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Adult Playgrounds
Modeling play and freedom for adults (in hopes that it will help some adults deschool).

Why don’t we have playgrounds for adults?

It’s sticky in the August heat of France and I’ve been jogging for hours. I’m park surfing to soak the sun while I can roam free in it, and I stop to lounge in a field across from a big Parisian playground. I’m watching children run around, laughing, screaming. Two small children, about to collide, stop on opposite sides of what appears to be a passing butterfly. In their stillness, I, too, feel the lilting sway of the butterfly’s flight. They follow it overhead with their eyes and feet, staring up and starting to walk toward it, only to knock into one another, fall to the ground, and, after a bit of ticklish wrestling, take up a game of leapfrog. I marvel at their presence and joy and realize that I want in. I want to go play too. I want to join so much that I start to walk toward the playground.

Usually when traveling I grapple between following wild impulses and assimilating into the culture in which I’m immersed. This awareness in mind, I stop at the gate of the jungle gym. I sip from the fountain, watching les infants and imagining views atop this massive silver octopus. I can’t stop looking and longing. I almost can’t stand it and go in, but decide against it and realize I have to walk back to the field to keep from hopping the fence, climbing the ropes, and pulling myself up over the metal bars to sit and watch the tall trees as if I was one too. I want to feel like I’m moving through the world, with the world. Perhaps I could and face the threat of being called a pedophile in a language I don’t understand and, possibly, be forced to leave.

So I talk myself up and ask some interesting questions: Come on, Maddie, don’t be scared, what if you did it and other adults joined? There’s an idea, unlikely as it is. What would happen in an adult recess, where we all put down our phones and beers in the park and instead grab monkey bars, look at the sky from upside down, and use our whole body at the great play of what it is to be alive. What would it show youth if we did? Why are adults so confused about youth’s love of screens and lack of desire to be outdoors? Look at who they’re watching, seems pretty clear to me. It is not enough to say, “go have fun, get outside, make it up.” We must love play with all of our free selves if we want that for youth.

I work in a space that encourages play for youth and adults alike, probably why it feels so natural for me to imagine this scene and feel free to play. I do very free things in the center where I support youth–I practice handstands, I have long talks with my friends about dinosaurs, I make food I want to eat when I want to eat it, I watch my friends play video games and talk about them together until they grow tired and are ready to head to the park where I swing with them to the moon. Inspired by that memory, I head back toward the gate of the playground.

My friends are all younger than 12 and they would love this wonderland I’m looking at. They are self-directed learners at a center called Cottonwood NYC, and in my 3 years there, I have learned through much questioning, trial, and error (maybe this is what it means to play?) what it feels like for me to show up as their friend and ally in learning. I don’t talk at them, tell them what to do, learn, or aspire to. I build relationships with them, learning about them to learn with them. I support learners at Cottonwood to be self-led, autonomous, kind, and themselves by being it myself, by playing with what it looks like each day. It is the greatest gift I could have as an “educator” (what I say at dinner parties).

One major role of adults in youth’s lives is to be models. Teach strength by being strong. Compassion by being compassionate, creativity by creating, hope by hoping, love by loving, play by playing. Through the gate, I reach for the surprisingly high bars and pull myself on top finding the view was well worth the risk. What do you want to see in the world? Be it. They are watching you. And they are waiting, waiting, for you to watch them too. Allies.