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.

Feminist Treehouse

The girls built it themselves.

One treehouse has led to another at Eureka Villa, which is perfect, because while I had a hand in setting up the first one, the second one came entirely from the children. From one girl in particular, in fact, who I’ve been told had been wanting to make a treehouse since long before I arrived.

She and a group of willing helpers – inspired children were drawn from all over the site who wanted to be a part of a great idea – hefted a pallet into the horizontal crotch of a branch on the elderberry fort. Playworker Jeremiah gave a hand with the pallet, leveled it out a bit, and stayed close to help with the hammers, nails, and saws.

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Princesses in the new treehouse.

Meanwhile, I was back at the first treehouse, where two boys were relishing having the run of the place. They hammered on bits of wood and rope more for the process than the result. When the nails didn’t quite go in they called them hooks and were quite pleased. Since they hadn’t quite gotten the hang of hammering and often needed help I stayed close until two older boys came over and the younger two accepted their offer of help. I backed off to the edge of the play frame until I was satisfied that the older boys would be enough help to keep the younger ones safe and then left altogether.

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First treehouse.

By that time back in the elderberry bush, the new treehouse pallet had been secured, boards had been nailed to the gaps, and two older girls had started working on decorating with fabric and small wood scraps. When I went over to check out their progress I was told firmly that this treehouse was for girls only and that they were playing “pwincesses” (they both practically fell over giggling at their purposeful mispronunciation).

I was reminded of the girls-only treehouse when I saw a talk by exhibit designer Margaret Middleton at the Association of Children’s Museum’s “InterActivity” conference last week. She spoke about femininity in children’s space design. Margaret explained that most children’s museums try to be gender neutral, but that our culture’s “gender neutral” tends to skew masculine. Femininity, of course, is not the realm of girls alone. We all express ourselves with a combination of masculine and feminine indicators. What then, are we telling boys, girls, and non-binary children, by valuing straight lines, neutral colors, and hard edges over curves, bright colors, and softness (not to mention sparkle, coziness, beauty, and nurturance) in the spaces we design for them? From the youngest age, children pick up on how masculinity is still much more accepted than femininity. Sexism runs both ways: if girls are expected to only be feminine, when they want to engage in traditionally masculine activities, then that’s sexist, but it’s also sexist to value a girl who acts masculine higher than children who embody feminine qualities. It’s just as feminist for a girl to demand respect in a princess dress as it is for a girl to demand respect in a construction hat.

It’s just as feminist for a girl to demand respect in a princess dress as it is for a girl to demand respect in a construction hat.

While adventure playgrounds are ostensibly designed by children, adults still have a role in what materials and tools are available – by extension, what activities are possible. Many adventure playgrounds feel decidedly male; they are dominated by construction and built structures, and loud play, including wrestling and war games.* Having a place where that kind of play can happen is very important, for both boys and girls and everyone in-between, but it’s also important to ensure that there are places where all genders can be cozy and quiet, for there to be sparkly cloth and tulle for making costumes, and for the adults in the space to make clear through what we provide and how we act that masculine and feminine play are both welcome (and both acceptable for a child of any gender to engage in).

The boys at Eureka Villa never said that the first treehouse was theirs, and several girls had helped build it, but it had been almost exclusively incorporated into boys’ play narratives thus far. I am so glad that the girls felt empowered to make their own space and fill it with colorful cloth drapery, jewels, and “pwincesses”. Adventure playgrounds are intended to be places for children to be and become exactly who they are. If there are children who like to be feminine, then how powerful it must be to be able to build a place for that when they need it. The girls built a treehouse, yes, and simultaneously they built themselves a place to be the exactly who they were right then, and right then, they were pwincesses.

*Jackie Kilvington and Ali Wood have written about the gendered politics of adventure playgrounds in the excellent book, “Gender, Sex, and Children’s Play”.

Base

20160707_143012One of three (that I know of) bases settled by a pair of boys this week. They need playworker help for this one but they knew exactly how they wanted it. I didn’t get to see how the alien invasion turned out but I think they’ve got a good chance with this one.