OK, here it is: my favorite play project in the whole world: The Hands-on-Nature ANARCHY ZONE at the Ithaca Children’s Garden in Ithaca, NY. YES! I have always loved the concept of “adventure playgrounds” — designated play areas dreamt and built by children themselves with the loose guidance of trained and educated “playworkers.” Started in Europe after World War II, this style of wild, free, unstructured, kid-built playscape (once called “junk playgrounds” or “scrap yard playgrounds” because of the wonderful reuse of scrap materials) was adopted all over the world with kids building forts and dens, raising animals, cooking food over fires, planting crops, doing wild artworks, etc. Although since the 1970s the number of actual adventure playgrounds has shrunk, they still remain an important part of childhood culture in many parts of Europe...and are experiencing a worldwide resurgence.
Every time I visit an adventure playground I fall in love. Children are free to do whatever they want, and work together building play scenes and structures of astounding creativity and ramshackle beauty. These children enjoy free ranging experiences that many of us remember from our own childhoods. Did you play outside unsupervised as a child? Until it got dark? Did you build your own forts and dens, make up games with your own rules, and explore the world around you? For lots of reasons kids today do not have those same opportunities. But they should. And wonderfully, we adults are finally realizing that we may have gone overboard in the quest to keep our children safe and busy with activities, and what children really need is trust and the opportunities for free, unstructured play. Enter: the Anarchy Zone.
At the last World Forum Nature Action Collaborative for Children held at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska, I participated with a local Ithaca, NY team committed to creating opportunities for outdoor play and connecting children with nature. The team included me, a play and development professional from Cornell University, and a Field Supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (yes, part of their mission is to reconnect children and families to nature!). At about the same time I was asked to be on the site committee of our wonderful Ithaca Children’s Garden. At every site committee meeting I would push a little bit of adventure playground propaganda—a video, a brochure, a slideshow—saying “we could really do some wild loose part, messy play stuff here too.” And sure enough, the fabulous director agreed. So we wrote some grants, picked out a 1/4 acre of open meadow in the garden, and we were off to the races.
Instead of designing a space with specific features and details all furnished and finished, we decided to go in the opposite direction. With the motto of “if they come, they will build it,” we ordered loads of loose parts and natural materials and had them strategically dumped in piles in the space for the children to use however they wanted. Loose parts is the name of the game here, as well as getting assistance from our local community resources. We contacted the city forester and she delivered a huge 12’ mountain of woodchips plus some large stumps and log chunks. We got 30 straw bales from a local farm center, plus loose tires, cardboard boxes from appliance stores, used rope from a university climbing wall, and much much more. We have a big storage shed on site chocked full of play goodies. Besides offering a rich, open-ended environment we also understand the importance of staffing it with trained playworkers. With the help of professional playworkers from the UK (yes, you can get a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD in play and playwork in Europe!), we are developing an intensive playworker training program to train Cornell University service learning students to be our local playworkers on site with a goal of sharing these materials and experiences with other cities and communities looking to do the same thing.
So what happens in the Anarchy Zone? You wouldn’t believe it (or maybe you would!). Kids climbing trees. Constructing straw bale and cardboard villages. Jumping into mud. Building tire sculptures. Making mud pies. Tying up playworkers and holding them hostage. All sorts of good stuff! Our official opening was on International Mud Day where we ordered 4 huge dump truck loads of screened topsoil and invited the fire department to come and spray it all down. The result was ooey gooey wonderful messy mud mayhem.
The Anarchy Zone is free and open to the public every day, but we have the loose parts/tool shed open two days a week with playworkers on site to help facilitate the fun. We hope to extend this in the future and continue to invite playworkers from around the world to visit Ithaca and share their ideas and expertise. We also have future dreams about creating a larger adventure playground and urban farm. But for now, we will enjoy letting the children play. So fun. So rewarding. So surprising. Could you create something like this in your community? Or how about designating a corner of your current outdoor space to be a loose parts “anarchy zone” where anything goes? The kids will love it....