Book Review by Dr. Debora B. Wisneski (University of Nebraska- Omaha) with Melany Spiehs and Carol Burk (Omaha Public Schools)
Almon, J. (Ed.)(2017). Playing it up– With loose parts, playpods, and adventure playgrounds. Annapolis, MD: Alliance for Childhood.
Debora: In 2014 in Vancouver Canada, I was able to listen to the Canadian environmental activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki give an impassioned speech on the future. She was speaking of building a better world for our children’s future. Part of her presentation included her reminiscing of her involvement in the environmental movement. She recalled in her younger years feeling the need to fight- against policies harmful to the earth and against corporations who polluted. However, she had made a transition in her career from fighting to one of building. She came to the realization that when the powers- that-be would one day come to the realization that harming the earth is unsustainable, they would need to turn to those who know how to live in earth-friendly and sustainable ways. Thus, Cullis-Suzuki began to focus her efforts on creating a sustainable community where she lives and raises her family. In the process, she also came to the realization that the Utopia she dreamed of currently would not exist at a national or global level, but she discovered that there was a network of such communities that already existed around the world. These communities created a sort of web that spread across the globe that could stay connected though so far apart.
Cullis-Suzuki’s description of the state of her cause, reminded me of the plight of play in American schools and lives. It is easy to get discouraged when fighting against school policies and practices that hinder children’s play in education; however, I have become more hopeful when I have turned my attention to collaborating with others to build play spaces in schools and communities. While every city or school does not support play, there are many places and people around the world that are building play spaces. Joan Almon’s new book “Playing It Up- With Loose Parts, Play Pods, and Adventure Playgrounds” is a wonderful documentation of the work of play advocates and playworkers around the U.S. who are building play spaces and expanding our network of play communities. In Almon’s edited book each chapter is written by a play leader who describes in detail innovative ways play spaces are being designed and what materials are being organized and used in these spaces. The book opens with a ringing endorsement by Dr. Stuart Brown.
Melany: The first chapter begins with Almon describing the state of play in the U.S. and her concerns for children. She displays a deep respect for young children and her message is one of urgency but not hopelessness. Due to our current society filled with lawsuits, safety is a major concern in schools. She states, “Society’s fear of play, with its various physical and psychological risks, remains a major obstacle that needs to be overcome, or at least minimized, if children are to play freely again” (p. 3). Children use play to deal with stress and anxiety and with the decrease in play children are displaying an increase in obesity, depression, hyperactive disorders and autism. Yet, Almon trusts that children are naturally risk aware and a good at assessing risk and thus, advocates for loose parts, playpods and adventure playgrounds to support their play.
Debora: The second chapter, written by Rusty Keeler, offers a reflection of the state of free and risky play in the U.S. and his recognition that play is returning to the world of children. As he states, “The world is changing because we are consciously evolving it. We are consciously choosing to say “yes” to the play opportunities we believe children need” (p. 15) The following chapters are written by the play leaders from around the U.S. describing the unique aspects of their play spaces and providing evidence of this play evolution. Along with the stories, there are beautiful high quality photographs that make you want to be in these spaces and extensive biographies and websites of the contributors which is extremely important when we are striving to make connections within this movement. The first section of stories focuses on the process of starting up play projects and the practical details necessary for success. The second section highlights various examples of adventure playgrounds- the risky child-initiated wild spaces with loose parts and minimal adult intervention that were considered taboo in American culture. On these pages, these fantastic spaces come to life. The third section describes play pods in parks and schools- smaller outdoor spaces but with a multitude of recyclable and reused materials for building and pretend- changing how children play during traditional recesses. The fourth section illustrates the movement of bringing play back to nature. The book concludes with calls to advocate for play and essential lists of resources, play advocacy groups, and the principles of playwork- all the tools one could use to begin his or her own play project. And this is the real power of the book- it inspires one to action. It is contagious as two of our reviewers who are preschool teachers discovered. Here, they describe how Almon and her co-authors inspired action at their preschool and elementary school:
Melany: At Spring Lake (Elementary), we have an abandoned outdoor classroom on site. It is a large area blocked off by a chain link fence. Inside there are trees, small sheds and overgrown raised beds. The weeds have taken over and there has been no one to take care of the area since it closed down many years ago. I have had my eye on this space since I started at Spring Lake back in August. After talking to my team and my administrators I have been given permission to lead a resurrection of this outdoor classroom. Seeing Joan Almon’s photos of children playing in nature and reading the play stories encouraged me to take this leap of faith. She was that gentle nudge that I needed to be an advocate for outdoor play at my school.
We read Joan’s book before we opened up our outdoor classroom. Her words about risk assessment helped us to remember that children are capable and can do their own assessment. It made for a more authentic experience for everyone. We noticed there was minimal re-directing from adults, almost no conflicts between children, and children resolving, negotiating, and compromising with each other.
“Playing It Up” can be ordered from amazon.com and is available at no cost online at allianceforchildhood.org. We recommend this book as essential for the play movement today.