Pop-Up Adventure Play: How This Small Nonprofit Supports Child-Directed Play, Communities & Kids by Mike Prochaska
Suzanna Law is the social media director for Pop-Up Adventure Play, a small, but international, charity that supports communities to create opportunities for child-directed play. "We wanted to tell more people about the importance of play in a way that would meet them where they are in their community, just like a playworker would meet a child where they are in their play," she says. Read on to learn more about Pop-Up Adventure Play...
Q. How does Pop-Up Adventure Play work?
"We have pop-up adventure playgrounds which are public play events filled with loose materials that we call loose parts. Children are welcome to come and play with these loose parts while their parents watch on from the sidelines and give a helping hand once in a while. These events are great opportunities to bring the community together because of play, and can get everyone talking about how to create more play opportunities. These events are usually free too which means that it is all the more appealing, and easily replicated."
Q. What is child-directed play and why is it important?
"In a world where children are highly scheduled, giving children the opportunity to follow their own lead is really important. It means that they can have a tiny bit of control of their own lives and truly meet their own needs. When you give a child the chance, they will play. It is when they are at their most fulfilled, most content, and it provides them the opportunity to explore the world in a way that is important to them.
"Of course, there are plenty of opportunity to develop skills, learn stuff and achieve – these are all adult words, and grown-up outcomes. At the core, child-directed play is about meeting the most basic needs of a child – after eating, sleeping, being safe and watered, a child wants to play."
Q. What are adventure playgrounds?
"Adventure playgrounds are spaces where children are in charge. They are spaces where children can build using hammers and nails, climb trees, splash in water, dig holes and even make fires. A description like that might sound a little bit frightening when the more common playground is usually made of colorful plastic, but despite the perceived messiness adventure playgrounds are places that children can play without being judged, where the adults present are not there to regulate their every move, and a space where people can feel free. There are loads of them in Europe, a bunch of them in Japan, and a handful of them in North America."
Q. What are the benefits of adventure playgrounds?
"Adventure playgrounds allow children to be themselves. They are there purely to meet their play needs and not worry about having to please us adults all the time. There they can hang out in peace, be quiet if they want, be loud if they need, and most importantly, enjoy their childhood. They are places where children's executive functioning skills can blossom, and they can learn about themselves and other people.
"Some people, like Colin Ward and Lady Allen of Hurtwood, have described adventure playgrounds as mini societies – a safe haven where children can practice being in the real world. When children are given the opportunity to play freely, like they are on an adventure playground, they surprise us in ways that we cannot imagine, and grow in ways that they need for themselves."
Q. Do children use real tools at adventure playgrounds?
"Generally yes, most adventure playgrounds will allow the use of tools. This is usually carefully monitored because the adults on the playground would never want to see children hurt for no reason. Usually a child can use a tool after a good relationship is established, and trust is developed between adult and child, and child with tool."
Q. What would you tell the critics who are afraid kids will get hurt?
"No one wants to see anyone getting hurt, especially playworkers. But it is important to know too that accidents do happen. Knees can get grazed easily and scratches can appear from nowhere – and that's just day to day when you're not on an adventure playground!
"It's funny then when talking about adventure playground that injuries are not as common as you would think. A new resource is coming out about a school in Houston, Texas, where they compared their adventure playground with their fixed playground. It was more likely for children to get injured on the average slide/swing/climbing frame combo, than it is on an adventure playground (resource will be released soon, see facebook.com/popupplay for more!).
"When children are in charge of their own space, they are far more careful in it. They risk assess for themselves and they manage their own problems. Children don't set out every day with the intention to get hurt, so on their own they will find ways to not get hurt. After all, they will have to stop playing if they are injured! Adults are always present on adventure playgrounds to keep an eye on things, but in the most subtle of ways. Adults trust that the children will know their own limits. The children trust that the adults will let them work out their own play.
"And just very quietly when no children are paying attention, the adults on the adventure playground – the playworkers – do lots of risk assessments to make sure that everything is in order, just in case."
Q. Why is play important for children?
"Just as taking away sleep, food or oxygen is detrimental, play deprivation something you do not want for your child. It is important for all of those adult buzz words – gross motor skill development, speech and language development, literacy and numeracy development, team building skills etc., etc. But more important than anything I think, it is good for their soul, for their core being. Play is important for its own sake, says Huizinga. Play is important because it is an innate desire for every child that they need to follow through with their own ideas otherwise there could be negative consequences. Play is important because breathing, sleeping and eating are just as important. It is a fundamental need in humanity."
Q. What are the advantages of allowing children to do risky things?
"We fear the word 'risk' because we folks immediately think of danger and pain. But risk is important in children's play. It helps to work out physical limits of their body, emotional limits of their hearts, relationship limits with other people. Risks are everywhere, not just in adventure playgrounds. Crossing the road, making a new friend, trying a new type of food – all of this is risk, and if we don't take those risks, our world would be very small, our knowledge very limited, and we would still be on milk and crawling.
"Risks keeps our lives interesting, and helps us to work out what we don't like or do like. It also shows us when we need to stop, or if keeping going, or if it's something we can manage. Risk is a part of life and taking small steps to negotiate risk during play is the safest way to explore this part of life."
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