Digging in the Dirt

This week school will be out for the summer here in Oregon and Summer Camp will begin. It is a time of short pants and t-shirts, BBQ’s and field’s trips in yellow school busses. Some of the trips will be to parks and playgrounds. These places provide a space for children to get out and be outdoors, play kickball, throw a Frisbee, and swim in a pool. What they do not provide is a variety of creative outdoor play.

At my current school we have a traditional playground. It is a large space with two climbing structures, twelve swings, five slides, a mini rock wall, two climbing rope structures, two sets of monkey bars, a mini barn structure, and one plastic cow. The school uses the playground for recess, and then we use it for our afterschool and summer camp needs. The intention of the equipment is to provide a break from class and to enhance motor skill development. The children like to play in the space, but generally they create other games that involve more risk than the equipment was intended for.

In a recent article titled When Children Create their Own Playground, Roger Hart, a professor in the Environmental Psychology Ph.D. Program of the CUNY Graduate Center commented, “There’s all kinds of powerful research that shows that play is a natural vehicle for children to learn about themselves and the world”. This article is about the growth of adventure playgrounds, but the same principle applies to any space that children are free to construct their own play.

The most popular activities on our playground do not involve the equipment. Next to the playground is a group of large boulders, stacked to create a retaining wall. There is always a sizeable group of children climbing in this area. The children like to look in the nooks and crannies of the rocks for bugs and other critters. They test themselves by climbing and jumping off the rocks seeing which friend can land the farthest in the bark chips below.

The second most popular area is a dirt road next to the playground. It is not a road that is used very often, and is protected by a locked gate. The road is compacted dirt and is covered and inset with rocks, stones and pebbles. Rain or shine this area is popular with the children who are digging, building, stacking and moving dirt and stones into the puddles of water that form on the surface.

A grassy wetland that is next to the playground is also popular area for the children to congregate. It is filled with tall grass, fallen branches, and a little water after a rain. The children love to stand and crawl near it and look for bugs and small critters. One popular activity this year was to take an old shoebox and cut some holes in it. The children would then attach one long piece of string to the box. When I asked what they were making, the answer was, a snake catcher. For many weeks children were standing next to the tall grass casting their snake catcher into the abyss, hoping when they reeled it back, a snake would be in the box.

As the summer days add up blackberries, which grow on a fence that surrounds the playground, ripen. For many weeks the children spend their days collecting, eating and creating with the berries. The berries end up as snacks, potions, and in natural dyes for painting paper and fabric. Each year the children look forward to the berry-picking season.

Some thoughts.

·      The most popular activities on our playground have nothing to do with the play structure itself. It is there to be a fort, a place to find shade, a place to hide from a friend, or a meeting hall to plan what the children are going to construct on the ground below the structure.

·      The play that is child directed has more depth and detail than the exercise of climbing and swinging. We might think that children are just playing. Play is the work of the child, and if it can be more challenging and fulfilling when directed by the learner, then why would we get in the way?

·      The play structure has a momentary appeal and is only popular when nothing else is available. It is the place of last resort for most of the children. When playing on the structure the children gravitate toward the monkey bars because like all great activities it has room for interpretation and creativity.

·      Climbing a tree is a popular activity in parks but many adult and community park personal view it as a dangerous activity and discourage the practice. The children love free climbing, and using long ropes for swinging from the trees in their favorite park.

·      The children created snake traps and picked blackberries for an entire summer. There is not any activity on a play structure that will hold that kind of interest. The engagement with the project was complete and in depth as the children studied snakes and the habits of snakes in order to improve on their traps.

And yes, they caught a few small snakes in the grass, with bare hands, and big smiles.