Jill Wood is one of our favourite people. We first met her on the 2014 tour – she hugged us tight when we left, and has been a tremendous Friend to Pop-Ups ever since. Most recently, she put me up in her spare room for months while we worked together at the AP she founded and still runs.
In addition to the Parish AP, Jill also started Bayou City Play – a program that brings loose parts play to all sorts of public events around Houston. This winter, Jill and I had plenty of evenings to talk and scheme, but never seemed to run out of things to discuss – we bet you’ll feel the same when you meet her at the Campference.
I mean, read this short interview with her and tell me there aren’t at least a hundred more things that you want to hear more about?
Pop-Up Adventure Play: What was your first thought when you heard about adventure playgrounds?
Jill Wood: I first heard about adventure playgrounds when I was asked to open one at our school. In 2008 our Head of School at the time, Margaret Noecker, gave me a notebook titled Playleaders Manual, compiled by the Houston Adventure Play Association in the 1990s, and asked me to start an after school program on three acres of marsh behind the school.
The notebook had information on basic child development, tool safety, the value of play and some suggested games and building projects, but it was missing the ‘What is a Playleader?’ section listed in the table of contents…oh and the section on ‘What is Adventure Play?’ which cracks me up now.
It’s hard to imagine, but in 2008 there was almost nothing online about adventure playgrounds. The manual referred to Jack Lambert’s book, so I ordered a copy and it took three months to get to me from the UK! So for three months, we were seriously winging it. It was more like, let’s play in the marsh with the school librarian (me), an ex-Air Force Readiness Officer (my friend Kelly), some tires, and a table with three legs.
But when Jack Lambert’s book arrived, there were photos of kids in bellbottoms and turtlenecks, making fires, playing in tree forts, and jumping from high places. My favorite was this picture of a girl anchoring a piece of lumber with her foot while sawing it in half with a crosscut saw. I thought, “this is like a hybrid of my actual 1970s childhood (with all of it’s free-range-iness and pants that got caught in bicycle spokes), and the childhood of my dreams (with a common space to be around neighborhood kids, real tools, and grownups who are around to help, but aren’t bossy).”
PUAP: How long have you been running AP, and what is your advice for people who want to start one too?
JW: We just finished up our eighth year, but I didn’t find playwork until year two. My advice is to find playwork at the outset so you have a good, solid set of tools to protect the space when the challenges come.
That first reaction I had when I saw the photos in Jack Lambert’s book? That affectionate/thrilled feeling I had when I saw a capable, confident child holding a saw? If you want to start an AP, you probably have that reaction too. But the adults who decide whether your space will be full or empty of playing children may not feel the same way. And you’ll need the language, empathy, and research to explain why free play is important to parents, teachers, and other adults who make decisions on a child’s behalf.
Just to clarify, saws aren’t a requirement for adventurous play but there are constant, sometimes subtle challenges to children’s free play. Over our 8 years, we’ve discovered that many adults perceive our site as messy and accuse us playworkers of being irresponsible for not teaching the children to clean. Playwork provides some solid reasoning for leaving the site alone, related to the children’s sense of ownership, and a child’s sense of organisation, which is very different from an adult’s. Let’s just say, when a child needs a piece of ribbon on our site, they always seem to know that it’s in the pile next to the fort, underneath the fence wood, behind the computer keyboard, but under the flat basketball. And if they don’t, they’ll find another child who does. Playwork explains that phenomenon with research and language that is neutral. It even provides an explanation for why a tattered, mud-coated piece of blue ribbon has been in circulation on the playground for five years. And why it’s more coveted than the brand new rope donation I got for the kids this year.
PUAP: You’ve also spent some time studying playwork on an AP in London, and visited a few sites there. What did you see, and what would you like to share with the US-based advocacy scene?
JW: In 2010 I took a course on an adventure playground in North London. Playworkers from all over the city attended because it was a required course for a particular level of playwork certification. On the first day, we talked about table saw safety and I thought, “Whoa, they let 6-year-olds use table saws over here? Um, that’s something we’ll need to work up to…like very gradually…if ever…”
Then we started building structures for the children and it was a newish adventure playground, so I thought, “hmmm, they must be making structures that kids can build onto like at the Huntington Beach AP in California.”
Then we started building the walls, adding decorations, finishing touches and I thought, “What the…” We adults were building the playground and there were no plans to add materials for the kids to manipulate, build or destroy.
This is a roundabout way of saying there are a wide spectrum of adventure playgrounds in London. Some, like the one I visited after class, Somerford Grove Adventure Playground, are excellent. It has climbing platforms, crashing opportunities with mats, a giant swing, and tons of hidey-holes for thinking, chatting, or just escaping, and piles of non-precious stuff for kids to stack, lean, throw, or smash. It can be difficult for adults to make out the particulars, because the entire playground is splashed with random color, like confetti or a giant game of pick up sticks. It’s beautiful and filled with children who live nearby and come and go as they please.
Then there are APs that are built because the government has allotted a certain amount of money that needs to be spent quickly in a particular neighborhood. Something gets thrown up without community participation, or even child participation, but refers to the aesthetic of an adventure playground – raw wood, rope, unexpected angles.
It’s easy to be dismissive of the latter, but there are stories behind both. Some adventure playgrounds thrive, while others are fraught with compromise to the point of being cool-looking fixed equipment playgrounds. We should learn from both, be certain that compromise is certain, and decide beforehand where we’ll budge and what is non-negotiable. I’m sure Somerford Grove made compromises, but they did it in a way that maintained a wide variety of play opportunities, and protected the children’s ability to manipulate the space.
We have an incredible opportunity in the U.S. right now. I hear a shift happening among parents, teachers and others who advocate for children – growing numbers of adults who are tired of seeing children’s worlds shrink. This is so exciting! I just want us to know history as we move forward. And to accept a wide range of adventure playgrounds and adventurous play, knowing that there will be differences between all of them, and that the children’s ownership of the space is the non-negotiable.
PUAP: How do you play, for yourself?
JW: I love to ride my bike – not competitively, wearing special clothes or anything – just a leisurely ride along the bayou. Reading fiction with my feet up is nice. And organising my collection of tiny things in small acrylic boxes on my custom built tiny shelves is where I completely loose awareness of space and time.
To be the first to hear more info on our Playwork Campference, read more about Pop-Up Adventure Play and our work with folks from all over the world, please check out our Facebook page and content throughout our website.