Junk Pile…or Outdoor Makerspace?

As sleek, safe, modern playgrounds proliferate across our parks and schools, a smaller counter-movement is quietly gaining popularity: the junk playground.  Also called “adventure playgrounds,” these places are a kiddos dream…and an adults (especially an architects) nightmare.  Haphazard stacks of scrap wood, battered boxes, heaps of cloth, rope strung about with impossible knots, piles of old tires.  Even more radical: the children use real tools – hammers, saws, nails – to build their wonky contraptions.  And best/worst of all: NO PARENTS ALLOWED.  Insanity!

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Despite the chaotic physical appearance of the landscape, the children playing inside are anything but.  As Timothy Walker observed in his recent piece for The Atlantic, the kids he saw at New York’s play:ground were surprisingly focused. Be they working alone or in small groups, hammering or sawing or tying knots, all were deeply engrossed in their play. Rather than “supervisors,” the playground was overseen by adults known as “playworkers,” who are trained to step in only when absolutely necessary.  Penny Wilson explains their role in the Playwork Primer: “The ideal playworker leaves the children free to play for themselves but intervenes in carefully measured ways to support the play process. Play is the children’s business.”

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Shift now from the playground to the schoolhouse and consider the rapid rise in popularity of Makerspaces. As Mary Beth Hertz explains in Edutopia, “Design thinking, tinkering and exploring, designing and creating . . .These are the essence of the many Makerspaces (also called Hackerspaces and similar to FabLabs) that have been popping up in cities across the country.”  In a follow up article “Why Making is Essential to Learning,” Youki Terada describes how “A typical Makerspace looks more like a workshop than a classroom, with tools, art supplies, and computer parts filling the room.”

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Makerspaces have found their way into many schools, most as a natural outgrowth of increased emphasis on STEM curriculum and hands-on teaching methods like Problem Based Learning (see our recent piece on PBL at Sammamish High School)  The Maker Education Initiative, a national non-profit with the stated vision of “Every Child a Maker,” writes in its 2014 Annual Report: “We believe the best way to nurture a young person’s natural abilities is to create experiences where they are in charge of and fully engaged in their own learning. We want youth to have an environment where they feel free and safe to ask questions, make mistakes, keep trying, and explore new things. We want youth to use their hands, minds, and imaginations to create things.”

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Sounds a lot like the experiences kids were having at the junk playground, no?

While the rise of the maker movement is recent, the junk playground has a long and surprising history.  Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorenson is credited with designing the first in Copenhagen in 1943 “in response to increased levels of child delinquency during the German occupation.”  Wilson recalls how he visited past playgrounds he designed and found them empty. “Where were the children? They were playing in the wreckage of bombed-out buildings. So this is what he created: A place with materials that children could manipulate, where they could spend hours rooting around unnoticed and lost in their own worlds.” Prominent landscape architect and child-welfare advocate Lady Allen of Hurtwood brought the idea back to England in the 1950s, sparking an adventure play movement that is still alive in the country today.

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Back to New York and the play:ground.  Many adults express shock and awe as they watch kids cobble together creations through self-directed, clumsy, creative trial and error… and eventually teamwork…and finally, success!  Two pieces of wood nailed together and a tattered tarp strung between them! While the result may be structurally dubious, any proponent of maker education will tell you it is about the process, not the product.  Unfortunately, as Walker explains, social and cultural obstacles in the United States such as “…a high level of parental fear about the safety of children and the rise of adult-directed, school-like activities” has made interest and fundraising for Adventure Playgrounds more challenging than for standardized equipment.

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In the words of the Maker Education Initiative, “Making is a stance about learning…it’s the landscape you create in a classroom or any kind of learning space where kids have agency over what they do and a large choice of materials that are rich, deep and complex.” I can think of no richer or more complex landscape of materials than those present in a junk playground. Perhaps it is time we elevated the value of this type of play and acknowledged its role in nurturing “21st century skills” like curiosity, collaboration, problem solving and self-reliance. Or, maybe its a simple as a bit of rebranding – instead of “Junk Playgrounds,” I will now refer to them as “Outdoor Makerspaces” and see how the grown-ups respond.

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