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© Allison Usavage


Playwork is about fostering a culture of play and creating environments that empower children to build their own play experiences. Playwork promotes self-directed exploration and discovery that may not be present in children’s everyday lives. The Hands-on Nature Anarchy Zone at the Ithaca Children’s Garden is built to foster a culture of play and employs trained Playworkers.

We photographed the Anarchy Zone on Ithaca’s Day of Play, an event that gathered practices and practitioners from across the country, designed to inspire educators, administrators, and policy-makers to foster a culture of play in their own communities. A Q&A with Erin Marteal, Executive Director of the Ithaca Children’s Garden.


© Allison Usavage
What is Playwork?

Playwork is the theory and practice of supporting and fostering a culture of play by setting up an environment and providing whatever support is needed for kids to really direct their own play.

Play is something that many children don’t have the chance to do as much of as perhaps I did when I was a child. I think there’s so much opportunity for exploration and self-discovery that comes when kids have ownership of their own experiences, and often through the course of a day kids don’t have a lot of say or control over what they’re doing with their time or how they’re doing it. Playworkers and playwork is about supporting kids in being able to make their own decisions, play what they want and how they want, and through that process they learn so many skills that might not be readily apparent to the observer.


Who is Playwork good for?

Playwork is amazing for anyone who is participating, whether it’s the playworkers themselves or the children who are experiencing what it is to be fully supported in directing their own play.

What change does Playwork promote?

The change is really a big change. It’s fostering a culture of play. Even though children are born innately inspired to play, as they grow up and as they move through various experiences the perceived value of play is really limited. Play is something that inspires ingenuity, and creativity, problem-solving, and the building of social skills, and these are things that are really really important and really valuable. We tend to miss out when we don’t give ourselves and our children the opportunities to play.


What brought playwork to our community?

As far as I’m aware, there hadn’t been any playwork here prior to when we started the Hands-on Nature Anarchy Zone at the Children’s Garden. When we established that space, we recognized this gap in terms of how families anticipated they could use the space versus what we had envisioned. Differences in various groups emerged and we wanted to make sure everyone understood what was fully possible in this space while keeping kids safe. These angles helped us understand that the gap between what we were seeing and what we wanted to see really was in this field of playwork. So we started investing heavily in training our staff in playwork.


© Allison Usavage
How does this impact our community?

The impacts that we’ve seen so far have been incredibly positive. Kids arrive at the garden and understand what they can do there: lead and direct their own play. I think we’re starting to see that spill out into how kids play beyond the garden. We hear reports back from teachers talking about how the kids love their time there. In fact, a second-grade teacher at BJM just showed me a video… it was her kids chanting, unprompted, “this is our favorite field trip! this is our favorite field trip!” and going on and on about how much they loved it. This teacher expressed how valuable it is, how much joy it brought them, how much they physically moved through the garden, how they really developed and strengthened existing social relationships among their peer group.

You can see kids learning simple things, like gaining more self-awareness when they learn how to use a hammock for the first time. Or building a bridge over the mud pit and trying to use balance not to fall in…. those kinds of basic skills that often we don’t even realize kids are not getting their structured lifestyles. I think play is the best form of research and it brings joy to those who engage in it, as well as lots of learning.

What struggles have you encountered?

Every playworker we have, we train. So it’s a pretty significant investment to train everyone… that would be like trying to hire a teacher and no one has a degree in education, so you have to start from the beginning. That has probably been the single biggest challenge, but luckily we’re connected to folks like the Pop-Up Adventure Play team who trained us, and we are now beginning to offer our own training to others based on our own experiences in launching and sustaining the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone.


How has our community given back to this initiative?

In lots of ways! We have so many committed volunteers who help out in whatever we do, whether that’s tabling out in the community, whether that’s offering a traveling adventure play experience at a local community center, whether it’s bringing resources that might be waste for someone else to our site to be used as loose parts for play, or volunteers that come physically and help take care of the site, and certainly our local foundations have been incredibly supportive of the efforts that we’ve been making.


© Allison Usavage
What should we be celebrating?

It’s a great question. Play, can, in itself, be an expression of celebration. I think we should be celebrating everything we possibly can as often as possible! As adults we need to model for our children how to be playful and not take ourselves too seriously.

How can we take part?

Just learn more about what playwork is… it has a really interesting history. Keep your mind open, keep your eyes open, and check in with us about upcoming play opportunities!


Any final thoughts?

In other parts of the world you can actually do a 4-year degree in Playwork. When you know some of the basic philosophy and concepts behind what playwork is there are always ways you can incorporate aspects of it into your life, whatever that life involves.


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