Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Eye Of The Beholder

Our community built the prototype of our junkyard playground over a decade ago. We were in our old digs atop Phinney Ridge, working with a tiny space, but still managed to create most of the features our larger space has today: sand pit, work bench, garden, art space, and what we later learned were called "loose parts." When we moved to our current location in the Center of the Universe, we were obviously ready for the challenge a larger space presented, creating the foundation of new playground in a week because that's how much time we had before school started that year. It has since continued to evolve, as we've added, subtracted, and moved things around in the ongoing project of creating our preschool version of what we later leaned was called an "adventure playground."

From the outside looking in, the place looks a bit like a junkyard or vacant lot. This is not by accident, but it has become a sort of dividing line between those who see Woodland Park as a sort of childhood fantasy land and those who would never, under any circumstances, allow their little ones to set foot in that place. Indeed, even current parents sometimes make comments about the mud, the broken toys, the spare tires, the jumble of shipping pallets, and the general debris of crates, wood scraps, and other miscellany that is strewn about the place. Even I, one of the lead proponents and curators of our space can find myself wanting to give it a tidy.

The good news is that we have regular all-hands-on deck weekend parent work "parties," with our state-of-the-art outdoor classroom receiving the bulk of our attention. For one thing, at the behest of a five-year-old named Thomas, we built a two-level sand pit with our cast iron water pump positioned at the top, which means that the continual flow of water downhill causes the sand to re-locate from the top to the bottom. One of the big jobs at these events is to man shovels and wheelbarrows to return the sand back to the top where the process of erosion begins once more.

Another of our tasks is to essentially make a distinction between what is garbage and what still has play value. This is a job where a lot of judgements must be made because, as we all know, one person's trash is another person's treasure. In the past, I've felt the need to monitor this process with an eagle-eye, sometimes even going so far as to pull perfectly good junk out of the dumpster, sometimes even engaging in friendly debate with parents over the play-value of this or that piece of debris. But on Saturday, as our team of parents undertook the task, I realized that they no longer needed me to "helicopter parent" the playground. Each time I peeked at the trash pile, I saw nothing but actual garbage. In fact, I even heard these parents discussing who and how this or that was used yesterday or last week or a few years ago as they told the stories of our junkyard playground to one another while they worked, allowing themselves to be in awe of the ingenuity, creativity, and industriousness of the children who play there.

It wasn't long ago that our junkyard playground confused people, even those whose children played there, but no more. What I learned over the weekend is that we are now a community of adults who truly understand the value of playing in "natural" places like this, places where play is not proscribed, where loose parts dominate, and where mess, like trash and treasure, is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, we as a community really do seem to understand play.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

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