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The Two Tales of Starting One play:ground
A junkyard playground in New York City is empowering young people by giving them space and ownership over their decisions.

Alex’s Tale

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.

photo from play:ground nyc

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).

photo from play:ground nyc

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.

Yoni’s Tale

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.

photo from play:ground nyc

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.

photo from play:ground nyc

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.