Anna Housley Juster's  picture

A New Kind of Playground

Kids in Box

Adults can inspire children to play anytime, anywhere with the simplest of materials (hint: check the recycling bin!)

I recently spent 30 minutes in the car with my 2-year-old daughter, Eliza, as my husband and older daughter ran into a store. I had no toys, no music and no snacks. It could have been a nightmare, but the experience proved to me yet again that sometimes less is more.

What did we do? We played. Eliza discovered a bunch of colorful hair ties in my bag, and for the next 18 minutes, she focused on placing them onto her wrists and ankles like jewelry, switching them around – pink to left ankle, orange to right wrist. We had a blast.

I’ve spent the past 15 years in the field of early childhood development and the past four years specifically studying children’s play and I am still shocked by how powerful these everyday play experiences are in the lives of my own children. But I think critical messages about the importance of free play get lost for two main reasons:

First, we don’t do a good job promoting an easily understandable definition of free play. What is it? What does it look like? A simple definition for free play is “activities that are freely chosen, directed by children and arise from intrinsic motivation.” Children create their own rules for how
to play.

Governor's IslandSecond, we focus too heavily on the obstacles: no safe space for outdoor play in urban neighborhoods; anxious parents; overscheduled children; too much media use; and too much focus on standardized testing in schools.

Enough already! As a mom and a professional, I recognize that we need to think hard about the issues facing children and families today. But I also understand that we are not magicians. We can’t suddenly create acres of green space where children can play; we can’t change what’s happening in schools overnight; and like it or not, media in our culture is here to stay.

So what can we do? We need to make the value of free play clear by providing opportunities for adults to see this play in action, and to show Full scenehow easy it is to make it a part of children’s everyday lives.

To that end, I was inspired to get involved with Pop-Up Adventure Play, where we work with local businesses that donate clean materials they would otherwise throw away or recycle: cardboard boxes, packing materials, hundreds of gold, plastic perfume bottle caps. (If it looks like junk, it’s often perfect for free play!) We also collect our own safe materials from home: cereal boxes, paper towel tubes, egg cartons, straws, etc. We supply string and tape, and a new kind of playground “pops up.” Building on the tradition of Playwork grounded in the U.K., we created Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds, community spaces that encourage free play. Children come together to explore their own ideas: They discover, they construct, they problem solve and they transform. A giant box is a secret fort, a ship and then a skyscraper. When the box collapses, it is a dance floor.

Parents get down on the floor to cut windows in a cardboard castle, they crawl inside kid-created “living rooms” and are inspired to make elaborate chandeliers out of paper plates, colorful straws and string. Adults see the world through the eyes of a child and want to play along.

The good news: A Pop-Up Adventure Playground can happen almost anywhere: a park, school, library, driveway or backyard, even the living room floor.

After a recent Pop-Up we held at a library, my 5-year-old daughter, Alex, asked for some of the materials. She sat quietly on the sidewalk and began taping a piece of foam to a box. A girl walked by with her dad and Alex offered her a handful of plastic bottle caps. The girl smiled, reached for the caps and their story began.

To see a video of Pop-Up Adventure Play in action, click here.

LEArn More:

The Ultimate Block Party,” by Robin Stevens Payes

“Sparking Discovery and Exploration,” by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

Related Reading:

“Why Play = Learning,” by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff, Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development