Of Kith and Kids
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.
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:
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.
For more on using and choosing a boom, see Shea Shackelford’s Transom writeup.
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…
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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