Tourists and Tires

I recently moved to NYC and one of the first things I did was to visit my friends at play:groundNYC, the adventure playground on Governor’s Island, now in it’s second year. I arrived to a scene of children playing in and around their fenced-in playground. Some playing “bad guys”, others playing with water from the nearby hydrant, some just resting in the shade, and an energetic group of boys rolling tires down a sloped sidewalk.

A few boys at the top of the sidewalk would yell and laugh as they sent their tires racing down the slope into the fence and the other cheering boys below. Then one of the boys below would laboriously roll the tire back up the incline for his turn. The game seemed to be half about rolling and half about yelling, so, exactly what summer is all about. Except when we picture these games we usually picture empty sidewalks. As more and more island visitors happened upon this game on the sidewalk and made the long detour through the grass with their nice shoes and cumbersome strollers I could feel my jaw tense knowing the space was now in conflict.

The vacant lots, woods, and even backyard forts that some children have access to make great play areas precisely because they are not used by any other people. The play can’t get in the way because the play is the only activity. But as more and more adults need more and more bits of land and playing out becomes less and less common the sharing of space with children makes some adults angry. When uses overlap, most adults expect children to vamoose. Often it’s for good reason, but where does that leave play?

That’s where playworkers come in. We make sure that children have places to play. Play England says, “The role of a playworker is to support all children and young people in the creation of a space in which they can play.” Sometimes making sure play space exists at all means compromising with other adult agendas – we’ll be here and you’ll be there. Sometimes in order to make sure the whole project stays in existence, playworkers have to honor the compromise they’ve made and shift the play for the greater good.

As I watched the tire-rolling game almost hit a few tourists I saw the playworkers jump into action. It was decided, the tire game on the sidewalk was not a great match for this setting. They asked the boys to bring their tires back inside the fenced site with the promise that they’d find a way to somehow make the tire game work within the bounds of the very flat, but tourist-free, playground area.

In about half an hour a few playworkers rigged up this new ramp setup inside the official boundaries of the playground with the loose parts and tools that were available. The children quickly restarted their game with the added challenge of getting the tire up on the platform, and added excitement of a jump at the bottom.

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It was different, but the play continued. We playworkers do the best we can to make sure the children’s play can happen in the long term. If it means we need to make a new path, we will make one.

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2 thoughts on “Tourists and Tires

  1. This is a great story to illustrate this – I feel like there is a lot of adult misunderstanding around “kid freedom”. There is a spectrum from super-strict adult to wild chaos – I think our ideal is to exist somewhere between those two – maybe 75% of the way to wild chaos is ideal on some situations, maybe 60%…there are so many other factors. A big one is what it feels like to everyone involved, and that includes “tourists”. Thanks for sharing this example of how playworkers can support children in creating and finding spaces for all kinds of play.

  2. The way I see it, it’s not really up to me as a playworker to choose what the ideal balance looks like in a certain space. We prioritize play: “For playworkers, the play process takes precedence and playworkers act as advocates for play when engaging with adult led agendas.” (Playwork Principle #4), and since play happens in the real world to advocate for play can mean doing what will allow the play to go on in the long run, what will allow the project to be an agreeable part of a community. The balance will look different in every place, because, as you say, there are so many factors.

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