Of Kith and Kids

July 30th, 2013 | by Erin Davis with help from Viki Merrick
Dave and Corey manage a fire together.

Dave and Corey manage a fire together.

Transom is proud to premiere another piece from our Donor Fund—work subsidized by those of YOU who contribute to Transom.

Adventure Playgrounds are public spaces for children that encourage managed risk. At a quick glance, they look like junkyards. If you’re a kid, you might get nicked or even slightly burned in these places, but your imagination will also fire. They’ve been called, “A complete artwork. A space and time where all one’s senses are engaged.” Producer Erin Davis has been obsessed with these playgrounds lately and is now telling their story in radio and video.

Do you think your community would allow a play space with sharp objects, unstable structures, and the possibility of fire? Erin visits “The Land” in North Wales and lays out the case in this highly visual radio piece, supplemented by lots of actual visuals (check the lovely bits she’s assembled for her movie). All this will get you thinking about the nature and purpose of play. Jay A

About Of Kith and Kids

It started with a pledge to my local public radio station… yes!

As a sustaining member of WNYC I receive a New Yorker subscription and read the piece: State Of Play: How Tot Lots Became Places to Build Children’s Brains by Rebecca Mead. The article covers the 2010 opening of a high profile playspace in Manhattan called the Imagination Playground. The writer likened it to something much grittier, darker and, well, European: something called an adventure playground. Intrigued, I did a little Googling, read a little more and quite simply fell down the rabbit hole.

Turns out, adventure playgrounds have quietly flourished since the second World War in the UK, Denmark and Germany. They’re usually tucked into neighborhoods without much fanfare and take many forms, from chaotic junkyards to whimsical shantytowns. Yet they all embrace something that unsettles the American sensibility, a necessary and positive relationship between risk and play. Staffed by adults trained in “playwork,” adventure playgrounds have been described as, “a complete artwork. A space and time where all one’s senses are engaged.”

I began reaching out to people in the “play” world, and soon began to hear about a new playground called The Land, in North Wales. The Land was breathing new life into some of the movement’s oldest “junk” philosophies. So, I booked a short visit to see it for myself and was kindly welcomed by the staff and children in November 2012.

I remember walking onto The Land for the first time and feeling dwarfed by color and chaos and scale — a shining marble here, a towering tree there! I spent a few days taking photos and filming, returned to the US itching for a proper documentary shoot.

Thanks to the support of about 150 generous Kickstarter backers (you know who you are!) I returned to The Land in April 2013 for three weeks to shoot a film, which I’m now editing.

(Teaser for Erin’s new film about The Land.)

Audio for the Transom piece was recorded during the two visits. The title comes from the expression, “kith and kin.” In its original meaning, “kith” refers to one’s home country, the bit of earth where we build our homes, grow our food and raise our children — our Land.

Interview with Dave the playworker, film still

Interview with Dave the playworker, film still

Challenges

Making a radio story out of film material

I had to decide early on how to handle interviews, knowing I would be producing both a radio piece and a short film. As an experiment, I did do one audio-only interview in a good quiet space and it sounds terrific. But I don’t have that shot to cut to, which is a disadvantage. If I had to do it again, I would have stuck with the field setup, simply for consistency in the edit. However, it was definitely a tough call and I’d love to speak with other producers creating multi-format work and how they approach this.

Fun Fact – GoPro Audio

Most of Paige’s audio is from a GoPro headcam she’s wearing. I certainly did not plan to use the GoPro for audio recording, just thought it would be fun to see the kid’s POV. So I nearly fell out of my chair when I pulled it up weeks later and heard Paige narrating her own private adventure through the space.

The GoPro comes with 2 “backs”, one waterproof and one that is “open”. This setup utilized the “open” back. The waterproof/closed back significantly muffles the audio.

We used this GoPro model: HD Hero 3 – Silver Edition.

With the headstrap mount.

In addition to the GoPro, audio in the piece came from multiple devices:

  • On-board mic on a Sony EX-1
  • Sony PCM-D50 mounted on a Canon 60D
  • Lavalier mics
  • Boom mic
  • This created a few extra steps at the front end in organizing the material, and at the backend with the mix. There are beautiful songbirds in North Wales who made their presence known. I occasionally used their twittering as punctuation.

    Interviews were recorded outside on the playground with a lavalier wireless mic and a boom.

  • Lav: Sennheiser EW 112-p G3 (A Band, 516-558 MHz)
  • Shotgun: Rode NT-G2
  • They ran into this mixer.
  • Then out to the Zoom H4N.
  • For more on using and choosing a boom, see Shea Shackelford’s Transom writeup.

    An Accent

    I didn’t expect this to be an issue, and mostly it wasn’t. But depending on the listener, some of my favorite bits of tape just didn’t come through because of the subtle differences in language. For example when one boy in the fire scene, Corey, said urgently (to me, as a matter of fact),”you may want to move from that corner while you’ve still got some time, until you burn…” It was a powerful moment. It demonstrated his competence in the situation and ability to predict certain dangers — not to mention his empathy for me as a newcomer sitting there while the circumstances escalated. But when friends would hear that moment in early drafts of the piece, they’d turn to me, “Wait, what did he say?” I was shocked! I loved that moment! I’d become so accustomed to the voices I’d forgotten what it was like to hear them for the first time. These test-runs were very helpful in grounding me, putting me back to where the listener was coming from; always a humbling process. Which brings us to…

    photo of the playground

    The Land

    Reigning myself in

    I’ve been so immersed in this project, it was hard to get past the “bullhorn” phase. The playground history, design theory, anarchist writings about junk playgrounds, engagement with the public debate about so-called “helicopter parenting” etc. etc. — I wanted to cover it all, starting at the very beginning! I had to be reigned in.

    Transom’s Viki Merrick brought me back to earth, kindly reminding early on that “no one in radio talks for 6-minutes straight”… ha! She brilliantly suggested I consider myself, as the narrator, like a ‘playworker’ supporting the audience in understanding the space and its ideas. This was a helpful guide and I hope I succeeded to some degree.

    Also serving as my guide were two other ideas I had from the beginning:

  • I wanted the structure to come full circle, to mirror the sort of equilibrium I observed at The Land: construction and destruction, water and fire, earth and metal, laughter and tears.
  • It was important that listeners be able to experience an element of suspense in the fire scene without being completely outraged. This meant being thoughtful about when and how to include certain details like the fact that a playworker was present and there was water on hand.
  • With these things in mind, I cut and pasted and moved things around endlessly until they seemed to flow in a way that felt natural.

    The piece did endure several (ok, more than several!) incarnations throughout the edit. It was long, it was short, I added writing, took it away, it went cross-eyed then back again. But I was able to get from the chaos of draft 1 to the final version with the help of trusted test listeners. I confess that it is physically painful to share failing versions of a beloved story with people you admire and respect. But by doing so I could feel in the air what was working and what wasn’t. The temperature of a room is as valuable as any thoughtful feedback, isn’t it…it takes a village.

    photo of child leaping

    FAQ

    Do kids get hurt?

    The Land gratefully reports no major injuries. They do encounter the scrapes and bruises commonly endured in childhood, which are documented in a log by the staff if they occur on site.

    A more common story is the one Claire, The Land’s manager, shared with me recently. A child said, “I come to The Land and I do all this stuff, I don’t hurt myself — I went home and cut my finger on a potato peeler.”

    Is there anything like it in America?

    The Land is a unique space. However, in the US there are opportunities for different kinds of adventure play at The Anarchy Zone in Ithaca, NY, The Tiny WPA in Philadelphia, the Berkeley Adventure Playground & a Pop Up Adventure Play just about anywhere you’d like. If you know of others, please email me!

    I went to The Land because I was interested in, what I would call, their purist approach to a junk-style adventure play environment. It is a space that constantly evolves alongside the children who play within it. For example, the fort where the fire took place in this piece has since been dismantled.

    photo of kid playing with fire

    A note about fire

    There are not many rules at the playground. However, children can only burn paper, wood or cardboard. No plastic or other materials. This is strictly enforced, without exception.

    Playworkers are in possession of the lighters and “fire making” tools. Children ask to use them, and because the answer is usually “yes” children don’t worry about losing access and routinely return the lighters after the fire play ends. Also, there is a protocol of contacting the fire department to announce a fire in the event that concerned neighbors or passers-by see smoke and report it. This insures that community rescue resources are not used unnecessarily.

    Fire can be destructive and scary and no one at The Land would deny this. It is also a natural, or at least widely common, interest for children. Because of this, the staff believe it is an important element to provide with the proper precautions. And I agree.

    photo of Erin Davis

    Erin Davis

    Intrigued?

    Adventure play can happen anywhere at any time. Matches are not required. Download the accessible Playwork Primer.

    About Erin Davis

    Erin is a radio producer and documentary filmmaker living in Vermont. She studied at The New School, The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, in the studio with Albert Maysles and in the field on documentary projects like The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant and Remote Area Medical. Her radio work has aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, WNYC’s Studio 360 and WBEZ’s Re:Sound. To support her documentary habit, Erin teaches courses in radio storytelling at Middlebury College. Her favorite game is catch. She can be reached at erinjd [at] gmail [dot] com.

    Thank you

    Jay Allison, Viki Merrick, Samantha Broun, Syd Lewis, Barrett Golding. Claire Griffiths, David Bullough, Arthur Battram, Natalie Sear, Luke Sutton, Nicola Milburn, Penny Wilson, and the children at The Land and families of Plas Madoc. Jamie McCallum, Erica Burkhart, Steve Bognar, Julia Reichert, Erick Stoll, Liz Cambron, Lauren Ober, Morgan Leichter-Saxby, Lela Klein & Bobby Holt.

    Related Links

    Play Free website
    Play Free on Facebook
    Play Free Twitter feed
    The Land on Facebook

    Related Videos

    Paige tries the rope swing for the first time:

    From the archive — Junk playgrounds are not a new idea. Though the language is certainly dated, Lady Allen of Hurtwood explains the purpose of adventure play with clarity, and without apology:

    Support for this work provided by the
    The Transom Donor Fund

    Transom Donor Fund


    22 Comments on “Of Kith and Kids”

    • lu says:

      Erin, I loved this piece. I heard only one draft in progress (I know there were many) and I think you have done the loveliest, super dupery job with it. Is there any movement to open playgrounds like this in the US? Or are we too litigious?

      • erinjd says:

        Hiya Lu! There is a small but super cool community of people trying to create new and increasingly radical play environments in the US. But something like The Land would be a really tough sell (which isn’t to say it wouldn’t be of huge benefit to children here). I would argue that the biggest barrier for children’s play in the US is TIME. The next barrier would be SPACE. And the third is ADULT intervention! With good intentions, we (adults) want to participate, play along and keep things within our comfort zone. What I’ve learned in working on this piece is that sometimes the hardest thing to do when working & playing with kids, is letting them lead the way. Thanks for listening. xxo

    • Amanda says:

      Very sweet story! with kids you’re always wondering what they can manage on their own and the answer is always more than you think. Once in a while my 3-year old will still, say, take a bat to a candelabra of lit candles, BUT generally he can handle a hammer, a knife, a fire… and (thanks to their dad, not me) both of my kids love nothing more than a good bonfire/hurricane/junkyard – the more uncontrolled the better. And they would love this playground.

      • erinjd says:

        Ha! Bat to the candelabra is definitely outside of my comfort zone :-) If you haven’t yet, I always encourage parents and caregivers who are already so play-positive to read the Playwork Primer. It’s short and easy and has really impacted my own interactions with kids, you may find it interesting! Thank you for listening. Play on!

    • Roger Davies says:

      I’m British and I didn’t know there were places like The Land, , which reminds me of my own kids’ upbringing, my daughter had a season ticket to the local emergency ward as her one-year-older brother got her to test the risks for him, but it didn’t seem to do them any harm, indeed seeing how they’ve turned out- not bad human beings-(OK, I know I’m biased), I think it did them good. To their mother’s horror I used to tell them “Get out there and don’t come back till you’re covered in s**t, but try not to lose too much blood”. Encourage more such places. Real Life has a nasty habit of not being totally health and safety conscious and kids need to grow up knowing that. Roger Davies

    • Exciting adventures! Thanks a lot for sharing this with us.

    • Pejk says:

      Dear Erin, this is fabulous. Although I grew up in Denmark I never heard about these playgrounds. I can see why they might have a revival now, in a climate of over-protective parenting. The scenes you recorded sound so good and also the ones the kids recorded themselves, what a great idea to mount cameras on their heads! This kind of vérité recording is too rare in US radio, the producers who get that kind of tape are few and far between. Dave is a strong character; a line like “they play with the edges of their lives” is kind of priceless. Can’t wait to see your film and get to know some of these kids and more about Dave and what his motivation is, oh yes, and the anarchist writings!

      • erinjd says:

        Thanks, Pejk! The first adventure playground *ever* was in Denmark in the late 40′s. C.T. Sørensen, a landscape architect now famous in the AP world, astutely noticed children in his neighborhood swarming in bombed out buildings and empty lots. He put a fence around one and called it a park in an inversion, or extreme interpretation of, Functionalism. Acknowledging its questionable appearance, Sorenson said, “of all the things I have helped to realize, the junk playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful.” The playground still exists.

    • Kerrie says:

      Great piece Erin! I know in my bones that this kind of play is essential for children. I learned more about the world and what I was capable of by running around abandoned building sites with my brother and a pack of semi-feral suburban kids, than I ever did under the watchful eye of a grown up. I’m not proud to admit though, that as a parent of a 5 1/2 year old boy I really struggle between my desire to keep him safe and letting him find his own limits. This piece is a great reminder to bite my tongue and trust in his innate intelligence. I would love to hear call in programs (like WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show) use this piece to kick off a longer discussion in their communities about the issue. Important work!

      • erinjd says:

        Thanks for listening, Kerrie. In early drafts of the script I marveled over the restraint the playworkers seem to exercise. Unless they are simply the most laid back people in the universe, it takes practice. They are very inspiring for this issue in particular.

        And I agree about a BL segment – perfect for a call in. Thanks!

    • Deidre says:

      Wow, this is cool. I’m living in NYC with a 5-year-old and no back yard, so I wonder what he misses. We have the park nearby with occasional mud puddles, etc, but nothing like this. All the playgrounds in NYC are rubber padded which I find detrimental! My 5-y-old has only had 2-3 skinned knees in his entire life, and no other injuries. So he is afraid of “getting hurt.” Growing up in the late 70s through the 80′s my brother and friends built something that looked a bit like the Land in the woods behind our suburban neighborhood, with wood scavenged from nearby developments. I was 4 years younger and a girl so only marginally allowed to “enter” this boys paradise, but when I did it was exciting! There were definitely a few injuries. There was a zip line through the trees from one platform to the other. I think I still dream about that place.

      • erinjd says:

        Hi Deirdre — Thanks for listening! Don’t underestimate the adventure in NYC! I worked with kids there for years and they manage risk every day, stopping at the crosswalk when they’ve run ahead, deciding how close to stand on the edge of the train platform. You may like the Playwork Primer too. It’s really impacted my interactions with kids and it’s interesting to think about NYC youth from a playwork perspective.

        Your childhood zipline sounds incredible. One of my favorite things about working on this project is hearing people’s play memories. So magical!

    • Donna and Jack says:

      The best “play” memories from childhood were not those fabricated on conventional playgrounds. They grew out of traipsing through the woods and falls from trees and too-deep dives into swimming holes and confrontations with danger … or at least what seemed like danger. To create that kind of atmosphere within the bounds of “supervision” seems like a common-sense idea, which is probably why it’s rare. Thanks, Erin, for bringing it to our attention.

    • Lela says:

      When I was about 8, my friends and I would play after school in a mostly-empty science building on the campus of Antioch College. My dad had an office there, but the rest of the offices on his floor were unoccupied and full of old lab equipment and abandoned office supplies. We were basically unsupervised, and it was better than any playground could have been. As a parent now, and a bit of a control freak, I’ll have to learn to let my kids get into some adventure play scenarios as they get older.

    • AK says:

      Hi Erin-I love Paige. “Wow, it’s very small, but I think it won’t stop us”. “We made it, and that’s a lucky thing, cause we could’ve died”. Grown-ups could take a lesson from Paige. Take risks, be courageous, have no fear. Love the music too.
      Job well done.

    • Lotta Erikson says:

      Hi Erin, great piece! Nice sounds and lovely kids. Very strong presens at the playground with scenes and wich made me come close to the caracters. Inspiring!
      Lotta

    • I feel like my childhood in the 1960′s was very exploratory and much like the idea of a junk playground. However the places my friends and I found to play were usually in our neighborhood, like the alley behind our houses, or vacant lots. I remember thinking discarded tar paper for roofing was the greatest treasure ever. We played a lot in trees and even had a fort in a guava bush. My own children have had a lot of adventures in our backyard. We have a large sandplay area and they played in it with toys, hoses, shovels, and wood scraps making lakes and rivers, digging for treasure, making baking soda volcanos, etc…In the years when they were 11 and 12 they were allowed to burn paper and cardboard in the sandbox as it was a great place to do it. Now as teens they light fireworks there on the 4th of July. When we went to parks we had fun playing on the play equipment, but it certainly wasn’t the same type of play as happened in our backyard. So wonderful hearing about these creative play spaces for children! Hope your documentary contributes to their expansion and availability for kids!

    • Alexis Lagos says:

      my 6 year old daughter has listened to this podcast umpteenth time – how she wishes she could go to such a playground

    Links to “Of Kith and Kids”

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