First let’s begin by abandoning the antiquated ideal that childrens play equipment needs to be pieced together or assembled by adults. For the purpose of this article play ground equipment is as simple as a box, board, plank, tire, log, or any other object suited for full gross motor activity.
Villages, towns, and worlds can be built of boxes, boards, planks, and other versatile buildables that promote self-constructive playground equipment. As long as materials outside are clear of sharp corners, nails, staples, or other potential serious owwie makers than it is fair game, and young people will know exactly what to do with all this stuff.
Moving sand, stones, soil, sticks, buckets, balls, or anything else for that matter that is not bolted down or is just to heavy to pick-up is what young architects, archeologists, carpenters, and artists do. Naturally they are doers, set on constructing their world around them. Their world is about mixing, shaking, dropping, lifting, shaping, pushing, pulling, any materials in sight they can gather or re-arrange for the sake of a full sensory experience. And providing a rich diversity of interesting parts that can be customarily constructed to fit their ideas and visions of play ground equipment is paramount to enhancing physical agility, dexterity, coordination, confidence, different perspectives, and a healthy ego.
Young people are notorious for bending and stretching their imagination around any object – their experts at this. They can find multiple uses out of sand castle bucket, while an adult can typically be dumb-stuck by the challenge of finding more than one function. For instance the kid lumbering around role as a knight, robot, warrior, or monster with a bucket over his head is typically the one you may also find moments later using the same bucket to mix cake batter, or to carry stones.
Typically four year olds will randomly transform an average playground system into a rocket ship, a castle, a cave, a volcano, a moon, or a home center, depending on the ideas being spouting out boundlessly from their inventive minds. A playground system can be more than just a place to climb-up and slide down.
An upside down table can suddenly become a car, train, or balancing posts by stretching out their legs. Stumps or logs can be moved with a team effort to set the stage for an obstacle course or as an added boost to reach a high bar.
In the play yard where I teach, some of the kindergartners’ are rolling stumps to a spot they have designated. They ask for my assistance for a plank that weighs close to 40 pounds, but instead I offer a suggestion – to ask their friends for help. Sure enough after a moment of recruiting, they decide to tackle the laborious task of moving the plank. Observing them stumble, strain and persevere, they eventually achieve the end result – a bench or an additional piece of playground equipment that will eventually be used differently by another set kids after they are through. Most of their interactions during the construction of building their bench, table, or balance beam are full of non-verbal gestures, impromptus, and agreements that lead to the goal of setting a heavy and cumbersome plank across two stumps.
Versatility comes with greater dexterity, confidence, and competence, when intentional materials are provided for young people to explore in creating their own playground equipment – providing the adults around are mindful that play involves certain risks. Laborious or constructive play in an outdoor setting for young people can be precarious at times. Scrapes, bruises, bumps, or the infamous owwies is bound to happen. Here’s the challenge: As adults we want a safe environment for play but we don’t want play to be stymied by over reaching concerns or anxieties. It is east to always project our concerns and harder to watch from a far a potentially non-safe method of using materials. I am not refering to the kid who is throwing a brick in the direction of other people, because I wouldn’t hesitate to yell “stop” and give compassionately reasoning and redirection – perhaps finding a safer area away from people for throwing a brick. But, if a young person may stumble off a foot high plank or stack of stumps because it is off centered, this I would chalk up as a valuable lesson that would only fall to the wayside if I stopped them and fixed it for them. In other words watching a young person interact uniquely with what they perceive as equipment for play does not always conclude the behavior is entirely unsafe, just risky. And some risk can enrich an experience.
The other challenge is: Being patient and knowing that they’re developing physically and need to test their strengths and build confidence. And their bodies urge to move vigorously, at times clumsily, in order to gain a sense of coordination. Every day the availability of raw materials such as rocks, bricks, straw bales, stumps, or logs are at the root of stimulating not only natural connections, but also real opportunities for the cultivation of ideas and experimentation.
Clare Cherry in Creative Play for the Developing Child, states, “The most effective type of learning involves movement. Books may provide facts and patterns. Lectures may offer clues. But actual learning comes through doing.” Providing an open, free space for unlimited movement of materials for constructing their own playground equipment provides a natural challenge for creative perspectives, second thoughts, innovative ideas, enriching endeavors, confidence, and self-reliance. Valuable qualities, perhaps a book can never offer.