Monday, August 4, 2014

Junkyard Playgrounds: A Risky Business

risky business at Dodge
Have you heard of "adventure playgrounds?" There seems to be some chatter out there about a "new" trend in outdoor play spaces. People like risky play advocates, Rusty Keeler and Richard Louv, are tagging stories about edgy junkyard-esque spaces for kids. I take it some of these have been around for quite a while. Berkley's Adventure Playground has been going strong for twenty years, and that playground is based on a World War II era movement spearheaded by none other than a UK landscape designer--Lady Marjory Allen--who wanted to promote a "free and permissive" atmosphere for play and exploration over a concrete pad dotted with exercise equipment. Lady Allen's work certainly informs today's adventure playgrounds like The Land in Wales (you'll want to read the Atlantic's article, The Overprotected Kid. But, historically, what is the norm in Berkeley, let alone Wales, seems to take a while to filter into American culture at large, and I suppose here in "fly over" country we are perceived to be something less than cutting edge-- plus we do not have a collective memory of kids playing in bombed out neighborhoods as they once did in the war years of Lady Allen's UK.

climbing Dodge pasture fence in winter; a no-no in summer
But, finally, Minnesotans (with our strong, local history of agrarian culture and outdoor fun-- we are the land of 10,000 Lakes) are talking about these risky, junky adventure playgrounds too.  From what I hear, folks in NE Minneapolis, perhaps the heart of our local "alt" culture, are excited about embracing the junkyard ethic in risky play and exploration (probably no accident that NE Mpls is also historically the seat of heavy industry in the city, and residents have embraced that ethos and aesthetic in all sorts of ways that enrich our local culture). While pushing the envelope in this way may seem new, the idea of risk-taking that underpins such pining for childhood adventure is not.

preschoolers slack lining, barefoot
Readers of this blog will recognize that Dodge Nature Preschool has a long-standing tradition of helping children embrace appropriate risk as a natural, necessary, to-be-applauded part of child development (just moments ago, one of my students tried to decline my invitation to spread her own chive butter on a cracker:  "My parents don't let me hold a knife." Like it or not, we inhabit a time and place where even a butter knife seems to inspire worry). Here at the Preschool, we certainly have a much higher tolerance for early childhood risk taking than many of our peers in education.  Not only do we instruct children to use knives and saws, we routinely build fires with them, we let them play with sticks, we teach them to climb trees and we encourage them to wrestle, if they want to.

preschool ropes work
Safety is a hot topic for Dodge teachers, and parents, but not because we don't take risks with kids outside. As our Assistant Director, Joey, will point out, we talk about safety and constantly update protocols because we want to support risk-taking as much as we can (check out my former posts on working with kids and ropes and trees), and to teach families about the importance of embracing risk. Like Richard Louv, Rusty Keeler and David Sobel, we believe that risk-taking outside is an important vehicle for developing the "whole child," and for supporting the child's relationship with the world, specifically that natural world.

tree swings at Streefland
One night last week, I visited YMCA Camp Streefland in Lakeville for my daughter's open house. While touring around Camp, I was reminded that the Y has a long tradition of emphasizing physical risk-taking as character development. Streefland is a lovely place, tucked right off a major highway, actually, in the midst of what some might mistakenly assume is a sterile outer ring suburb. The camp occupies ravines and shoreline on the edge of very healthy, shallow lake-- so healthy it supports a rare and protected species of water lily (and all the campers know this and don't pick it). Everywhere you look, throughout the woods, there are opportunities for kids to test their mettle and have fun:  giant swings, ropes courses, canoes, kayaks, zip lines and something called the "black hole."
Streefland "Black Hole":
drain tile, sleds and screams
note Wee Bee lugging sled
These activities capitalize on natural infrastructure with minimal development for challenging fun. The camp activities--swings, zip lines, swamp walks--in fact highlight the natural components of the landscape, rather than obstructing or abusing them with junk. The paths are well worn and a lot of kids move through each summer, but the attitude and tone is one of respect for people and the environment, and it shows in the use of the land. As a leader-in-training last week, my daughter had a chance to take her "Wee Bee" charges out canoeing. Wee Bees are pre-k aged and my daughter and her counsellor filled a canoe with them and headed out to look for "sea monsters," and turtles. Even Dodge teachers shiver at the thought of taking preschoolers canoeing, but apparently, refreshingly, the Y embraces such risk-- and the payoff is huge, the kids running around Camp that night were full of stories and enthusiasm for the place.

lovely lake Kingsley
and a happy camper

a late vernal pond
& almost too much joy
Based soley on a very superficial scan of some of the junky "adventure playgrounds" in use out there, I am tempted to play devil's advocate. While I truly believe in and support risk as a valuable part of social, emotional, physical and cognitive development, I worry that advocating playing in a place that more closely resembles a favella or any developing world ghetto runs the risk of seriously insulting the resourceful residents of such places, and it looks for all the world like citizens of privilege are enjoying the benefits of "slumming it."  I realize that children developing in favelas are likely developing some great coping skills; I would argue, though, that those kids parents would probably say that their children are required to embrace a little too much risk. Privileged, well-educated America often pines for the "sandlot" days of yore-- when a "kid could be a kid," playing pick-up games in the vacant lot, or when people like me were free to range through cow pasture and forest for entire days with no adult supervision.

spring mud is boot-sucking mud;
you might lose one!
Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world's residents cannot supervise kids when they want to and cannot choose where their children "play." Sobel and others have pointed out the fact that many kids actually hunt and catch their own food every day. Some kids eat animals they catch, instead of trapping them just for fun and observation. Kids the world over tend crops and siblings, and work out in the elements without REI rainpants or bug spray, let alone vaccinations or access to a hospital, should they fall from a tree and break their arm. Risk is relative, of course. World War II Londoners worried more about bombs falling from the sky than they did about abductors. Now privileged Americans worry too much about germs, and predators. But how much risk is too much? I'm not always sure, but I think here at Dodge Nature Center, and at our Preschool, we've discovered a balance, and that balance is largely dictated by how the natural world arranges itself.

not-so-risky rooster, Midas,
puts his life in preschool hands
Every day we use mostly what we come across in nature for the scaffolding of play and development through risk-taking. Trees make the best jungle gyms. Rocks and sticks are the best tools to manipulate for play and building materials. With very little modification to our biome, to the fauna and flora we encounter in our own backyard, we can provide kids with experiences that helping them grow healthy bodies and minds while preserving some idea of what it means to have a healthy relationship with the earth. I worry about those junkyard play spaces removing kids from what should be, arguably, a kind of ideal for a healthy ecosystem, not to mention an example and respite of beauty. Let's face it, people who work at Nature Centers are biased; we find nature itself, in its less-disturbed forms beautiful, and therapeutic. Dragonflies and sparkly clean, healthy ponds and milkweed and monarchs and Great Blue Herons are beautiful, and they are emblems of nature with a capital "N," because they remind us of the beauty of a functioning ecosystem.

tall grass prairie is lovely
...and itchy
Kids can learn a lot, I'm sure, from playing in a junkyard, and I'm sure that kind of play goes a long way to support "whole child" development too-- but not all the way. What's missing? What is missing is the child's relationship with the natural world, with the ecosystem. Instead of making a junkyard, clean up your municipal park, make it support more plant and animal life, make it more interesting and complex in the right ways. Make it a place where kids can climb living trees. If urban kids need a place to play, clean up the needles and condoms and then consider how that space can be a tiny haven of an ecosystem in the concrete jungle.

blind Fox snake;
kids & reptiles taking risks together
I know it sounds way less edgy, and it lacks that steam punk esprit de corps which I applaud for its whole-hearted urge to push the envelope, but I think children need examples of functional, healthy, natural beauty in their lives if they are to overcome nihilism and powerlessness, if they are to bond with and make good choices about the world we share with plants and animals.

Nature and health are rights, not privileges of course. If we take that stance, then we have a responsibility to develop and use play spaces with an eye to child development and an environmental ethic.  Places like Dodge Nature Preschool should not be enclaves and hang-outs only for REI denizens. Land-based learning should be supported and advocated in each and every community and municipality. As we know full well, kids today have to cope with tomorrow. Why create a dystopian playground to support risk-taking and development when you can court as much danger as you want playing in an actual ecosystem?

the closest thing to a junkyard playground at Dodge:
temporary play with trees, ropes, tires and a few barn boards
I'm all for adventure and risk and independence and autonomy in play, but I'm no nihilist. I think we can have risky fun, and support land-based learning, beauty and sustainability at the same time.
forest shoot out with stick arrows and yarn bows:
striking the balance between Waldorf and junkyard
kids, fire & mushrooms;
how much risk is too much?

Ice out!
Who doesn't want to take a risk come spring?

the first gesture of friendship might just be the biggest leap of faith