Adventure Playgrounds: My Interview With KOOP Adventure Play Founder Kelsey Langley by Mike Prochaska
KOOP Adventure Play is working to bring an adventure playground to Illinois! I am excited because urban Illinois is only a few hours away from our house in the Chicago suburbs. I was lucky enough to get to chat with Kelsey Langley, the director and founder of KOOP Adventure Play.
Q. What does “KOOP” stand for?
“KOOP stands for 'Kid Owned and Operated Play' (pronounced ‘coupe’ not ‘co-op’). We recently rebranded to a clearer name – KOOP Adventure Play.”
Q. Why are you opening in Illinois?
“The idea started after one of our founders saw an adventure playground (AP) in another state and loved the idea for her kids here in town. A few awesome founders gathered around the idea and KOOP was born! We are currently hosted in a private school, but we also rent other spaces in the community and do pop-up events all around our cities of Champaign-Urbana, Ill. We are still searching for the perfect location for a permanent AP site – stay tuned!”
Q. What are adventure playgrounds?
“Adventure playgrounds started in post-war Copenhagen, where researchers noticed children playing in bombed-out buildings and using random materials in their play. The idea was then taken back to the UK where ‘junkyard playgrounds,’ later adventure playgrounds, were born. Today, we characterize APs as spaces of profound permission full of interesting materials, staffed by supportive adults trained in the play-work philosophy. Playworkers gently support children's play with empathy, non-judgement and reflect often on how to best create an environment ripe for play for all children and all play types – not only those who want to run and climb. In the United States, fewer than 10 site-based APs exist, and we hope to add KOOP Adventure Play to that short list soon!”
Q. What are the benefits of KOOP Adventure Playgrounds?
“KOOP Adventure Play provides meaningful and child-directed play experiences that foster the development of the whole child. Cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills are honed through play, which is a necessary and important part of every child’s life. Through self-directed play, children learn to take calculated and healthy risks, find innovative ways to create, build and experiment all based on their own intrinsically motivated interests, making the lessons more impactful. Children practice developmental skills such as overcoming obstacles, problem solving, learning pro-social behavior and communicating within their ‘kid community’ through self-directed play.
"In addition, they experience the joy of self-discovery and the thrill of the being able to pursue their own ideas without adult facilitation, which leads to increased self-esteem and confidence in their own abilities. Children are free to focus on the process of their playing and learning rather than the final product that is the focus of our result-driven world. Additionally, playworkers are trained to gently support children’s individual development and needs by observing, creating a supportive environment and clearing the play space of hazards.”
Q. Do children use real tools at KOOP Adventure Playgrounds?
"On adventure playgrounds in the UK, hammers, saws and even fire are used regularly by the children. Because we are in the United States and housed by a school, we do have some limitations from the original philosophy. Some of our programs have tools like hammers, drills and saws, which have all been used without incident. Children love using ‘real’ tools and gaining real life skills while they build a structure or simply use the tools for fun or to appease their curiosity.”
Q. What would you tell the critics who are afraid kids will get hurt?
"Statistically, adventure playgrounds are safer than typical park playgrounds which have only fixed equipment that is eventually mastered by the children and then used in ways for which it was not designed. Adventure playgrounds are also staffed by playworkers who are trained to assess risks and rid the site of hazards. A risk might be climbing in a tree, however a nail sticking out of a piece of wood on the ground is a hazard. These are different terms which elicit different responses from staff. Our colleagues at Pop-Up Adventure Play and Adventure Play at the Parish School in Texas just put together a five-year analysis on safety in an AP versus a typical playground with very positive results, showing APs being nearly four times safer.”
Q. Why is play important for children?
“Play is an innate, biological drive for children – and adults – but more than that, it is a right of children. We define play as being freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. Play is how children define who they are, explore their interests, test out their passions and synthesize their growing knowledge base. With each passing generation, the time for self-directed free play for children is less and less due to increased academic pressures, technology and more adult-led extracurricular activities. Because play is vital, advocacy groups like KOOP are popping up all around the U.S. to remind people that we must prioritize this special time for children.”
Q. What are the advantages of allowing children to do risky things?
“When children learn to assess risks for themselves, they're actually safer in the long run. Children are often discouraged from climbing high in a tree but when else will they have the chance to identify that inner feeling of ‘I can do this’ or ‘this doesn't feel quite right’ without an adult identifying the boundaries for them? Children are capable of this level of discernment for themselves and also don't want to get themselves injured. Adults need to remember to trust children and their capabilities more, or at the very least appreciate that kids need to practice real-life skills through play and risk taking. If adults can learn to pause their ‘be careful’ tendencies for just a few seconds longer, you'll see your child assess it for themselves and I promise you'll be impressed when they opt to not climb higher!”
Q. What’s the Prioritizing Play Conference 2018 about?
“The Prioritizing Play Conference will gather professionals across many disciplines who believe that play is valuable or are interested in learning why play and play-work are crucial in today's world. From child-care workers to professors, and teachers to healthcare professionals, this conference promises to share best practices, invigorating discussions and opportunities to access our own playful sides as adults! We will feature two keynote speakers, Professor Peter Gray and Morgan Leichter-Saxby, both with reputations for lengthy careers in advocacy, play provision and helping professionals see the value of play.”
Q. What will kids be doing at the KOOP spring break camp? And should parents sign their kids up?
“At KOOP's Spring Adventure Camp, we are renting a space with huge indoor and outdoor potential. We will bring raw materials like pallets, fabric, huge cardboard boxes, electronics for tinkering, loads of duct tape for constructing, and so many more options. We create a supportive space of freedom and possibility for kids to seek out their individual desires and imaginations and bring them to reality. In a fun and creative space under the gentle supervision of trained playworkers, we aim to give each child their ‘best camp ever,’ as we often hear. Sign up now!”