From my first moment in playwork, I knew this was something powerful and important. I felt it in my bones, and have been stubbornly determined to stay in this field ever since. A lot of us have stories of moments like that, when something ‘clicked’ inside and changed everything. Read on to learn more about our journey from zero to pop-ups.

Beginning with Playwork

Pop-Up Adventure Play was born from a desire to bring playwork ideas to a larger audience, and to support anyone interested supporting play. That introduced us to so many passionate and dedicated adults – parents and teachers and architects, summer camp directors and youth librarians, all hoping to ‘do something’ in their own neighbourhoods and communities. Working with them has taught us to think about playwork as an approach (as well as a set of tools). We can’t tell anyone how to ‘do’ playwork (and people do ask!) but we can show people a process by which playwork might happen. It’s a kind of reflective practice. We look around for information, compare with shared ideals, think and discuss the possible responses – and finally, we pick one and hope.  

For Suzanna and me, playwork has also been a shared vocabulary for making decisions as an organization. Funding, partnerships, projects and priorities, playwork ideals are why we only work with people who have approached us, in communities where we have been invited. Playwork projects, in all their scrappy inventiveness, taught us how to keep going without grant or other major funding. It’s given us a framework for collaborating with folks who invite us into their homes and places of business. It grants us the patience to listen to their hopes and fears, and help them to tend a growing dream.

The Pop-Up Adventure Playground Effect

The very first pop-up was in New York City, co-imagined and delivered with Sharon Unis. We had met after a disappointing regional play advocacy meeting, impatient to feel useful. We talked on the sidewalk and then in a coffee shop, wondering together how to translate and promote playwork as a concept. Though the US has its own history of adventure playgrounds, it’s almost entirely forgotten. Most people we met would never get to see an established site, or talk to another playworker in their area. 

I told Sharon some of my experiences playranging in the UK at local play days, and we decided to translate that idea for the USA. We made it simpler, bigger, and worked in partnership with existing organizations and events. Joan Almon came to that first pop-up adventure playground at the Ultimate Block Party in 2010, as did Erin Davis, Anna Housley-Juster and Cas Holman. The reaction from visitors was astounding, with everyone caught up in the magic.

A pop-up adventure playground that is going well feels like no other place on earth – except for another pop-up adventure playground. These sites resonate with people, connecting with something deep in there and shared with all living creatures. Everyone at that first pop-up agreed that we had an idea that worked, that people wanted and needed and loved. We had no idea how far these ripples might go.  

Along Came Pop-Ups Zan

Suzanna reached out that November, as a playwork student at Leeds Beckett University looking for a second year ‘experiential learning placement’. On a grey Friday afternoon in London, we shared a sandwich and instantly connected. We have talked a lot over the years since about our early experiences playranging – hers in Manchester and mine in London. Both of us were inspired and at times frustrated by those projects, grateful for what we learned and trying to do better whenever we saw a way. 

It’s been over a decade since that sandwich. Pop-Up Adventure Play now consists of myself in the USA, and Suzanna in the UK. The bulk of our time is spent playworking adults (so that they can playwork children), working to building relationships and professional communities, both locally and online. We try to never tell people what to do. We try to always be kind, and to keep learning and reflecting together.  

The Budding International Playwork Community

Play associations have historically been regional, providing support to play advocates within a specific area. Our neighbourhood is ‘the internet’, so we’ve worked across barriers of distance and time zones since the beginning. Great playwork mentorships and resources have historically been unavailable to anyone outside of the UK and the USA. It has (and still is) specifically inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t read English. We are working on these distance and language issues can begin to make playwork more accessible on an international level.

When the question of ‘translating’ playwork becomes literal, we discourage folks from using terms with roots that suggest adult roles of ‘leading’ or ‘teaching’. This can be difficult! Playworkers have a horizontal relationship with children which is (according to Roger Hart) unique to the playwork field. It also goes against the societal norm. For example, “Play champion” implies that the person has “won” play or is better than other people in play. “Play Animator” sets the tone that without the adult, the children could not possibly animate. Language and history does not always agree with the ideals of playwork. This is our international playwork challenge.

What’s in a Name?

My absolute favourite invention was a term created by our friends in Portugal, which translates most closely to ‘ludonaut’ – a humorous contraction of the Latin for ‘I play’ (ludos) and ‘astronaut’. Within that framework, play is definitely not something we teach, or even necessarily facilitate. It’s an infinite space of exploration, which we are privileged to occasionally explore. 

Interestingly enough, the title of ‘playworker’ and the name ‘pop-up adventure playground’ have long been up for debate. We worried whether the name was too long, the reference to adventure playgrounds too obscure. Our friends in Costa Rica told us that the word ‘pop-up’ sounded too much like ‘poop’. After much discussion, they asked to call their events ‘pop-APs’. The name doesn’t really matter, at least not in comparison to the feeling, the experiences and relationships they make possible.

…and Here We Are.

Looking back at the past 12 years of Pop-Ups, the term ‘ludonaut’ also feels like a reminder of how supporting play can take you anywhere. I never imagined I’d still be doing this 12 years later. Additionally, I would never have pictured that it would take me all over the world, and introduce me to so many of my absolute favourite people. 

If Suzanna and I have a specific wish for all of you, it’s for the abundance of inspiration, friends and insight that we have been blessed with finding so far. That’s been our safety net again and again, as we throw ourselves into making the best responses we can see to the situations around us. We’ve seen that play has a way of taking people where they need to go. That might be taking them to new places, or through hard times, or simply bringing them back together.  

In conclusion, our journey from zero to pop-ups has been a remarkable one. We have learned so much about playwork and have collaborated with so many people who are passionate about promoting play. Our aim is to continue learning and to spread our knowledge about playwork to as many people as possible.

This blogpost is part of a series where we explore some of our most commonly asked questions. These “Blog Thoughts” work hand in hand with our “Video Thoughts” created as bite-sized versions of the main theme.

By Morgan