It is a late October afternoon on Governors Island, and families are flocking from the ferry to Pumpkin Point, a lawn with strategically placed gourds for “picking,” flanked by tents for food and beverage vendors and a series of official family activities. This Sunday’s scene at the patch provides a stark contrast (and sends a bumper crop of overflow participants) to the adventure playground a few yards to the south. The Yard can be identified by the hand-painted cardboard signs — “children are fine without advice/suggestions” reads one — and the chicken wire fence that demarcates the separation between the grown-up world and the one beyond. Inside, children have free reign over a landscape of castoff construction materials and other detritus, free to build, play, and destroy as they wish. At the threshold, parents sign a waiver and let go.
Granted the rare privilege of adult access to the adventure playground, I am advised — repeatedly — to make myself small. I take in kids whirling past on a jerry-rigged zip line, pushing around all manner of wheeled things, wielding saws. What’s called loose parts play means that children can experiment and invent with materials that can be used in more than one way. The playworkers who staff The Yard are mostly preoccupied with ushering out wayward grownups and gently catching a younger, repeat trespasser (it turns out he does have a ticket, just enjoys the frisson of breaching boundaries). My own son, who is five and has seen nothing like this, ever, sits paralyzed in a treehouse until a playworker gently invites him to explore. A regular who has been coming every weekend for years and is being recruited as playworker-in-training is digging a canal with a shovel. The vibe in this parallel universe is kind and gentle chaos.
A playground operates as a microcosm of the world beyond; at its best it projects a brighter vision for a city to come. This one, which has evolved from experimental pop-up to permanent fixture, is an advance guard for a city where free play might extend all across the public realm. As play:groundNYC, the organization which runs The Yard, expands its work with schools and on streets, and seeks a second permanent location, we check in on the state of play in New York City. We toured The Yard with executive director Zoe Fortin, chatted with playworker Alex Cote, and later talked with co-founder and head playworker Yoni Kallai (the two conversations have been combined and condensed) about making the case and making space for independent play all over town.
This place has a logic all its own, which, as an adult, is a little hard to understand. What exactly are we looking at here?
The kids have nicknamed this one Wood Fort. The kids build, and then playworkers spend a lot of time making sure the structures are sound. We take the fort down at the end of the season. All the wood that’s still structurally sound, we keep, denail all of it, and then it goes back into our main wood pile.
All materials come from the waste stream. We’ve become Governors Island’s unofficial recycling center, because getting trash off of the island is kind of complicated. There was a restaurant that was built where you get off the ferry and they had a lot of leftover lumber, so we took that stuff. All of these crates that you see came through Materials for the Arts. They were actually all beautiful, shiny, and monogrammed because they came from the Louis Vuitton runway. Now they look much more like The Yard’s aesthetic.
Sometimes, at the beginning of the season, the playworkers will build the foundation so that kids can build upon that or start building suggestive structures. This is where we store all the raw materials that kids can pull from: pipes, wood, chairs. They have access to tools: saws and hammers go back on this board at the end of the day, shovels. Our staff shed is the only thing that’s off limits, where we keep first-aid supplies and electric tools that we don’t let the kids use.
Do the elements of the space vary much over time?
I haven’t been here in two weeks, and the topography kind of changes. The mud pit is set up year after year. Kids mostly use it for digging and then placing objects across it for an obstacle course. Sometimes we show up in the morning and there’s ducks.
This short zipline is an invention from this year. Kids will come up with things, and then the playworkers are like, “Okay, if you want to zipline that’s great, but then let’s make this small fence,” so kids are not running in and out. This year, the playworkers suggested we add this smash zone. There’s smashing happening everywhere, but when it gets really aggressive and bits are flying everywhere, we direct the kids over there.
We got this piano last year. There was a woman who reached out and said, “There’s three broken keys, and the cost of me repairing it is not worth it.” It’s the only thing that’s like, “Do not break.” We normally let kids destroy and break as much as they want.
How do you channel so much energy? It was very intense when everyone was lining up to come when you opened.
Which the playworkers might tell you is a sign of how play-deprived some kids are. If they could come here every day, maybe they’d stroll in a bit more casually.
The playworker sounds like an oxymoron, but they are key to the whole endeavor here. How do you describe their role?
Mostly, we’re talking about the work of care for the site and with the children directly. We do a risk/benefit assessment. We’re trying to get a sense of what can happen here and what modifications need to be made. The harder place is the emotional and social stuff. One of our big challenges is the fact that since we are a destination playground, we’re bringing kids who don’t know each other and don’t spend that much time together. We try to allow them to figure things out on their own, but also try to make sure that it’s not going too far. How do you insert yourself in a playful way? To shift things and not just come in like a teacher, policeman, judge, whatever you want to call it, saying: “This is right and wrong.”
If there’s conflict brewing, we might approach that a number of different ways. We might join the game, be part of it, and model how to check in with the other team about what the game is. We might have a more sit-down conflict resolution talk. We might put out interesting stuff so it gives another option. Sometimes it’s just like boredom turned into something.
I feel like I gain the most ability to defuse things by understanding what led up to the thing. I just try to observe as much as I can. Often, the bigger thing starts from, “Someone took my hammer once.” I remember when that happened, actually, because I saw it.
We are clear that we’re not guiding what is happening by the kids. So, we bring all the options that we can, and you could potentially say: “Okay, anyone who wants to play this, come and meet us over here.”
A few of our playworkers also are trained as social workers. They all believe so deeply in children’s rights and supporting them, and they do that through play here. One of our major goals is to increase programming at The Yard, at a second adventure playground, or around the city, so we can serve more children, but also so we can ensure that playworker can be a year-round, sustainable profession.
You’ve been here on Governor’s Island for eight years now. When The Yard opened, a lot of the writing was really focused on the novelty: “That crazy place.”
“Scariest Playground in New York City,” was the type of headline.
What’s changed since then, both in terms of how you’re received, and what you’ve learned?
This concept of adventure playgrounds has evolved with time. Each adventure playground is different and playwork doesn’t have to happen at an adventure playground. We started with pop-up events. We did a pop-up where the Trust for Governors Island invited us, and through that, there was the conversation about operating a site there.
We’ve observed over 30,000 kids in the space. There are things we understand about how the space works and what doesn’t that maybe weren’t so clear at the beginning. There’s also been a strong emphasis on tracking incidents and following up with families so that they feel supported, and, internally, trying to establish patterns about what is the play scenario that led to that incident. That’s also been really helpful in educating folks about adventure playgrounds, because the hammers and saws are always what’s so triggering. But that’s not where incidents happen. That data is helpful to show that it might not be that different from other activities that you’d like your children participate in, like skateboarding or rock climbing.
The conversation has also changed. Cultural norms around parenting and childhoods, there’s waves and tides, right? In 2015, when The Yard was being created, we were still very much in highly helicopter-y discourse. Now, we’re in 2023, with one of the biggest mental health crises with our youth. There’s been extensive research in the past few years about the role of independent and self-directed play on mental health. I think that’s helpful. We would never be able to have the conversations we have with city agencies now if we didn’t have seven years’ worth of track record.
The Yard is so exceptional. The setting, too, on Governors Island, is already a space apart. What does it look like to bring this kind of free play and agency for children into other, more everyday spaces in the city?
Our mission is to transform our city through play, which doesn’t have to be loose parts play. Obviously, that’s a version of play that’s extremely successful in supporting everything we want to see: collaboration and creativity and problem solving and friendship and all the things that we all can get behind. But there are simpler things that could start a conversation and support small sparks, such as painting hopscotch on sidewalks.
When we talk to most folks individually, they believe that kids should have more independence and more access to play. But there are external factors that prevent families from being able to do this; the cars, mostly, are the reason this is not happening. We’re doing a pop-up on Halloween in the Bronx in partnership with the Department of Transportation (DOT). Halloween is one of the deadliest days for kids in the street, which is tragic, so they’re creating programming to push families to use these pedestrian corridors. We’re doing that one because it feels true to what we want to see accomplished in public space for children. But apart from very special occasions, we’re moving away from this temporary pop-up scenario that feels very logistically hard and hoping to work on more permanent public space play.
What kind of work are you doing outside of the Yard, who do you collaborate with?
Most of our public space work is on DOT property. We have relationships with so many city agencies. The Department of Education (DOE), because we work with a lot of schools on bringing field trips to The Yard, but also now introducing loose parts play to their recess yards and providing professional development to teachers and educators. The Department of Sanitation, because the donateNYC partnership helps us source materials, and then in exchange, we give them a list of all materials that get reused in the playground, and they calculate the environmental impact. And then Parks, but that’s the harder, most long-term goal to convince that department that Parks playgrounds should look more like The Yard.
Schools have been wanting to work with us for a long time, and not really figuring out where the budget or bandwidth comes from. DOE has a small sustainability grant. It used to be limited to getting compost or a garden started, but most schools now have a garden compost program, so they extended how it could be used, and this version of waste conversation and play is applicable. So for the first time this spring, we have a citywide mechanism to support schools to bring us in.
What we’re trying to get to is how to get into recess. It’s a built-in time that, in theory, kids should be able to play. But it’s so short, and what are their options like? An asphalt area, and maybe there’s nothing that is put out. Maybe there’s a few balls. But if true play is happening, kids go into the classrooms more ready to learn. But despite all the research, the US is continuously trying to push more academics at an earlier age, and more safety, which is counterproductive. If all the surfaces you’re walking on are flat, then your balance is worse.
You’re also actively trying to establish a second permanent location for an adventure playground.
We need more space. We still firmly believe that children can play outside, in any temperature, if they’re given the space and support to. But the reality is, we had to be inside earlier this year in June because of the air quality. We need space that could accommodate play programs for entire days. The sky’s going to be on fire again.
In an ideal situation, we would have an indoor space and outdoor, and there will be all the options to do some cooking, and paint, and draw. We want to have it all, but the fact that we are basically outdoors limits the materials.
We could extend the support we’re able to offer if we were closer to where families live and work. We want the second location to be in a neighborhood with residences and elementary schools. It can be a resource seven days a week, year-round, open on the weekends, after school. It can also act as a recycling center in each neighborhood, like it does here.
You see adventure playgrounds in Europe, maybe your twelve-year-old starts walking there by themselves. It broadens the conversation about independence, where it’s not just within the playground, but also to and from the playground.
We’ve looked at a few spaces this past year that are encouraging. It’s all on the table. Sometimes I’m like, “What about this empty lot?” But I’d rather not start from scratch. We don’t want to just show up and open the playground in a neighborhood that might not want us.
I want to ask you about the class dimensions of the junk playground and unstructured play. Governor’s Island poses access issues to be sure; that’s part of the impulse for a second location. But our attitudes toward play and education are also so often stratified by class. We fret over the overscheduled, achievement-oriented affluent child, for example, while there continues to be an extreme emphasis on order and discipline in many schools that serve lower-income children.
Some parents tell us, “I love it. It’s made my kid more independent and more self-reliant.” And some parents are like, “Well, my kid has always had to be self-reliant, because I never could afford a nanny. So my kid always walked home, latchkey style.” For some parents, that independence is not a welcome add-on skill, it’s a necessity. So we have to be careful about how we talk about these things.
The fabric fences we have here on Governors Island, they’re mostly for privacy for kids, so that parents are not directing their children, so children feel like this is their zone. But if we were to go in a residential neighborhood, we’d have to really consider the look and aesthetic of what it looks like from the outside, and this sort of shantytown evocation or whatever it might be.
It hasn’t changed how we’ve worked with the schools. From our perspective, all kids need and deserve to play, whether they’re in private school, or charter school, or whatever educational decision has been made for them by their parents, is irrelevant to how we serve the kids. But I do think it’s changed a little bit how we talked to the grownups about the benefits. Play can support so many things: mental health, physical and environmental health, STEM education, and anything you want. Some schools come with a very particular agenda, they’re like, “We’re interested in your program because we just got a grant to support mental health,” and it’s like, okay, we’ll talk to you about play’s benefits for mental health.
2023 is the first year we have demographic data about race, identity, and income level. It’s only for our weekend program, but that’s also where we welcome the most kids. From purely qualitative observation, it’s a mix. This is one of the only free programs across the city that’s every weekend. Most museums do a free family hour or whatever, but it’s not every weekend. So The Yard has become a staple for some families that cannot afford the paid options. At the same time, there’s extreme wealth in Manhattan and North Brooklyn, which are the neighborhoods that come here. So there’s the full range.
Which gets us to the microcosm, how we can see the world writ small in the playground, and how we might see the playground as a model for living.
It’s a mini society in here, with everything from “peace and love” to “dictatorship.” We’ve seen it all. The beauty is also that kids come from all kinds of neighborhoods, all kinds of schools, and they connect around play.
Play is universal. You don’t need the same language, even. The Yard definitely is male-energy-skewed. This is because we specifically try to provide more for the kinds of things that you’re not finding in other places. Doing arts and crafts is great. We totally support that. We have the stage area for putting up a show, and we love when that happens. But there are a lot of places that do that, so we don’t prioritize it as much. We want to make sure that’s available, but building, playing war, wrestling, using curse words, we make space for that.
I believe that young people are the first and foremost oppressed group in the world at large. Seen as less than fully human, seen as unintelligent. Young people are totally dependent on the caregivers and the mistreatment they receive, we then grow up to accept other forms of mistreatment towards us, or to think that it’s okay for us to mistreat others. And we’re trying to add a little something about changing that.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.