Thursday, 26 April 2018

Popping Up in the Community 2018 - Zan Part 3

This is part 4 of a multi-part blog series about the pop-up adventure playgrounds we create in our own communities throughout the year. This is an example of how our pop-up adventure playgrounds work, and us using our namesake model and our own resources to work within our own communities.


By Zan

     "If I wrap this tape around your legs, you know you might fall over, right?"
     "Do you still want me to do it?"
I was amused to see that sticky tape was the big thing at this particular pop-up. I was amused too that some of them felt that the risk of falling was of a particular thrill.

Hop. Hop. Hop... Hop......

     "Argh, I fell! Will someone help me?"
I walked over and carefully helped the horizontal boy become vertical. It wasn't that easy because he couldn't help in the slightest. Which also means that he fell over like a sack of potatoes and it would definitely have hurt.
     "Would you like me to take the tape off?"
     "No, I want to jump."
     "Okay, but take it easy okay?"
He hopped off slowly with another one of the taped up boys and I looked around - everyone was holding up tape and asking me to help. I smirked and wondered when they would work out that they could tape themselves up.

My tape work got more elaborate. Two kids asked to be taped together, back-to-back. Three kids asked their combined 6 legs to be made into a weird 4-legged situation. Then the back-to-back people fell over and needed to be freed. Then there were some 3-legged combos, and then there was a 4-legged race of two groups. People were falling all over the place, from giddy silliness and tape-tripping silliness.

     "Will you put some tape over my mouth?"
The boy who had his legs taped together had hopped all the way back across the room and wanted more. I wasn't sure about this so I thought briefly about the actual risk of tape over the mouth and given that I had control of where this tape was being stuck, I could make sure that tape was loosely applied and the nose was available for breathing.
     "Are you sure?"
     "Can you put more tape on my arms and legs too? There's not enough, I want more!"

When it was time to leave, it took some time to extract all the children from all the layers of parcel tape. Some of the folks had used so much that scissors just couldn't get through the thick layers so another adult helped me to carefully use box cutters to hack through the layers. There was a contented buzz in the air that felt both positive and tired.
     "What words would you use to describe the pop-up adventure playground?"
     "Would you like me to come again?"
A resounding yes rang through the community building. That's really the best feedback that one can get for a pop-up adventure playground. I had a great time with this group of children at this holiday club. I look forward to hanging out with them again!

Find out more about Pop-Ups Zan on her personal blog here. If you want to host your own pop-up, check out our free resource pack here. Want to find out more about Pop-Up Adventure Play? Check out our facebooktwitter and website

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Popping Up in the Community 2018: Morgan

This is part 3 of a multi-part blog series about the pop-up adventure playgrounds we create in our own communities throughout the year. This is an example of how our pop-up adventure playgrounds work, and us using our namesake model and our own resources to work within our own communities.


By Morgan

For more years than I can tally, I've moved too often to have a neighborhood of my own. I've circled Southern Vermont since 1999, but only recently planted roots. This winter was my first time hosting a pop-up as a local resident.

I talk (and talk!) about community, about making change where you are and claiming public space for play. A large part of my work is encouraging people to venture out, into their own neighborhoods, with nothing but a bunch of scrap and an idea, based on my experiences Play Ranging (so I knew it was legit), but there is something fundamentally different about doing this in the place where you live.

For one thing, it can be a lot more embarrassing.


The library was a logical place to begin. Firstly, I love my library. I love all libraries, but this one is particularly good and a non-small part of why I moved here. The programming director, Anne Dempsey, was so enthusiastic when we met and totally got it about play. We decided on the front lawn as a location, and chatted about which materials might be a good match for changeable March weather. She arranged to promote the event on the town's only movie screen before the Friday feature, and her press release graced the cover of our local newspaper.

I showed up that Saturday morning with the steadfast vehicle crammed with bags of assorted junk, including pool noodles liberated from Erin Davis's barn. The snow itself was one day old, light but packable – much like that kinetic sand, if you kept it in the freezer.

At this point, I would like to quote the letter of support Anne Dempsey wrote for me after the event.
"From her tiny yellow car, Morgan pulled out colorful hats, mixing bowls, pool noodles, a pink flamingo, a small tarp with two ropes, some wooden spoons, and spray bottles filled with colored water. She placed everything on the snowy patch of grass. 
At first, nothing happened. No one came."
Now, I've spent many an afternoon while ranging or with pop-ups, sheltering deep under my hood in the rain without any children for miles. But there is something very different about that, when all the people going past are folks you'll be seeing the next day while getting coffee, and the day after that at the supermarket. I had a clear and definite feeling of failure, of humiliation. A couple of friends said they'd try to pop by and, like a bad party, I didn't know whether to hope they showed up or didn't.

Then, something shifted and I remembered the Actual Point of all this. It wasn't to display my work, or make an abstract statement. It was supposed to be about allowing more play to happen, which meant that if I enjoyed myself the day was automatically a success.

Back to Anne's letter:
"So, Morgan began spritzing the snow with colored water. She drew a hopscotch board on the sidewalk nearby. She invited people coming into and out of the library to join in the fun. At first, people looked embarrassed and maybe felt a little bad for her. After all, it seemed like a crazy thing to do. But people came around. A toddler and her father drew chalk marks on the sidewalk and scooped snow into a mixing bowl with a wooden bowl. A retired guidance counselor made a miniature snowman and squirted two spots on its head for eyes. Two children dueled with the pool noodles. A boy scooped up snow with a mixing bowl to build a snow fort. His best friend stopped by. They buried a toy alligator under the snowy floor of the fort. A child climbed up the trunk of the maple tree with the help of a rope tied further up. Morgan helped a child extend a tarp between the tree and the park bench. It made a good shelter!"

At its heart, a pop-up adventure playground is a tiny celebration of weirdness. When you host one, you're saying “look what a person can do here” and inviting others to join in. There is so much more potential for joy in the world than we usually allow ourselves to see.

Which means it's no wonder that this feels different, in that corner where we actually live.

Find out more about Pop-Ups Morgan on her personal blog here. If you want to host your own pop-up, check out our free resource pack here. Want to find out more about Pop-Up Adventure Play? Check out our facebooktwitter and website

Monday, 9 April 2018

Popping Up in the Community 2018: Zan Part 2

This is part 2 of a multi-part blog series about the pop-up adventure playgrounds we create in our own communities throughout the year. This is an example of how our pop-up adventure playgrounds work, and us using our namesake model and our own resources to work within our own communities.


By Zan

The children ran in to the room and stopped short of all the loose parts.
     "Hello everyone, you can do whatever you want with all the stuff I have here. If you need anything, the adults will help you" I said to them, sensing that they wanted some sort of introduction.
     "Yes we know" said a little boy, his eyes wide with anticipation.
     "Well, awesome. Whenever you are ready, you can go!" I hadn't quite finished my sentence yet and some of them had already launched themselves into the nearest box. The littler ones took more time. They wanted to receive their name sticker, and then cruise quietly around before diving in. Once they were in, they were fully in.

     "This is a great idea" said one of the adults who walked in with a baby tucked under her arm. "You should do this more often."
I smiled and explained that the pop-up adventure playground model was something that my charity had developed and that we'd been doing this all over the world.
      "Great! When's the next one here?"

Today's group of adults were childminders, parents and a couple of aunties. For the first time ever, I was running a pop-up adventure playground with one of my own small people present - my not-quite-3-year-old niece. When she arrived, we ran up to me very quietly and just stared.
     "Hello little one, there are lots of things for you to play with here, would you like to have a look?"
She shook her head and stared for a while longer. She is younger than the usual pop-up audience so understandably, she was a bit nervous.
     "Would you like to do some drawing?"
She nodded enthusiastically, so I took her hand, found some crayons and a cardboard box and she was in. My dad came along shortly to hang out with my niece so I was freed to go and be a playworker. I realised at that point that this was going to be a challenging pop-up for me, one where I would have to wear the hat of a playworker and that of an auntie. Fortunately for me I had asked Pop-Ups Andy and David to come and help out so they were able to support me while I switched hats. Every so often, a little hand would touch mine and I would hear the words "Auntie Zan, will you come play with me?". It was the most adorable thing ever, though I had to catch myself and make sure I was able to devote time to playworking and playing, non-concurrently. Being both roles at the same time took practice and I was definitely new to that.

There were more children at this pop-up compared to the last, and more boys. Play was a little less delicate and a little rougher around the edges. There were certainly some beautiful moments: two little people moving around metal door knobs in a cardboard box; little crawlers sitting in the middle of wicker baskets; older boys shuffling along the ground in a box singing "the wheels on the bus".

Challenging moments caught the attention of all the adults: when the biggest den was flattened and the children started jumping all over it; the game of chase with one unwilling participant; when David was captured by two little boys and tangled in a net. Though it felt challenging to us, it was a great moment to flex our playwork muscles. The children's behaviour was only challenging to us, they themselves are only following their own instincts and playing.

The two hour session ended quite naturally when a lot of the tiniest players started getting a bit too sleepy. This is the second pop-up this year I had been able to organise in my community, with more to come! I had a great session and was flanked by some great playworkers - I hope too that the children enjoyed themselves and really got to play.

Find out more about Pop-Ups Zan on her personal blog here. If you want to host your own pop-up, check out our free resource pack here. Want to find out more about Pop-Up Adventure Play? Check out our facebook, twitter and website

Past, Present and Future: The Pop-Ups Story

By Morgan

A conversation on Facebook recently veered into the weeds, as they sometimes do. We reflected on the back and forth of digital text and decided it was time to bring the conversation out of bubbles and into whole paragraphs. Asking us directly about who invented the pop-up adventure playground model highlighted some confusion among folks who are new to the field, and some who have been around for years.

Playwork is a beautiful approach that is older than we are, and much bigger than any of us. Suzanna and I have been in Playwork for more than a decade apiece, and one thing we’ve learned in both PhD and frontline practice is that the story of ideas matter. That’s not about ownership but inheritance. If you don't know the history of an idea, you can't engage deeply in its practice. How can you critique or improve upon something you don’t really understand?

Our small contribution to this field is the Pop-Up Adventure Playground model. We’ll talk about what we developed and what we didn’t, what we inherited and how we’ve shared it with others. So get comfortable folks, it’s time for a little story!

In the UK, Playwork has been around for decades. It developed from the post-WW2 Adventure Playground movement and particularly took root in the UK, where people can get academic and vocational qualifications. That’s not the only route, and many great Playworkers have learned through practice, reflection and by being brought into rich site cultures of play. Playworkers also operate in public space (playranging) and in hospitals, schools, prisons and everywhere else children might be found. Each of these settings offer a unique application of core Playwork ideas, and new terms arose to demonstrate the particular skill set needed. For example, Playranging. This is where both Suzanna and I started, and involves taking kits of loose parts into public space - usually green pockets in public housing projects - and working with the children there perhaps once a week for a couple of years. This requires a different level of knowledge and sensitivity to community engagement, because you’re essentially working in other people’s front yard.

There have been Adventure Playgrounds in the US, some noted for their quality of practice (Adventure Play at the Parish School) and others for their steadfast longevity (Berkeley Adventure Playground).  But without a strong foundation of Playwork theory and professional development, we feared that efforts to promote these sites would be unsustainable at the national level.  What’s more, getting fixated on permanent sites misses so many great opportunities to support play right now!  Most communities don’t have, might never have, an adventure playground. We wanted a model that people could use themselves, in the communities where they live, today. A shifting team of dedicated people worked on this idea, including Sharon Unis, Anna Housley Juster, Suzanna Law, and myself.

The idea of a ‘pop-up adventure playground’ developed through conversation and practice. The idea, right from the start, was to explicitly combine playranging with community organizing, in a package that could be delivered by anyone and without formal training. We held the first in Central Park, NYC in 2009, with the support of other great folks including Erin Davis and Joan Almon. It was an enormous success, and a powerful reminder that, even in ‘real’ adventure playgrounds, the hammers and nails are not the point. Children’s play is, and sharing techniques that anyone can use to create rich and permissive environments for play, and knowledgeable, non-interventionist support.

We knew this model had to be as lightweight, engaging, and welcoming as possible, both to the organizer, and members of the public. It needed to be able to meet people where they are, whether wanting to do outreach from a school or library, or dragging boxes out into their nearby park.  It was a specific answer to the US context, designed to work at the grassroots and institutional levels, to build community and momentum, and to start making changes in children’s play lives right now. Over time, delivering these events would give the organizer experience in all sorts of playwork skills: checking the site, selecting materials, staging and cleaning, supporting play, explaining the event and play's importance, faith in the process, etc. We knew, from our own work, that these events would attract other local residents of all ages passionate about play.

There were also compromises involved. No playworker should operate alone, and yet we were empowering folks without training to make themselves, and these ideas, more public while flying solo! So we emphasised the most non-threatening of loose parts, and suspected that hosting pop-up adventure playgrounds would help organizers make new friends.  To support organizers’ individual growth, and that of the larger movement, we stayed as contactable and approachable as possible and started developing the online Playworker Development Course.

Of course, people have been taking loose parts outside since… forever!  And many organizations in the UK have been hosting Play Days outside for years. These are also free and public celebrations of children’s play with loose parts and playwork staff. They’re an amazing way for programs to show what they do to a wider audience, and reach more local residents. But they don’t tend to be delivered by people who live in that community, or who are operating without the safety net of an organization and professional community.

Recently, Suzanna and I have both delivered pop-up adventure playgrounds in our own communities.  After years of doing other kinds of playwork, and years of pop-up adventure playgrounds, trust us that these things are connected but distinct. It’s not easy, to host these events and make a stand where you live, but it is rewarding in ways you could not have guessed.

The pop-up adventure playground has picked up steam in a way we never could have imagined. Clearly it resonates with people, empowering them to get started making change! People knew it would straightaway - the first person to contact us and ask to deliver her own pop-up adventure playground was Carolina Garcia of Bellelli Educacion in Costa Rica, swiftly followed by organizers in places such as Mexico, Egypt, and Uganda. They emailed us with stories of local barriers to play, and stories of how children were resisting these. We heard about villagers coming home after war, of teams of local residents determined to reclaim their inner city park from crime. We heard fears of liability, busy schedules, risk paranoia echoed by people in almost every context, every country.

It’s these people who made events happen. They dragged materials, photocopied flyers at work, shook hands with strangers, and tore endless pieces of duct tape for the children who showed up. Play has been marginalized, misunderstood, and all of us have baggage of our own.  To plant a homemade flag for play in public space, to declare that right here, right now, things will be different - that takes passion and bravery.

In short, we think that independent organizers are just the most awesome folks around.

These people are the movement.

Pop-Ups are simple to deliver, but they’re also a lot of work. They’re based in playwork, but most people doing them aren’t playworkers yet. They’re designed to make change in your own neighborhood, but people do them in lots of other places too. It’s easy to see how things can get confusing. That’s another reason why we want to encourage people to learn about the ideas behind these events, so they can be better prepared for however their project might grow.

We usually suggest that new independent pop-up adventure playground organizers start small, in their own literal or metaphorical backyards. Starting there helps do several things - it makes it easier to choose an appropriate site and collection of materials, uses and grows existing relationships with other residents, and gives the host credibility when talking about what life can be like locally. Making change in circumstances where those things aren’t all true can involve a lot of inadvertent steamrolling, often of people who have been steamrolled plenty already. That’s one reason training can be important.

For many local organizers, visitors start clamoring immediately for more - more events, ongoing programs, summer camps, collaborations. At each of these, parents and children begin to trust one another more and connect differently.  They play harder, longer, deeper, and want the project to grow with them.  Supporting their play through this process requires more training, too.

Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds are designed to spark conversations, build connections in the warmest and most inclusive way possible.  They’re a great way of testing the waters locally, getting practice and attracting attention to an idea.  An event or two can be delivered very effectively without training - but beyond that, you need more information, and a professional community of support.

This model is so dear to our hearts, we made it the name of our organization. So it’s been a little strange, to see this phrase become part of public and professional vocabulary in a way it simply wasn’t before. We’ve even heard it used by people in the UK! Today we have more than 250 registered independent organizers in over 22 countries, the vast majority of whom we’ll never meet. In an important sense, that’s the greatest possible compliment. It can also be a little scary.

We asked people to register their events, a process which takes 2 minutes and costs nothing. That’s so we could chat them through the process and make sure they both felt and were prepared. We gave a lot of encouragement, heard their stories and reflections (posting many on our blog) and visited during tours whenever we could.  Some people hosted one pop-up, others hosted dozens. Many we never spoke with again, and several have become truly great friends. Registration was never about tracking or monitoring, but about connecting with the people and welcoming them into the field, just as they would be welcoming people to the event.

Not least, we wanted to send them lots of free info on playwork!

There was also an element of anxiety for control there, we’ll admit it.  We’ve heard folks explain these events to others, saying “it’s so easy you just bring out junk and kids play with it!” While that’s true, it’s definitely not the whole truth. Worse, it contributes to a worrying tendency among new Adventure Playground enthusiasts to love the site and forget the staff. Adventure Playgrounds simply don’t work without trained playwork staff, and we’ll keep repeating that forever.

Others have told us they’re doing these events because they “love danger”. Now, to increase children’s access to risk without preparation or professional community - that’s a hazard! And the difference between hazard and risk is one of the many fine topics covered in playwork training. We’ve also seen organizations take this model , standardize it, and roll it out on a massive scale. So we ask that event organizers share our info onsite so everyone who attends a pop-up knows they can host their own, and come to us directly for support and training. We want to make sure these are recognized as events that anyone can host themselves, at any scale, and not as a provision delivered from on high.

Playworkers tend to want to be invisible but that doesn’t really work among professionals.

The phrase ‘pop-up adventure playground’ has officially gone beyond us. To us, that’s a sign of its success thanks to the hard work and inspiration of so many people. We’ve decided it’s time to become even more transparent about what these events are, where they come from, and how to do your own. The question of how to be more useful has guided us from the beginning - that’s why we’re YOUR play association!

We want to make it as easy as possible for anyone who wants to to host their own extraordinary, responsive, etc pop-ups, and to know that we’re here to help.

That’s why we’re making our Resource Pack completely public, starting with our Principles. The Resource Pack is currently undergoing some renovation work thanks to Maayan Bar-Yam, and we’ll let you know when it’s ready. In the meantime, here are the 7 Principles of Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds, which we’ve used since the very beginning and is part of the Resource Pack. Feel free to call any event that follows them a pop-up adventure playground.

We would still love it if you let us know what you’re up to, so we can help celebrate it. We are always available by email, or if you prefer, Facebook and Twitter are great platforms to reach us too. We look forward to hearing from you and your pop-up adventure playgrounds!