Things to do in Providence

Providence Playcorps: Free Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds for Kids

Children are resilient; in the bombed-out rubble of Europe after World War II, children found ways to do amidst the ruins what they were naturally inclined to do – play. It has been indisputably known for decades that the single most important way children learn about the world around them is through play, but what constitutes “play” is a matter of sharp disagreement in practice.

At a recent screening of The Land, a half-hour documentary filmed in Wales, a few dozen people at the Rochambeau Branch of the Providence Community Library saw an “adventure playground” where children are encouraged to engage freely with what at first glance looks like piles of junk: cardboard, wood, rubber, tires, plastic, rope, duct tape and other random detritus. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that to the kids this is a veritable paradise where, because adults already think of the stuff as junk, the kids can play with it and have no concern about breaking anything. To the Playwork movement that has professionalized this kind of activity – in Europe it’s possible to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees in this sub-field of child development – such seeming rubbish is instead considered “loose parts” that can be combined creatively by children in ways that result in experiences planned and directed by the child rather than by adults.

Janice O’Donnell has been a key figure in bringing the adventure playground concept directly to children in Providence neighborhoods. After stepping down in 2014 from leadership of the acclaimed Providence Children’s Museum where she had been on staff since 1979 and director since 1985, she said that a growing interest in studying the play of children grew out of her own observations. “Children didn’t play the way they used to,” she said. “They were very often in organized activities.” She traveled to adventure playgrounds overseas in order to observe and learn from the more than a thousand operating in Europe. “I’m very proud of my work at the Providence Children’s Museum and I fully support their work,” she said, but she decided to devote her time to promoting the Playwork concept in the United States where fears of liability, among other issues, have prevented the development of more than a handful of adventure playgrounds.

O’Donnell is now director of Development and Sustainability for the Partnership for Providence Parks, a private non-profit that collaborates with the city Parks and Recreation Department, the city Healthy Choice Office and the Providence Children’s Museum to run the Providence Playcorps project, of which she serves as co-director. Now in its third summer in 2016, every weekday between 11am and 2pm from July 6 to August 21, Playcorps will provide storage pods full of loose parts in seven of the city’s 113 parks, each in a different neighborhood: Billy Taylor Park (Mt. Hope), Bucklin Park (West End), Father Lennon/Camden Street Park (Smith Hill), General Street Park (Wanskuck), Harriet & Sayles Park (South Side), Wallace Street Park (Silver Lake) and Zuccolo/Pastore Park (Federal Hill).

The location of these parks in relatively economically depressed neighborhoods is no coincidence: Playcorps operates in parallel with the federally funded free lunch program open to all children 18 years of age and under. All of the Playcorps parks are “open sites” where free lunches will be available daily to anyone of eligible age without a need to sign up for a formal program.

Although O’Donnell was careful to disclaim that the adult facilitators at these parks will not be “Playworkers” in the European professional sense, she said they undergo a week of training and are mentored in Playwork practices and conflict resolution. Each park will be staffed with a team of three facilitators, all of whom are college graduates, she said, with some between undergraduate and graduate school. The adult facilitators, most in their mid-20s, have diverse backgrounds including sports and fitness, theater and art, she said. Many grew up in the neighborhoods to which they will be assigned and many are bilingual in English and Spanish. Playcorps is “not custodial,” she emphasized, and although children who are old enough to be “just out and about in their neighborhoods” are encouraged to drop in, “we’re not babysitters.”

Although the modest Playcorps program catapults Providence into the national leadership in adventure playgrounds, this is mostly a matter of their scarcity in the United States relative to Europe. For a budget of about $90,000 annually, according to O’Donnell, Playcorps serves an average of 150 kids daily and an estimated 4,000 different individual children across the summer. In addition to city funding, grant money comes from Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island and from the Health Equity Zone program of the RI Department of Health. There is no funding overlap with the federal free lunch program, although it operates alongside.

Providence Playcorps, O’Donnell said, is a “hyperlocal” effort that embodies the principle, “Think globally, act locally.” The effort to promote adventure play in the United States is “small but intense,” she said.

Playcorps is much closer to the European model than most adventure playgrounds in the United States, O’Donnell said, because the American trend is to create “destination playgrounds” where whole families plan day trips. In the United States, the few adventure playgrounds are almost all in college towns such as Berkeley, California, or Ithaca, New York. “In the UK, adventure playgrounds are right in the neighborhoods where the kids need them. They’ve been there for a couple of generations,” she said. “They are more like community centers, like Boys and Girls Clubs.” Yet the trend in Europe is moving away from that. There used to be over 100 adventure playgrounds in London, she said, but now there are only about 40. Europe is becoming more like America with “helicopter parenting and screens,” she said, meaning video games and tablets. That’s ironic given the origin of adventure playgrounds in Denmark and the UK in the postwar era, where adults asked, “How can we make this safer?” as they watched kids playing in bombed-out rubble. The development of adventure playgrounds “was very much in response to devastation,” she said, where survivors reasoned, “Things have been really bad, many people have died, and now we’re going to put efforts into the next generation.”

“If you talk to anyone who teaches at a college, you hear about changes where parents are more involved.” She has even heard of parents calling professors to complain about a grade, she said. The result is students “who don’t take initiative, who aren’t creative.” Schools “teaching to the test” produce students “needing to ‘get it right,’ where there’s always a right answer.” In the 1950s, she said, “schools weren’t progressive, but there was all that time we weren’t in school.”

“Screens,” as O’Donnell calls them, and their effects on child development worry her. “It’s really good for kids to be bored, because they have to think of something to do.” Simulated or virtual environments “take away opportunities to experience the real world.” In her work at the museum, she said it was disturbing to see children as old as 10 years of age who didn’t realize that a small piece of tape could not hold a heavy object, something that is learned by “messing around with the real world.” An essential part of playing with blocks, she said, is “feeling the blocks, which are designed to topple over. It’s so important to have the experience of real blocks.”

Providence Playcorps video (2m05s):

Janice O’Donnell speaks at 2016 TEDxProvidence (16m09s):

BBC segment featuring Janice O’Donnell (2m18s):

“Inside a European Adventure Playground,”

“The Overprotected Kid,”

Play and Playground Encyclopedia: