By Anna Rainville
A Coast-to-Coast Perspective of Reclaiming Play Spaces and Play
A brilliant blue-sky Sunday afternoon in June: a perfect day to search for secret gardens in Manhattan’s lower east side. Here are some of the carefully tended treasures of a city that holds 600 community green spaces.
On this Sunday, my two companions and I, with map and lists in hand, were in search of places where children play. What we found were a surprising number of community gardens where, clearly, the adults were having as much fun as the children, working in the plots or sharing a freshly harvested meal while the children played along the sheltered paths or under drooping willow branches.
Near an outcropping of huge boulders, I heard young voices coming from inside a large bush. Suddenly two heads popped out of the broad-leafed fort, giggled at the sight of surprised spectators and disappeared under the green. I caught a glimpse of the same sprightly two making their way over a trail of stepping stones leading to a lower level of the garden. This small section of the city block, transformed by willing neighbors, sparked the children’s imaginations and inspired their play. How rewarding to find such refreshment just down the street and around the corner!
One can almost anticipate the presence of a garden in the neighborhood by the sudden change of density. In a city whose foundation is so tightly sealed, any exposed portion of earth sends out a cry of delight! Instead of towering brick buildings — an unexpected patch of sky, a fresh waft of scents, leafy greens and shimmering light through stately branches against a high fence with a gate and sign of welcome. Each garden, whether on a spacious corner lot or tucked between crowded dwellings, serves a neighborhood, providing a place for both children and adults to spend time in nature.
Greening of the Cities
Their history harkens back to the 70s, when residents whose interest in changing the quality of neighborhoods resulted in claiming neglected or abandoned lots and turning them into gardens. Organizations, such as Green Thumb, Green Guerillas and the New York Restoration Project, formed at that time and continue to be key players in the greening of the city. Their efforts provide essential venues where children and nature meet.
While children of the lower East Side are at play in the community gardens, across the country in the West, another greening is taking place. Recently I attended a conference in San Francisco sponsored by San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance. The room, lined with tables representing area schools and organizations, hummed with stories, advice, and encouragement for transforming blacktops, rooftops and empty lots into thriving gardens and play spaces.
School play grounds, with emphasis on play and ground, are experiencing a revival as community gathering places. New designs and priorities address an expanded sense of play and the urgency for reconnecting with nature. Guest speaker, Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, commended the participants on their vision and perseverance on behalf of the health of our children and planet. By naming the dilemma, Louv has galvanized many existing children-in-nature advocacy groups to join forces. Currently more than forty such regional movements are bringing together people in the areas of health and education and the environment.
Children in Nature
One example is in Silicon Valley where Children in Nature Collaborative hosted an event for over 80 guests, including 35 organizations, all guided by their commitment to the healthy child. Bouquets of garden flowers and tall grasses, a delicious autumnal lunch, time for conversation, consideration of a strategic plan for local action and inspiration from lawmakers, social activists and designers, all combined to create an atmosphere heralding change and meaning for the youngest earth stewards. A festive mood prevailed, the kind where one knows the right thing is about to happen.
From coast to coast, I have been very encouraged to meet with individuals and corporations who are passionate about their advocacy for children, play and nature. However, there remains a gnawing concern for those who are working every day with our children: the teachers. As a board member of the National Kindergarten Alliance, I hear distressing accounts of diminishing recess opportunities, scripted lessons, premature academic expectations, and the decrease of unstructured play in favor of more instructional time. At that meeting, the topic of play and the impact made by its absence in school and home settings, revealed a startling urgency. One member, Penny Pillack, a former kindergarten teacher and now principal of a school in south Texas, commented that 85 percent -90 percent of the disciplinary referrals to her office are from the unstructured play time. Children, losing the ability to develop social and conflict resolution skills through the art of playing, resort to physical and violent alternatives. Marilyn Murdock, a long-time Alabama kindergarten teacher, observed that four and five year olds entering kindergarten have no “walkin’ around sense,” a phenomena she attributes to the lack of unstructured play time. The rigorous curriculum barrels ahead without the necessary breathing spaces for play, let alone time outside.
The question is always, how does one manifest change? My two companions in the garden search are leaders in that realm: Joan Almon, co-founder and co-director of the Alliance for Childhood and Penny Wilson, playworker from London’s Adventure Playgrounds. Joan, recognized internationally for her years of experience in early childhood education, speaks eloquently about child development and the need for play. Led by Joan and co-founder and co-director of the Alliance for Childhood, Ed Miller, the Alliance’s current campaign centers on unstructured play with all its manifestations. Besides facilitating play, Penny is adept at inviting people of all ages to recall and savor their own play memories, as a step towards acknowledging the importance of play for a healthy foundation.
At the first annual conference on play held at Sarah Lawrence College, Penny led this exercise in such a profound manner that by the time the stories concluded, the room had transformed into a lush field of possibilities. The incidents of remembered play spanning decades, outdoors and inside, alone and with friends, spoke convincingly of the true value and power of play. The experience repeated itself with workers of the Battery Park Conservancy and the New York City Parks and Recreation.
Reclaiming play spaces in nature and the right for unstructured play go hand in hand: all research points to a dynamic and successful merge. Take heart in the example of the downtown Denver Play Plan, an ambitious project underway to create green, imaginative play spaces, large and small, designed for optimum play and community within 1/8 mile of every city resident. Initiatives like this really do make it possible to think globally about the greening of the planet and still play locally.
Biography of Place
Our biography of place — the land and unique vegetation which served as the backdrop for our childhood — becomes increasingly more important as those sacred places that live in our memory are bulldozed, developed, eliminated. Preserving green spaces is not just a national issue: the small, intimate patches of green in backyards and corner lots require the same respectful concern as the acres of wilderness and wooded havens.
Here is where lessons grow under our feet and all around, inviting us into patient observation and wonder. As our first teacher, nature informs our senses, expands our capacities and opens us to mystery. Early impressions of running barefoot over tickling grass, looking out from one’s perch in a favorite climbing tree, or picking fragrant stems of lilac are carried into our adulthood where, if we are lucky, they remind us to, literally, return to our senses. For me, images of the backyard creek, wading up and down the pebbly bed, searching for squirmy pollywogs, and building rock dams and forts from fallen branches still come alive. My mother, now in her late eighties, still holds the nights she spent as a farm child sleeping on the hay wagon under the blazing Milky Way of the night sky, as one of the pivotal points in her life.
It is serious business to be a child. Great care must be taken to choose all the right fundamental experiences from which to grow and thrive. Play is the perfect beginning. Nature deepens and enhances possibilities. Play in nature is the best gift of all, for everyone.
For the Alliance for Childhood