"If a 10-year-old lit a fire in an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling. At the Land, spontaneous fires are a daily occurrence," Hanna Rosin writes in her cover story for this month's Atlantic. The Land, an "adventure" playground in Wales, is a radical departure from standard safety-conscious playgrounds, encouraging kids to experiment with tools, junk, and combustible materials.
Erin Davis, a filmmaker and radio producer based in Vermont, recently set out to explore this phenomenon in a documentary about the Land. She shares an excerpt (complete with fire, sharp objects, and gleeful kids) and discusses the making of the film in an interview below.
The Atlantic: What was the genesis of this project?
Erin Davis: I was fortunate to have had a very playful childhood in the American midwest. It included roaming through back yards with a crew of kids of various ages, making up our own games. Most adults I talk to have similar kinds of stories and believe that these were valuable experiences and meaningful times in their lives. I’m interested in the discrepancy between what we remember enjoying as kids, and what we tend to allow children to do once we’ve grown up—both on an individual and structural level.
How did you learn about the Land and decide to film there?
The innovative Imagination Playground sprung up in Manhattan in 2010. It was cool and exciting, and embraced the theory of “loose parts” by filling the play-space with sand, water and big beautiful foam bricks that kids could move around and build with. I worked closely with New York City kids at the time so it caught my attention. In reading about the Imagination Playground I got hooked on a detail referring to its being informed in part by, “European ‘adventure’ playgrounds,” and thought, huh.. well, what are those? You could say I fell down the rabbit hole.
What was filming like? Did anything in the course of production surprise you?
Filming was very spontaneous and exciting. There was fire, mud, snow, rain—so many rich elements. The children played outside in all conditions. The approach was observational, so we filmed with our characters through risky and playful activities that they initiated, making a point to follow the action through to its natural conclusion. It's striking to witness what children are capable of.
The children do what you'd expect them to do: build, destroy, climb, swing, hide etc. The behavior of the adult playworkers on the Land is really the most surprising thing. They don’t wear whistles around their necks or watch from the sidelines, they are integrated in the space. They are skilled and thoughtful about when and how they intervene. They take their work seriously, are passionate professionals—and they have a great time.
Why is risky play so important? Do you have a sense why Europe seems more ready to embrace it than the U.S.?
It’s really more about child-directed play than “risky” play, per se. When a child chooses the content and direction of an activity, it’s likely that eventually something about it will make adults cringe. Committing to support child-directed play means relinquishing control and managing your own feelings of discomfort. At its core this is an act of deep respect for the child and their experience.
There are a variety of factors that make adventure play more difficult in the US and they include litigious concerns and healthcare. Another element is our obsession with assessing results in America and the rejection of any activity that does not have an immediate, quantifiable value—like play, which is valuable for its own sake. Of course, in addition to being valuable for its own sake, play has been demonstrated to improve academic performance, behavior, mental and physical health in children. So ultimately I think it’s about control and power. People who have power over others—in this case, adults over children—are often reluctant to share it.
With that said, the pendulum is swinging. The Land does have kindred spirits in the U.S. including Pop Up Adventure Play and The Anarchy Zone. And I receive emails routinely from people saying "Yes! I’m trying to do this in my community." So there is a hunger for change.
You raised funding on Kickstarter. Has crowdsourcing the budget for the film influenced your creative process?
Kickstarter allowed the project to begin having an impact before the film was complete. Every backer received a copy of The Playwork Primer and many have gone on to purchase additional copies and written to me about integrating playwork principles into their classrooms and interactions with their kids and grandkids. That’s exciting.
What stage is the film at now and when can we look forward to watching it?
We’re editing now. I continue to seek funding to maintain the momentum and bring the story to its audience. I think people are ready for this. Parents, teachers, they get it.
What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
When it comes to play provision in the U.S., if I may borrow a line from Lady Allen of Hurtwood, the godmother of the adventure play movement,“it’s just not good enough.” We can do better. And we don't have to reinvent the wheel.
Landscape matters. Access to the elements matters: trees, water, fire. Agency and empowerment matter. Variety and change in a playspace matters. The Land, and places like it, push the envelope of what is possible.
I also simply hope people leave the film excited to interact with the children in their lives in a new way. A way that is bold, compassionate and enriching for both the child and the adult.
For more information about the film, visit http://playfreemovie.com.
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