Structuring the Unstructured

Pandora Redwin aims to bring an Adventure Playground to the Valley.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014
Pete Redington Photo

When I arrive at the Florence Organic Community Gardens, Pandora Redwin is standing a couple feet off the ground, balancing on a wooden post and tending to a tarp that stretches out over her. Next to the tarp structure, several smoothed logs stretch out in a circle. The logs rise from a center and are attached by nails to other short logs that have been secured into the ground. Across the tree stumps from the tarp structure is a teepee-like object covered in bean stalks. On the other side of the circle is a structure built of interconnected wooden branches, several of them pointed and flimsy-looking. Next to that, three juggling pins lie on the ground. The ground is covered with wood chips.

Redwin had suggested we talk here, at this playground she built at the community gardens (she is on the board of Grow Food Northampton). The term “playground,” however, may not be the best descriptor, as I explained to my seven-year-old a few days later.

“Is there a slide?” he asked.

“No,” I answered.

“Are there swings?”

“No.”

“Are there monkey bars?”

“No.”

“But it’s still a playground.”

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

Redwin steps down, and we take shelter from the hot summer sun under the tarp.

“It’s a little oxymoronic,” she admits, “building a structure to have unstructured play. But this is an intermediary step.”

At two events this summer—the first at Look Park in late June, the second on the courthouse lawn in downtown Northampton in late July—Redwin has hosted Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds in the hope of building support for her developing nonprofit The Play Workshop. She is also the staffing coordinator and instructor for Adventure In Adventure Out, and has a two-year-old at home.

Redwin admits she is already busy enough, but says she feels a certain sense of urgency because a style of children’s play so common a generation ago is being lost: “There’s this shrinking window where parents still remember playing stick ball or kick the can.”

Eventually, Redwin wants to create “a permanent site for a full, European-style adventure playground where children literally build their own play spaces,” she says. Ideally, it would be similar to The Land, the infamous play space in Wales that was featured in “The Over-Protected Kid,” the cover article from the March issue of The Atlantic.

The Land is nothing if not startling. Recalling that article, I tell Redwin that it looked like it was designed after a Hunger Games movie set.

Play structures include a pile of old tires, a dirty mattress and a small fire pit. Mud is everywhere. “Other than some walls lit up with graffiti, there are no bright colors, or anything else that belongs to the usual playground landscape,” the article notes. “There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise it deposits you in the creek)... A walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbors... is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar.”

The Land occupies about an acre of fenced-in space at the end of a neighborhood. It is staffed by a few playworkers who monitor the children, but rarely intervene.

Redwin’s pop-up playgrounds have not been so stylistically post-apocalyptic, though they do draw from the same adventure playground philosophy of using moveable objects and loose parts—such as duct tape, rope, and cardboard boxes—to encourage creativity and self-reliance by offering kids a chance to make and direct their own play spaces.

A third and final summertime pop-up workshop takes place August 16 from noon to four at Maine’s Field in Florence. All three events are in collaboration with the Northampton Recreation Department, through Redwin says she hopes to talk with Holyoke as well.

“The events have had a great response so far,” Northampton Recreation Department’s Erin Carroll, who has been working with Redwin, tells me. “Maybe even better than expected.”

Carroll notes that presently the city has no official plans to build an adventure playground, but says they will be talking with Redwin more at the end of the summer.

“I’m sure there will be more discussions,” Carroll said, “probably in late August or early September.”

Redwin welcomes a larger conversation regarding both playgrounds and parenting in general. “It’s a cultural process,” she says. “We live in a very litigious society, and these playgrounds do look a little crazy.”

“But they give kids a wonderful combination of freedom and responsibility,” she adds. “Kids learn so much when they play and lead.”

 

In 2008, Lenore Skenazy gained notoriety as “America’s Worst Mom” when she allowed her 9-year-old son to navigate his own way home from Bloomingdale’s, in downtown Manhattan, to their New York City apartment.

“For weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own,” she wrote in her column for the (now defunct) New York Sun. “So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.” She notes that, upon his arrival back home, her son was “ecstatic with independence.”

Skenazy went on to author Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry). The book attacks today’s style of helicopter parenting head on, and includes chapters on boycotting baby knee pads “and the rest of the Kiddie Safety-Industrial Complex,” “Play Dates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference,” and “Fail! It’s the New Succeed.”

It’s a humorous take on a most serious question: how do we—parents, educators, society at large—most effectively raise our children?

“We all want the very best for our kids,” Skenazy writes, but while we can’t babyproof the world, we can certainly “worldproof [our] growing children.”

Redwin’s Play Workshop, like Skenazy’s book and the aforementioned Atlantic article, is part of a burgeoning movement that advocates allowing and encouraging children to have more undirected experiences of the sort their parents enjoyed a generation ago. This past winter, the British-based Pop-Up Adventure Play conducted a 10-day pop-up workshop at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. A play space at the Ithaca Children’s Garden in New York is known affectionately as the Anarchy Zone.

“A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own,” Skenazy wrote in her controversial column, “eventually can’t.”

 

The Play Workshop seems a culmination of the many experiences Redwin has had throughout her life. She grew up on a farm in Ashfield, and has been an experiential educator for decades, working several years for Outward Bound.

Much of the educational philosophy of Outward Bound, in fact, regarding everything from assessing safety hazards to managing the experiences of all involved, seems directly applicable to adventure playgrounds. And a few of Outward Bound’s “Design Principles” and “Outcomes” really resonate: “Designing an experience that supports physical and emotional safety,” “Utilizing and managing appropriate risk,” and “Learning from success as well as failure.”

As I precariously walk down one of the log structures Redwin has built at the Florence garden, she discusses the notion of “perceived risk versus actual risk,” noting that we routinely put our children into cars, knowing that they are more dangerous than any play structure a kid might interact with at a crazy-looking adventure playground.

There’s an old saying that comes from the philosophy of these adventure playgrounds in Europe, Redwin tells me: “Better a broken arm than a broken spirit.”•

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