When I was at the Children and Nature Network conference in Vancouver last year, I was inspired by Adam Bienenstock's pop-up playground, set up as part of what he was doing at the conference. I've been a fan of loose parts for play for years but I loved seeing the energy and sense of fun that having a temporary installation was - especially in such an unexpected place like the Seawall in downtown Vancouver!
Children, locals and tourists seemed to delight in playing in the mud kitchen, balancing on the slack line and building huts with the sticks, hay and burlap. I made it a goal that when I got back to New Zealand I would create a pop-up somewhere in Christchurch within the year.
The opportunity presented itself after discussions with Sarah Mankelow from City Council who was organising events for Parks Week in March. We decided I'd create two spaces, one at Thistledown Reserve in Woolston and one in the city.
Jane, from Greening the Rubble, suggested The Family Recovery Garden, opposite Margaret Mahy - a fantastic location and, thanks to Greening the Rubble and Odyssey House, already a gorgeous space. They kindly agreed to share the garden with me for two weeks.
My goal was to set up a space that catered for different stages of development and provided children with lots of opportunities for creativity and play - on a minimal budget and using as many natural and recycled materials as possible. I hit the op shops for mud kitchen supplies, Creative Junk for hut making and other loose parts materials and contacted other local businesses that I know give away materials when they're finished with them. Tree Tech kindly delivered a truckload of logs so we could create a sand and mud pit and Gardenmakers made me a lawn mix of 50/50 sand and soil with no added compost - perfect for mud pies!
Friends helped me set up on the Friday evening and I finished bringing the materials over the weekend. Once it was all set up and ready for play I had a moment of self-doubt - would it be interesting enough? Were there enough materials? What would people think when they came with their children?
All those worries were set to rest after the first couple of days. Each evening, when I went down to tidy everything away, there were mud pies galore, huts, obstacle courses and materials spread all over. By the end of every day there looked to have been some serious play going on in the space!
I think the greatest thing to have come out of setting up the space was connecting with like-minded people in Christchurch. I had some great conversations with people about their observations, had messages and photos sent of kids playing and connected with people doing some neat things in Christchurch, who I'm sure I'll cross paths with again. I saw that there was a good section of Christchurch who understands the benefit of a space like this -basically just with scavenged, natural or inexpensively acquired materials but materials that didn't have a set purpose or a prescribed way of using them.
At the end of the pop-up I put out a survey to gain feedback on what parents and educators observed and what they suggested could be done differently. Not only did I get a good number of people responding but their observations and comments were really well-thought out and so valuable. Honestly, I could have added all 65 of them - they were so good to read - but here are a few...
If you're wanting to set up some loose parts for play at your centre, school or home - just start looking in your area with your treasure hunting hat on. Check for natural materials like stones, pine cones, seed head, flowers, leaves, conkers, acorns, shells, pine needles, log rounds, straw bales, sticks etc. Some of these are seasonal so add interest and can lead to discussions or observations about the changing of seasons. Of course, sand, soil and water are the ultimate loose parts. Most people have a sand pit but having a mud pit is where some real fun is to be had - and if you're worried about them getting dirty just keep in mind that soil has millions of beneficial microbes just ready to help your child's immune system learn to function properly. Mud - not just fun but good for your health too!
If you have an industrial area, take a drive through. Often factories will have a bin on the street of things they can pass on - small cable reels, tubes, small pallets, boards etc. Just check that pallets are heat treated rather than chemical treated. Heat treated pallets will be marked HT DB.
We're lucky in Christchurch to have Creative Junk, a treasure trove of materials perfect for creating. But op shops, garage sales or grandma's cupboards might also be a good source. Old fabric scraps, buttons, containers, wooden spoons, old CDs, ribbons, pegs - there are so many materials that are perfect for setting out and seeing what children do with them. You'll need materials that can be stacked, joined together, put inside each other, lined up, counted, collected and carried.
Loose parts are great for inside and outside. They are great for any age (but what you offer each age or developmental stage might be different). Because they are just 'parts' children get to use their imagination and creativity to use them however they want. Play that is child-led is more sustained and focused. A lot of comments I had about the pop-up was that even though there were lots of children in the space, it felt calm. People commented that this was very different from what they would experience at a standard playground. Get in touch if you want any ideas for setting up a loose parts play!
Huge thank you to Tree Tech for the logs, Connetics for the cable reels, Garden Makers for a discount on the sand and soil, Creative Junk for their amazing supply of materials, Christchurch City Council for helping fund some of the materials through the Lightbulb fund, Adam Bienenstock and the Children and Nature Network for the opportunity to be inspired. But mostly, a huge thank you to everyone who came along, who allowed their children to explore, to get muddy, to create and basically just have fun playing. It definitely won't be my last pop-up experience!
If you came along to the pop-up but haven't had a chance to give feedback yet, please feel free to share your thoughts.