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!
WHAT WE DID
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.
WHAT WE DIDN’T DO
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.
THE PARADOX OF POP-UPS
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.
YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW
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!