A Place to Be Human: A Conversation on Play and its Environments

There’s research that says when people experience something that strikes them with a sense of awe, they are more compassionate with others afterwards and feel more connected and less isolated….We have to make places and time when we can have that sensation.” 

Katie Shook

Large-scale block set designed in collaboration with Katie Shook and Sophie Smallhorn. Image courtesy of Katie Shook. 

Artist Katie Shook and I are two people who are serious about play – theorizing about play, facilitating play, and building tools and environments for play. But what happens when you’re in the business of play? As both of our art practices are centered around making accessible, community play offerings in the world, Katie and I are familiar with the tension and duality of trying to make a living through public art projects that can be pricey to manifest and challenging to find funding for in a country that values profit over community dreams and desires. 

During my time working in a Montessori school, I also noticed an overlap between work and play. In the Montessori vocabulary, the lessons themselves are even called “works.” These “works” are where children learn chores like flower arranging, washing tables, and sewing in addition to more traditional lessons of reading, math, and geography. I was surprised to find these were often the tasks the children enjoyed the most. Observing their enthusiastic sweeping, I would wonder when that work crosses over to something dreadful and obligatory rather than empowering and delightful? When you’re a kid, is play your work or does work get folded into all things play when your survival isn’t dependent on it? As an adult is it ever possible to access this contextual learning and wonder in our daily life?

As an artist offering a range of play spaces situated within local parks, public schools, and now the mall, Katie operates within many fascinating play intersections. I met with her to explore this tension of work, play, and practice, along with other dualities like pop-up versus industrial play structures, the commercial nature of the mall and the artist neighborhood developing within Portland Oregon’s Lloyd Center Mall.

Katie Shook at her Mudland Moon Garden playspace in Lloyd Center Mall, Portland, Oregon, 2024. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow. 

Clara Harlow: I’m curious about your own play history. Where did you have your best play experiences as a kid and with who?

Katie Shook: I went to Montessori school, so I think a lot of my experiences are formed in that environment. I remember the pouring activities where you get a pitcher and a bowl and practice pouring water. I also really loved playing in the mud and making mud pies outside. I remember doing that a lot, digging in dirt and mixing mud and putting it in pie pans and setting it out. My dad was really into organic gardening and compost and stuff, so I’d spent a lot of time playing with him in the dirt and with plants and we had chickens. They were kind of hippies, like homesteaders. My mom would make cheese and yogurt and we had chickens and ducks. 

Clara: Did you help out with some of those tasks around the house? 

Katie: Yeah, definitely. We started washing the dishes after dinner and even cooking really young. By grade school we were supposed to cook a meal once a week. I don’t know how that informs play, but we definitely were helpers around the house.

My favorite Montessori toy, the Long Red Rods, where children build and navigate through different spatial constraints. Photo courtesy of Battery Park Montessori. 

Clara: Yeah, that definitely feels Montessori-adjacent to me. Teaching kids that they actually do have agency over care of self and care of community. That these things aren’t just passively done for you or to you, but you get to be a part of it. 

Katie: And you’re capable of pitching in, like you can sweep and wipe a table.

Clara: Yeah, I used to co-teach an after school program at a Montessori and I feel like the kids would take a lot of pride in the work that they would do too and that was cool to see. So I’m wondering how you got into the work of making play spaces for children?

Katie: Well I was making art, theater, and performance for grown ups in college and in grad school, but I have always worked with children, babysitting and at schools and stuff. I guess it was once I had a child, because I finished grad school at age 30 and had a kid a year later, that it just felt natural to be exploring open, creative kinds of art environments for kids and at the same time practicing my own art.

The Notting Hill Adventure Playground is one of the first junk play sites that popped up in English cities after World War II when many children constructed their own play spaces in bomb sites. Photo courtesy of The Guardian. 

Katie: I was really into the adventure play movement, my dad had a book about it and would talk about it growing up. There’s an organization in the US called Pop-Up Adventure Play where you can do training to be a playworker in the vernacular of adventure play. In England and Northern Europe there are PhD programs where you can study play theory and become an expert in play theory and play work. In the US we have folks who’ve trained over there and then do this kind of certification for people. So I was studying that and then I helped start a non-profit in Portland called Portland Free Play where we would do pop-up play with scrap materials at parks through the Parks and Rec program. And we started a few programs at public schools to bring scrap materials and train the staff at the school to bring the materials out during recess for kids to use.

Adventure Play Pop Up in Portland, Oregon. Image courtesy of Portland Free Play.

Katie: I started Mudland [Katie’s pop-up play environment project] around the same time with more of a focus on design materials and intentional themes that are a little bit more aesthetic and designed than the adventure play environments. 

Clara: Yeah I know we both have an appreciation for adventure playgrounds and non-directive design for kids where the objects and environments that the kids are utilizing don’t dictate only one way you’re supposed to engage with it, but allow for lots of different possibilities and agency within that. With that in mind, I’m curious what you think traditional American playgrounds are missing. How do you think they could be improved?

Katie: I think what a lot of people who work in early childhood education would say is loose parts, right? Like when you’re on a playground and there aren’t loose materials to interact with there’s less for kids to invent and have agency over. Even when there’s just bark chips or twigs or pebbles. And you collect those things and incorporate them into imaginative play. 

Clara: I love that because yesterday me and my collaborator, Luz Blumenfeld, were helping teach a class for undergraduate art students in the amphitheater of the Rose Test Garden where everyone made a score to sort of explore and measure the space. All of these 20 year-olds came up with the most amazing, playful scores once they were able to give themselves permission to go there. The scores were like: “Climb into trees with all your friends and don’t come down until everyone’s ready to come down together” and “make hopscotch with sticks and play”. It felt very much like that sort of activated non-directive playspace and it was really cool to see adults accessing that part of themselves in relationship to a new space. That’s something we’ve been thinking about with our workshop Preschool for Adults too.

Katie: Yeah that’s so cool, there’s so much play potential and materials outdoors.

The Imagination Playground designed by Cas Holman and the Rockwell Group. Photo courtesy of Imagination Playground. 

Clara: Do you have a favorite toy designer? 

Katie: I love Cas Holman. Do you know her? She did the Rigamajig and was part of the Big Blue Blocks. Have you ever seen those? They have them at a lot of children’s museums, those giant blue foam blocks.

Clara: Yeah, they’re like giant tinker toys! I remember watching the Netflix design profile on Cas and was like, “Oh, man, I wish I came up with all of these ideas!”

Katie: You can build big stuff and make ball runs. There’s a lot of cool stuff people made in the sixties and seventies too. And there are so many neat playscape designs and playground landscape designs that didn’t ever get built.

Isamu Noguchi’s Playscape in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Herman Miller.

Clara: Yeah, like Isamu Noguchi’s Play Mountain. I want to go to that one in Atlanta. 

Katie: There’s the playground in Atlanta and then there’s a big playground in Japan that he designed, that maybe was built after his death. I want to do more International Playground research. I have a friend who works in the film industry in L.A., and we were trying to put together a pitch about play around the world, a Netflix show or something where you can watch how kids play in different parts of the world.

Isamu Noguchi’s Kodomo No Kuni Playscape was built outside of Tokyo, Japan in 1965 for the Japanese Children’s Year. Photo courtesy of Herman Miller. 

Clara: That needs to be made because I need to watch that! So what materials are you drawn to in creating play spaces? 

Katie: Well, cardboard is big. I love painting cardboard and it’s cheap and lightweight, so it’s better than making pieces out of plywood, you know, so kids can move them around. I love the soft forms and upholstery projects, but they’re really expensive. It’s either time intensive or expensive to hire someone to produce them.

Clara: Yeah, the materials are very influenced by certain constraints and limits. Like when you’re thinking about scale and also the size of children. What can they carry? But also durability, safety, affordability, all of those things. You think about those things too when you’re making any kind of installation, but the stakes are a bit higher because you want to make sure the kids can really interact with them in a way that’s safe and fun for them, you know? 

Katie: Totally, yeah. You want it to be open-ended enough, and it’s kind of not possible to build like structural, sculptural elements because you need a lot of money for that and you’re constrained by the playground safety regulations. Technically there aren’t regulations or rules around indoor play spaces. When I’ve worked on those projects, we design according to playground safety code just to make it easier.

Clara: Yeah, it seems like it can’t hurt. 

Katie: Yeah, but then it’s hard to make this sculptural piece that kids can climb on or go in or through and you start needing to really check that it’s safe in every way. And you need an inspector and engineers and then it just gets way too expensive to invent a cool one-of-a-kind thing.

Clara: Mmm yeah I feel like we’re coming up against some of that in my first year cohort. We’re in this class right now where we’re creating an artist collective and we are doing a project together that has to do with making a space or furniture that encourages adult play but also rest. What is it like to rest with people together in public? It’s actually something that’s pretty rare. Like we actually don’t do it so often outside of a movie theater, beach, or park. We were thinking about the eclipse and were all very excited about this big collective pause where everyone stops what they’re doing and goes outside and looks up together, just experiencing awe and slowing down together. 

So right now we’re trying to create some objects that encourage that kind of collective wonder for adults and figuring out how to make armature, but also make it mobile and things like that has been an interesting design dilemma. 

Katie: That’s awesome. I want to hear more about what you are landing on. That made me think of a couple things. One is design for public spaces and then the other is the studies relating to the kind of social emotional benefits of feeling awe – have you seen any of those? 

Clara: I don’t think so.

Katie: I looked up some of the studies about it recently and apparently being struck by a sense of awe is one of the things that resets your nervous system when you’re overwhelmed or in fight or flight. Some different things that cause that for people are looking out over a view or landscape or watching a bee gathering nectar. There’s research that says when people experience something that strikes them with a sense of awe, they are more compassionate with others afterwards and feel more connected and less isolated. They feel more feelings of love for others, so it’s a cool reason to do that, right? We have to make places and time when we can have that sensation. 

Clara: Yeah that’s so beautiful. I feel very invested in how we can create more opportunities for that in our daily lives.

Katie: Yeah. I mean, I think about that in doctor’s offices too, like if you have pictures of trees or a waterfall or something, it soothes people. It’s that sensibility. But another thing I was going to say too, is that I’m really fascinated by the design of public space and how the architects and developers in charge of it design them to either be together in rest or not. Like so many places don’t put out benches because they don’t want houseless people sleeping or sitting or lingering and then that limits us from being together in public spaces and chatting or resting there. 

Public contribution to British artist Stuart Semple’s Designs Against Humanity digital campaign against hostile architecture. Photo courtesy of Hostile Design. 

Clara: Yeah, exactly, the hostile architecture! It’s something that in New York I’m noticing all the time with all of the pigeons spikes even on a random little pipe or something that you could sit on and smoke a cigarette. There’s always something there to prohibit that public pause. And it’s sad because there are just like so many people who are really needing to occupy public space in a big way to rest and eat and live their lives because we’re all stacked on top of each other in the city and we all need those third places. A place to be around beauty and a place to peoplewatch or have a good think. 

Katie: And just be a human and not only a consumer or worker all the time.

Clara: Yes exactly. I was curious about your play space being situated in the commercial space of the mall and if anything has surprised you about this site? I know in the past you’ve had pop-ups outdoors in different parks in Portland and New York, and in an apartment building lobby. How does the mall inform the playspace and how has that been different from other projects you’ve done? 

Katie: Yeah, that’s a good question. There are a lot of people who see us because we’re in the mall, like families who are going through the mall anyways and then are like, “Oh, it’s a playing space!” So we get spotted because of the location versus other times where we’ve invited people to us. I just love the way the Lloyd Center right now is so open and flexible and not corporate. It just feels like this really grassroots, hand-painted, weird art installation and there aren’t corporate rules about how it has to look and function. And all the spaces around us are doing the same, it’s fun to be part of that. 

Clara Harlow’s Mall Mania puzzle page from Kye Grant’s Planet Lloyd publication made in collaboration with the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA Program and the Lloyd Center Mall community in the fall of 2023. Photo courtesy of Kye Grant. 

Clara: Have you made any good neighbor buddies? 

Katie: Yeah, all my neighbor buddies are very friendly and helpful and we’re getting to be more collaborative. The toy store across the hall, Tada!, is run by a man named Ali and he has brought over toys to give to me as a gift to use in the space. And then my neighbor right next door is Jason, who started the Pinball Museum. He’s really awesome. We’ve talked about collaborating on a new offering of family-friendly group events so if they want to bring kids, a group could come and have open play in our space and bring food. And then a smaller group can go over and have a roller skating class across the hall at Chickpea’s space, and some of them can go next door and play pinball, and there’s Bricdiculous a few doors down doing  reused Legos. 

Clara: I love that. It’s so cool to hear this because it really feels like the mall is kind of returning to a real local neighborhood space. You know, it really feels community-oriented.

Katie: Yeah, there’s another game place down the hall that has Pokémon Cards and group game activities and the guy who runs that brings his son over to play. He also loans me chairs and tables to use for our workshops.

Clara: That’s incredible. It sounds like such a utopia for children and adults. Hit up your rollerskating, go see some art, go play Pokemon.

A new era of Lloyd Center Mall is marked by local, independent shops and pop-up art projects. Image courtesy of Cabel Sasser. 

Katie: I know it’s really fun and people come through all the time who haven’t been here in a really long time. People are like, “It’s so sad here. It’s a dead mall. There’s nothing going on. What a shame.” And I’ll be like, “Look around because there’s actually a lot going on, like all the big box stores left and now there’s all these awesome art projects!” I learned recently it’s a third occupied, so there’s like about 300 spaces and about 100 that have organizations in them, just a lot of them aren’t open full time. 

Clara: Man, It’s just calling for a neighborhood block party! We gotta get everyone together who runs these local spaces for a potluck to meet each other and hang. 

Rolling backdrop puppet show at Mudland Moon Garden. Photo courtesy of Clara Harlow. 

Katie: My background is in puppet theater and I’ve been really wanting to make a puppet show in our space, you know, like a weird alien plant with moon people and creatures because our space is called the Moon Garden. When I was at CalArts in L.A. for grad school, I helped with a project called The Sunset Chronicles, and it was a group of people who make puppet shows based on buildings and real people that lived on Sunset Boulevard on the eastside of L.A. There were different episodes that had several characters in their stories. And the puppeteers wore blue aprons with palm trees on them, so they became the background, like the sky. And there were all these models of buildings that are real buildings along Sunset, and they would slide along and then the building would open up and you’d see the person inside who lived there.

Clara: That is amazing. 

Katie: There was one puppet based on a Silver Lake walker who was a retired doctor who would walk around in shorts, no shirt, super tan, always walking around Silver Lake. I think his wife had died and he just walked all the time and would be reading the newspaper, but everyone knew him and he was in the puppetshow. And he died like not long after they were doing the show with him in it. I was talking to Michelle [Illuminato] about how I want to do a series of puppet shows based on the people who run shops at the Lloyd Center. Like there’s a coffee shop that’s across from us Keia and Martyn’s. And I heard that the couple who started that coffee shop met in high school working at a mall store together at the Lloyd Center!

Clara: And like, what’s better than that? 

Katie: It’d be so cool to interview them and have them share their story. 

Clara: That’s fabulous, you gotta get that puppet show out to the world! Let me know how I can help. 

Katie Shook (she/her) is the director of Mudland, a play design studio based in Portland. Known for creating outrageously fun pop-up play events and designing beautiful playrooms, Mudland focuses on using open-ended materials that allow children to guide their own explorations. Katie has 15+ years’ experience studying play theory, the role of play in early childhood development, and facilitating children’s events. She is a co-founder of the non-profit Portland Free Play. Katie holds an MFA in theater from Calarts and a BA in studio art from Whitman College.

Clara Harlow (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist, designer, and preschool teacher from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work operates as an invitation into themes of intimacy, play, and alternative ways of measuring time through experiential events and interactive objects. You can most likely find her at the local swimming pool or making pigs in a blanket for her next themed party.

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