It is difficult sometimes to imagine a genuinely play-friendly world, where children could run and explore as they chose, where thoughtfully placed elements would inspire everyone – regardless of age – to pause and imagine. It is easy to forget how even small environmental changes can amaze a child and enable rich and profound play.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of a place near my home, a long thin patch of scrub grass and brambles that ran alongside the pavement. I’d been there before, no doubt passing it with my Mum on the way to something else, but one day something unprecedented had happened. A door had appeared.
It was a perfect door, brightly painted with a shiny round knob that turned in both directions. It swung upen and clunked shut, fitting exactly within its frame, but that frame stood free and alone as if it had grown complete out of the earth. Nothing around it and nothing on either side, this door fascinated me. Opening and closing it before – with no small trepidation, because what was this if not strange magic? – walking through it, I played with the door in a very serious way. Play can be solemn; we forget this too.
I don’t remember how long I played there, whether it was one afternoon that stands sunny and years-long in my recollection or on many occasions over a period of months, but that door came back to me when I finally visited one of the Liminal play spaces designed by Penny Wilson and scattered through Mile End Park. It is one of three, each unique, and more information on them and on Penny’s definitions of liminality in play can be found here.
It is ambiguously signposted, and best found by accident. The most visible part is the swinging gate which moves in a slow arc and is strong enough to carry even very large ‘children’.
It’s difficult to appreciate how strange this place feels without having seen the local context – it is to one side of a large and vividly sponsored outdoor gym equipment complex, and between a busy road and a canal. Yet it manages to feel like another world entirely, a much older world which invites lingering, experimentation and conversation. It somehow telescopes time and perspective, and beautifully illustrates Penny’s idea of “the space as a player, (luring) the child into play with a series of artifacts which act as play cues. These artifacts will contain references to entering and leaving the spaces, or will mirror an overlooked or unexpected aspect of the spaces, literally in some instances”.
There is a ‘campfire’ area, half-screened by the thick trees which form a complete canopy overhead. Instead of a fire is a round mirror, showing the trees above and the elongated curious faces of visitors all stretching towards the centre.
This mirror seems in oblique conversation with others, some round, some scalloped, which hang from the high branches above the swinging gate. These twist and flash in the breeze, further prompts to curiousity and imagination demonstrating how paltry the commonly held ideas about play really are.
Much of the work behind these places rests on Penny’s understanding of how children play, of their common preferences for peripheral or threshold places which offer games of transition and imagination. These places give children the chance to experiment with the idea of travelling, through time and places real and fictive, through the world and through one’s own self. Journeys and discovery of hidden places, transformation of the self – all of this quickly comes to sound rather mythic. That is rather the point.
By missing these elements out of how we define, discuss and provide for children’s play we are crucially underestimating them and the play they are engaged in. Too often play is seen only as a physical activity, and equipment for play looks like that for the gym. However, play has profound emotional, social, even spiritual depths. It is no more and no less than the exploration of the world, the creation of oneself, and the scripting of life and imagination.