Thursday, July 8, 2010

PlayWatch: Kids Take Over the Garden

This post was contributed by Museum Executive Director Janice O’Donnell.

One of the best things about the new additions to The Children's Garden is how much intense child-directed play we see there. And when kids are in charge, their play isn't always exactly what we had in mind.

A fluid group of five or six kids – oldest ones about 8 or 9 with a couple of 4-year-olds doing their best to keep up – were chasing each other through the tunnels in Underland, popping out of different openings and diving back in and making a lot of joyful noise. I noticed the older boys were pointing wooden utensils at each other, accompanied by sound effects: “Bang! Bang! Bang!” We made those gracefully carved wood pieces for pretend cooking and stirring, not lethal weapons, but I've mellowed over the years. I know that kids will pretend sticks – or almost anything else – are guns and still turn out just fine.

An older child crawled out of the tunnel, followed closely by a little one. He handed her the stick (gun) and said, very seriously, “Cover me,” and sprinted to The Climber. The other kids emerged into the sunlight, conversing intently in a language I couldn't begin to identify. It sounded like something out of “Star Wars” and was spoken in robot-type voices. Whatever it was, they understood each other perfectly and apparently devised a plan because suddenly they fanned out. They ran in every direction, jumped off the stone walls and took cover behind bushes, until one spotted their prey. She shouted (in that strange language of theirs) and pointed toward The Climber.

Photo by Susan Sancomb

And, like a wave, they streamed up The Climber, which became the site of a scrambling, shouting, sliding chase. There were grown-ups around but the kids seemed oblivious to us and no one interfered with their play. It was such good play ­– that deep, intense play where catching or eluding feel like life and death. And it was all theirs, even if it was inspired by a movie or TV program. They were embodying their characters and inventing the twists and turns of plot.

I am so pleased that we – the designers and developers of the new spaces – decided early on that additions to the garden had to be open-ended. We set out to create environments to inspire and encourage play, but where play would be directed by the kids. Kids would make the stories, determine the possibilities, push the limits, invent new uses for whatever we provided. And they do. To me, that means total success.

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