Lessons of the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone

I’m leaving Ithaca today, heading back to the UK from a busy summer at Ithaca Children’s Garden’s Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone.

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We had a flurry of public attention this summer, with mentions on NPR and visits from local reporters.  The same phrase kept coming up, that this place is one of a ‘handful’ of adventure playgrounds in the US.  Hmmmm, I could hear UK playworkers say to themselves, in spite of the mud and the tools and the playworkers.  Is it, really?

There are a few distinctions between this place and the classic (or what we should perhaps consider the Platonic ideal) adventure playground.

No fence

The funny thing here is that now there is a fence that runs around the garden’s perimeter, but not one that separates the Anarchy Zone from the rest of the garden.  It is an open and largely visible site, although there are more secretive locations being dug out of the dense greenery around the edges.

Destination

Although many children live close to ICG, they definitely tend to arrive with their families or school groups.  Children come from across Ithaca and often from far beyond.  There are familiar faces, yes, but also new ones every day.

Parental presence

This is the big one, in my mind, and having parents there does of course change the dynamic of the site profoundly.  During summer camp we saw lots of children come regularly and without their parents, but this is not the case for the rest of the year.  It is an open, public park and families use the space accordingly.  It’s different, but even though I agree that children need time to play away from their parents, we need to be careful before declaring that different from an ideal we might hold is the same as less than.  This site, like any good one, is carefully considered and constantly evolving in response to the children’s needs and opportunities.

Playwork is all about finding opportunities, working within the cracks of what we are given.  Just as play ranging is another expression of playwork, so is this site another kind of place dedicated to adventurous play.  This site is an attempt to meet children where they are (i.e. within their families) and to offer something true and beautiful.  It’s done with dedication, passion and idealism, and people of all ages respond to this place powerfully.

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I’ve watched parents watching their children, learning the trust that lets them stand back.  I’ve been asked for advice on what materials to gather for a ‘backyard Anarchy Zone’, and heard a hundred variations of “wow, I never knew my child could do that”.  Sometimes we forget that adventure playgrounds are one kind of compensatory space, and that the great goal of playwork is to improve children’s chances for play everywhere.  Allowing parents onsite means, first and foremost, that more children attend.  It also means that the possibility for impact is broadened.  It means that we have the chance for adults to learn trust – in us, in themselves, and in their children.

It is still playwork but a different style, just as play ranging is.  And just as play ranging does, I believe that this particular expression of play and playwork has a lot to teach the rest of the field.

Nature

Located within a children’s garden and within its mission of “connecting children with nature”, this site looks pretty different to lots of the adventure playgrounds I’ve seen in the UK.  Plantings are selected for the loose parts they offer, for the wildlife they attract.  Children gather armfuls of wildflowers and catch toads in their hands.  There are thistles for throwing, acorns for trade or collection, and willow wands to make into a den.  All this is complemented by tires and pallets, hammers and shovels.

By comparison many ‘traditional’ adventure playgrounds could look rather sterile, with their preoccupation with wood and wood chip.  The emphasis on post-industrial scrap reflects their bomb site beginnings, just as the mud and water and plants here reflect the garden context.  But if we know that children all over are missing experiences in natural environments, why not work to compensate for that as well?  Why not have places for children to collect tadpoles and chew straw?  Why not find staff who can confidently support a child’s curiosity in wildlife or farming, just as we would their interests in construction, fire and demolition?

This is something I need further education on.  When a child this summer asked me what an bird or caterpillar was called I tended to make something up on the spot.

“Harold,” I’d say, or Margaret or Julio.  “That’s who that is.  Probably.”  Luckily playing in nature is all you need to love it.

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One thought on “Lessons of the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone

  1. Thanks for this – and all your posts this summer, Morgan. This is something I’ve thought a lot about in figuring ways to apply playwork practices in children’s museums.
    Been intending to get to Ithaca all summer and actually will be there in October – but you’ll be back in the UK by then. Best of luck in your next adventure. – Janice

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