A tiny something on playing with the world

Play is everywhere, it lives in the forefront of my eyes. All the little things, the tiny things. The play cues that are flying when nobody is paying attention. The kid who throws a maple seed helicopter towards me on the street and then looks up, grinning, wondering what I will do, if I noticed. The flirty bow given by the man who opened the door of the cafe for me. The heart smashing beauty of nature even seems more playful now, like the autumn trees are throwing gleeful armfuls or yellow red orange leaves at the pond, laughing.

I always loved the world but I love it more now.

Perhaps the biggest crime our modern culture has committed against the forces of play is the one of RUSH, GO, DO, NOW. We have lost the time to just sit and notice how the trees are having mad leaf fights… and so we have lost the skill to do so, or the proclivity. I don’t know which of them got lost first but it hardly matters. Observations – how this person seems to respond to that cue, etc. – suffers, our joy and contentment suffers, our sense of belonging to the world suffers and our playfulness follows suit. Maybe it’s hard to play if you don’t feel like you belong to the world, or to the moment you are in?

Slow the hell down for a second. When we have a moment to sit and BE, let’s don’t turn on our damn phone. Let the universe show us how play is everywhere, and then let’s let ourselves jump in.


OK so I didn’t throw up, blank out or inadventantly swear.  I consider that a win!  I had a great time this morning chatting with local talk show host Bill Newman about play, The Play Workshop and our upcoming Pop Up Adventure Playground series…. Check it out if you have 1/2 hour – I start at 11:30 in the recording.  Unless, of course you are interested in local western Mass casino politics, then by all means start at 00.  Would love to hear what you all think!


Underprotect your kid; let them find their own magic

Spring is really coming! It is a little easier to get out in the puddly mud to play and work… the perfect antidote for reading and thinking a little too much about play and not actually playing enough.

But I have been thinking… and reading…

This is a wonderful front page article the Atlantic published recently called The Overprotected Kid. Framed around an Adventure Playground in Wales called The Land, Hannah Rosin does a great job analyzing the current hovering, over structured, risk averse parenting culture here in the US,  while shining a light on other ways to frame the topic. It’s long and riveting, and I have been thinking about it.  A lot.

Last night I read this short Huffington Post piece called I’m Done Making My Kid’s Childhood Magical. In this article, Bunmi Ladatin rants about the exhausting lengths parents go to ‘these days’ to bring a sense of magic into their children’s world. Parents feel like they are supposed to create elaborate parties, engage in complicated crafts and generally whip themselves into a frenzy ensuring they create magical memories for their kids.

Clearly, these two articles are two sides of the same coin, or perhaps they are even the same side. The cause and effect? Our feeble attempts to give back what we have robbed from our kids?

Ladatin: “Today, parents are being fed the idea that it benefits children to constantly be hand in hand, face to face, “What do you need my precious darling? How can I make your childhood amazing?” You can’t walk through Pinterest without tripping over 100 Indoor Summer Craft Ideas, 200 Inside Activities for Winter, 600 Things To Do With Your Kids In The Summer. 14 Million Pose Ideas For Elf on The Shelf. 12 Billion Tooth Fairy Strategies. 400 Trillion Birthday Themes. Parents do not make childhood magical.”

Parents take on the visioning and even the  execution of magical fun, turning their children into spectators, once again. Just like those flashing, beeping jumping toys we give them…our kids push a button and watch the toy have a grand time. We have forgotten how to let and expect our kids play on their own; we send them off to classes and activities and sports where adults are in charge. We don’t let them out of our sight. How can they find the magic of their lives, of their perspective, of the world, if we don’t give them a second?

Let’s kick them outside and give them an underprotected minute to find their own magic, because there is no doubt whatsoever that they will.



making your play


Close your eyes and imagine the most nourishing play you can conjure up from your childhood, either alone or in a social setting.  What were you doing?  Where were you? How did it feel?


What do you think these things have in common?


These towers of awesomeness in Berlin, Germany.


This little fort world in Berkeley, CA.


This woodsy play space in Mercer Island, WA

Aside from the clear commonality of being super cool-looking, what they all have in common, is…..drumroll please………they all were built by kids. Welcome, friend, to the world of the ADVENTURE PLAYGROUND.


(Welcome, also, to the frantic, impassioned inside of my brain.  Welcome to the places I have feverishly thought and schemed and planned about for the last whole lot of months, with a few sidetracks into more ‘realistic’ directions, brought on entirely by myself.  Luckily, I came to my senses.)

The ramifications, contexts, methodologies and my future plans relating to ADVENTURE PLAYGROUNDS will have to come out slowly; they are not a simple story and they are still being uncovered. I will be looking more closely at many of these things in future posts, however, here is a brief history as I understand it.

Since I am a little bit Danish, I am proud to say it all began in Denmark  (though by the fuss my beloved grandmother made of it, you would think I was a whole lot Danish.)  Ahem.  But anyway.

It started in the 1930’s in Copenhagen, when architect C.T. Sorensen “noticed that children preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds that he built.”  In fact, and in stead, they chose to play in the war rubble, where they could build, create and be their own architects.  Where they could create forts and dens and places of their very own.  Who, really, would rather play on a static system of somebody else’s imagining than create their own world with their own hands?

I wonder how many of you, in your happiest play memories ,  MADE  those playscapes which you still remember so brightly?  Were you constructing a blanket fort in your living room or making mud soup in your woods kitchen complete with bark and berry vegetables? What were the images that came to your mind, I really do want to know.  Those of you who grew up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are likely to have memories that are zinging with freedom, building forts in the woods down by the creek and running through the neighborhood in packs, expected home at dark.  No hours inside playing on computers.  Nobody too freaked out about what might happen to you out there.   How far we have come; I would say for the worse.

But back to the adventure playgrounds.  An evolving process titled them firstly  “junk playgrounds” , “creative playgrounds” or “building playgrounds”, with the term “adventure playgrounds” coming later.  It is worth noting that the very first such play space, opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1941, was called “Skrammellegepladsen” and the Danish word “skrammel” had quite a positive connotation, and had the added meaning of ‘reusable rubbish’, unlike our relatively negative relationship to the word “junk”.   John Bertelsen was the first ‘playleader’ or ‘playworker’ in Emdrup.  Lady Allen of Hurtwood visited in 1946, and brought the idea back to London.  And the adventure playground was off and running.

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Emdup Adventure Playground, Denmark

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Lollard Adventure Playground, England

What is one, exactly?  Of course like all things that are ‘living’, they look different in every place, adapting to the people and place with ease.  In adventure playgrounds, kids build things, they create their own space, the engage in play as free from adult direction as possible.  The have great ideas and implement them, they build forts and swings and teeter totters out of widely available and exceedingly diverse ‘loose parts’ that are to be had everywhere.  They use tools that parents in the U.S. might consider dangerous. They create worlds, negotiating and processing together the whole way through.

You might have seen some crazy clips from them if you ever saw the Up series of documentaries – they are a feature in the first film, SevenUp.  You also might enjoy this really classic, old school 13 minute short documentary that gives a great early adventure playground history.

In Europe and elsewhere there are now more than 1,000 of these beautiful, wild places, most of them in Scandinavia, the UK, Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Germany.  In the U.S. there are three.  Yup, I typed that right.  Three.  Though hopefully that is changing.  Others have come before but are gone due to loss of land or funding.  The ones that still exist are pretty amazing, and as as I mentioned before, they are alive in a very real sense, and so are quite different in every place.

This one in Berkeley, is the oldest remaining in the U.S. and here is a great blog post with lots of pics.


This one  is built in the woods of Mercer Island, just outside of Seattle, and comes down at the end of every season.  Huntington Beach, CA is the home of the third U.S. adventure playground – they have  a cool shallow pond where kids build and captain rafts and cross the water on rope bridges.


Does all of this seem dangerous?

The kids aren’t just in there with saws and hammers and climbing on things by themselves.  A very important part of the playground are the ‘playworkers’ whose job it is to join with the kids to provide a great place to play.  And to ensure a relatively safe play space.  And then to get out of the way.   I say relatively safe because clearly there is a very different understanding and relationship to risk in these environments.  Taking calculated, reasonable risks are how children build all manner of skills. The reality is that accidents are pretty rare in adventure playgrounds….. why?  Kids in these spaces are ‘on point’, they are on their ‘edge’, and when you are on your edge you are PAYING ATTENTION.  And when kids are paying attention, they are pretty darn competent.  They aren’t on the same boring, static playground  they have been on for years, now using it in ways it was not designed because they are trying to make it more interesting, challenging, alive.

I am currently taking the ‘Playworker Development Course’ through Pop Up Adventure Play,  a wonderful organization dedicated to play that works with a mobile, Pop-Up model.  Be on the lookout for my own mobile, pop up play event coming this spring under the name The Play Workshop!

So there you have it, a glimpse into the inside of my brain these days.

I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on all this!  I would also love to hear your play stories, either from your own childhood or from that of some child or children you know.  What do you like about these playgrounds?  What do you not like?

As for me, I like.

And it’s ON.


From when I was about 8, if it was windy, you could find me in the top of a tree.  I would cross the pasture to the edge of the woods where the big white pines circled the pond; I would climb to the tippy top.  There the tiny branches really flew in the wind – I held on tight.  Back and forth and around, grinning.  The whole world moving wildly and yet somehow together, reduced to some elemental essence that I was lucky enough to be inside of.

I’m not saying it was the smartest thing in the world to do.  And the thought of my daughter doing it makes my heart do a weird little flop.  But I sure hope she does.  And I sure hope I let her.

The way I felt in those trees, with the rain and leaves flying all around, lives in me like an ember that is impossible to put out.  It is fuel when I need firing up, solace when I feel disconnected, empowerment when I am confined. It sews me into the fabric of the world.

I don’t have a single memory I hold in that way from playing inside or with a toy.  Sure, I have some great memories of blanket forts, pogo sticks and model horses.  They are more like paintings of nice scenes, they bring a warm little glow.  They are more like night lights than embers, they couldn’t catch anything on fire.

There are other ember-type memories, and almost every one of them involves some element of risk. Hanging upside down on the log over the brook,  head swaying three feet over the rocks and water….. the big grape vine that you grabbed and took way up the slope, scrambling onto a rock platform from which to leap onto the vine and swing.  This vine eventually broke, came down during one such vault.  Yes, there were bruises, blood, maybe more.  But I don’t remember that part because I healed, because it was worth it, because it was just one bad consequence in a sea of joyfulness.

I fret these days about our culture, for many reasons, one of them being our relationship with risk.  It seems pretty twisted around.  We are happy to bundle all our children into the car and nonchalantly drive out onto the highway.  This is amazingly dangerous.  Yet we run around in front of our children attempting to remove every potentially harmful object, behavior or trajectory.  We take away the small ways kids can explore risk, learn from them and become more competent in their bodies and minds.  What happens, then, later, when they meet the risks of being a teenager or an adult and they have had no practice?  The huge risks, like driving cars or trashing the environment for future generations, are convenient enough for adults that we don’t seem to mind exposing our children to those ones.  But by god, don’t let your kid climb that thing, there are no railings!

I asked my mother one time, not long after becoming a mother myself – “how did you let me do that stuff?  I mean, I was in trees and on rocks – I was miles away.”  She said, “I had been watching you.  I knew you were competent.  We gave you increasing levels of freedom based on your skills.”  Wow.  That is pretty radical in the true sense of the word.  They trusted me.  Maybe it was because my large doses of freedom came with an equally large dose of responsibility.  I was an active part of our small family farm, I felt needed.  I had purpose as part of a system where everyone was integral.  Maybe this helped me gain their trust, or build my own skills.  Whatever it was, I am forever grateful to my parents that they trusted me.  They let me go.

Having my own child has, of course, brought me full circle on a lot of things.  No surprise there! That deeply fierce protection instinct I now have makes all the risk averse behavior out there more sensical than it did before.  I want desperately to think I will let my daughter climb very high in tall trees at a young age.  But as I said earlier, it makes my heart flop around in funny ways, so I know it won’t be easy.  It will take me being on my own journey of letting go, letting her fall and get hurt, letting her climb a little higher than I feel totally comfortable with, if I know in my heart she can do it.

If she’s anything like me, and of course she may be nothing like me, she will live in a perpetual state of scratched up and bruised, her legs covered in crusty blood and tree sap. Or at least that will be an option if she wants it.  Some broken bones?  That will be ok.  As long as she feels free to explore.  As long as she comes home with some glowing embers tucked deep into her ribs.

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