development Course and have rethought the whole idea of adults “providing” play. Kids play wherever they are with whatever they have. Great design can expand opportunities in time and space, but we can also nurture a child’s ability to meet their play needs in impoverished settings. A pop-up adventure playground or a romp in the woods develops a child’s ability to think flexibly and adapt their environment. These experiences are like cooking classes; kids learn they can combine elements to create something altogether different. As I continue to ponder play and design, I’ll look for ways to help children be able to prepare their own play menu, and even grow the ingredients themselves.
If you want to hear more about our course and from the students that have been part of it, check out our website here. We look forward to hearing from you!