• Kathryn Camgemi

About a week ago, twelve members of the Adventure Play New England team met with Morgan Leichter- Saxby from Pop Up Adventure Play, a non-profit organization that brings the principles of playwork to schools, museums, parks and neighborhoods. After a daylong training, we left feeling even more inspired and excited about the important role of “Playwork” in children’s lives.

Since I’m new to the field of playwork, like many of our readers, I thought it might be helpful if I talked about a few key points I learned during the training.

Playwork is NOT Education, at least in the sense that most of us use that word. Playwork provides an accessible resource to learning, but is non instructional. In other words, there is plenty of inherent learning occurring throughout the playspace, whether it’s building a pallet swing or playing with sand. Children are constantly observing, responding and making decisions in their own way, in their own time. Playworkers are not there to instruct, unless specifically asked by a child.

Playwork is a stage, not a scaffold: In education, teachers provide supports so students can master tasks and enhance learning, called scaffolding. In playwork, there is no scaffolding. Instead, we provide a steady, predictable platform for them to have the freedom to discover, play and grow.

Playwork has structure: On the surface, it would be easy to say that watching children in the midst of adventure play resembles chaos. It is actually the opposite; the framing that occurs in playwork—when children innately assign context to their play—is intensely structured. Children engage in the very serious work of framed play as part of the Play Cycle.

The Play Cycle is a critical part of development: There are 4 stages of play, which was news to me!

  • The first is the cue, which children give off in either a verbal (“I want to play!”) or non-verbal (eye contact) way. A return cue is given at the level it was sent: “Yes, let’s play!” or initiating parallel play.

  • Next, play framing occurs, which is when the children create their imaginary worlds, play games, or create wonderful inventions.

  • Then comes the truly beautiful part of the Play Cycle: the flow. We, as adults, know what the flow looks like, right? It’s the point where time becomes unimportant, where non-critical elements around us get filtered out, and we become deeply immersed in the work we are doing, such as writing, dancing, singing, or painting—or whatever creates flow for you. Children get into a flow state through play. As playworkers, we practice instinctive recognition and hold back so we don’t interrupt the flow happening around us.

  • Finally, there is annihilation. It is the natural end result of the Play Cycle, where destruction of the play occurs. It can be as obvious as physically destroying the object the children spent hours or even months building, or it can be subtle, such as switching to a different game or even spontaneously wrestling.

Adventure Playgrounds are safer than traditional playgrounds: This was very eye-opening to me because most of us have the preconceived notion that the playgrounds we see everywhere—the manufactured structures with colorful plastic elements—must be safer than an area with uneven terrain, child-built structures, or loose parts like tools and wood. Right? Wrong. Playworkers employ risk assessments every day before the adventure playground opens to eliminate any obvious dangers (exposed nails, unstable height elements, etc.). With traditional playgrounds, kids may actually have a false sense of security by assuming the playgrounds are safe. This may result in them pushing their limits to unsafe levels and causing more of a hazard to themselves. With Adventure Playgrounds, kids know their limits. They take responsibility for themselves. No one is pushing them. They built many if not all the parts of the play area, so they know it better. It all makes sense, doesn’t it?

Adventure Play New England officially opens on June 29th; come join us to see how impactful a world of free play can be for your children. We’d love to see you!

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  • Kathryn Camgemi

There’s a young girl chipping away at a block of ice with a screwdriver and a boy who is sawing a tree limb. Another girl is painting the roots of a tree. Two children are play-fighting while an older boy is contemplating what to do with a 2x4. To some, it might appear as though the children at the new Adventure Playground in Boston are making a mess, destroying materials, or just running amok. Is this really an environment where kids are left to fend for themselves without consequence? Or is there something deeper going on?

The term “structured chaos” is the notion that whatever appears to look

completely disorganized or irrational on the surface is actually the very essence of the creative process: it is the act of destruction before creation, defacement before beautification, experimentation before success. Conformity is praised in our modern society and anything that appears to go against it (even if it’s a natural part of development) is considered “wrong.” What suffers then is a child’s innate creativity, resilience, and freedom. Like the girl chipping away at the block of ice, a child’s primal sense of what it means to be human also erodes.

This is why, despite initial appearances, the children “running amok” at the Adventure Playground are actually doing purposeful and necessary work: the ice block reveals crystals that can be analyzed up close; the sawed-off tree limb will become part of the tree house other children are building; the painted tree roots are where fairies and gnomes live (of course!); the children play-fighting learn about conflict resolution; and the older boy uses the 2x4 to build a catapult system.

There is inherent risk and natural consequence embedded within their activities, but instead of parental interference that will alter and stunt the children’s productivity, trained play workers observe from afar and intervene only if necessary. This act of taking a step back, to trust and believe in what children are capable of, is what sets an adventure playground apart from any other play space. And, soon, you start to see that the craziness you thought resembled Lord of the Flies is actually more like a beautiful multicolored tapestry of personalities, ideas, hopes, and abilities—just like the world itself.

A child engaging in purposeful work at Adventure Play New England
  • Kathryn Camgemi

Updated: Jun 6

In 1971 landscape architect Simon Nicholson observed the natural environment and its many opportunities for what he called “loose parts play.” Children, he believed, are inherently creative and inventive and are not motivated by static, sterile play environments. When children are free to experiment with loose parts, however, their imaginations blossom and a freeing sense of wonder takes hold, encouraging them to experiment, tinker, and create.

Nicholson’s concept resonated for many within the early education field, and soon it became a cornerstone within the Reggio Emilia, Montessori and Waldorf approaches--for good reason. Play experts and early education scholars recognize that loose parts play builds confidence, imagination, problem-solving, hand-eye coordination, gross and fine motor skills, mathematical/analytical thinking, language development, social skills, and much more.

So, what exactly are loose parts? They consist of materials that can be manipulated, taken apart, redesigned or re-used in a different way. They can be manufactured items (such as old machine parts, cardboard boxes, discarded utensils, etc.) or natural materials (leaves, pine cones, sticks, rocks, water, and so forth). The key idea behind loose parts play is that it is open-ended, unstructured, and full of possibilities. It’s like that moment that all parents have encountered: a child opens a present and is more captivated by the box or wrapping paper than the actual gift! What we are witnessing is the child’s natural interest in loose parts, an excitement that drives them to create a magical new project using the shiny ribbon, ripped box and glossy paper.

At Adventure Play New England, we strive to provide an environment that Simon Nicholson would approve of: scattered tree stumps, old tires, rocks, paint, discarded household items and more, are all placed within a beautiful natural environment where children, free from the interference of their parents, can invent, engineer, and play. Trained playworkers watch and intervene only if necessary. Adventure Play New England is designed to enhance what Nicholson identified decades ago: play with loose parts builds connections, strengthens developmental skills, and widens imaginations. Come see for yourself how the power of loose parts play can impact your child.

Creative thinking at work at Adventure Playground New England