By Roz Crews
I’m a “lonely only” and when I was a kid, I spent a lot of time by myself or with the neighbors. I knew that playtime meant I could choose to be alone floating through my thoughts or I could be with other kids, developing communication and negotiation skills. Both options were fun, but they required different kinds of mental energy. Playing together was difficult, and it felt like learning, which felt like work. Slow and painful, but then I grew three inches in one year.
I found freedom in privacy, and I frequently experienced self-doubt when I played in public space. All of the kids my age who lived in the neighborhood identified as boys, and they loved baseball, building stuff using power tools, video games, and skateboarding. Sometimes I ran alongside their skateboards pretending I was on a skateboard, but I preferred imagining doll weddings, catering fake events with real food, choreographing music videos for popular songs, searching for fossils in the creek, and narrating the lives of stuffed animals.
One of our greatest collaborations was called “House in the Trees,” and the project combined and benefited from our diverse interests: we built a series of structures between two small magnolia trees on the edge of our property, ate meals there, hosted group discussions, and used it as a backdrop for our life together. We barely left the neighborhood during playtime, and if we did go on an excursion, we usually went to a local park.
In the 1990s, Westside Park, the largest city-owned park in Gainesville, Florida had a few metal climbing structures including classics like a slide and a swing set, but it also had a really simple play object shaped like a spider. It was hard to climb up the metal spider legs, but if you could, you sat upon the spider’s back. Thinking about it now, I’m reminded of Louise Bourgeois’ spider sculptures:
“The spider—why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”
I felt insecure near the spider. I sat heavy at the juncture where its leg met the ground, and I felt incapable in contrast to my peers who could effortlessly slither up the slender metal limbs. This object stood in the park like a sculpture in a public garden, and I wanted to spend time with it by myself—to appreciate its beauty and persistently practice climbing its legs protected from the gaze of other people. I wish Louise Bourgeois was my grandma, and she could lift me atop the spider where she’d whisper into my ear: “You are patient and reasonable, dainty and subtle, completely indispensable.”
In 2009, the park was renamed Albert “Ray” Massey Westside Park and Recreation Center in recognition of a man who is known regionally as the “Grandfather of Recreation.” In a news article about the renaming, Massey is said to have made recreation possible in the city of Gainesville. This makes me wonder: What does it mean to recreate?
I hate the idea that a park or a playground or a structure or a person would be designed and designated as the facilitator of play.
If it were up to the spider, I’d be alone and crying, destined to a life in the mulch. Eventually, I would create a habitat beneath where I could tunnel into a crystal cavern in the Florida aquifer, but that would take years. At some point during my childhood, the spider was removed, and all the simple metal sculptures were replaced with plastic slides and coated metal walkways with pictures of frogs and pirate swords emblazoned on the ship facades. This type of aesthetics for a playground are pervasive. They function like dictators of play. When I was younger, I yearned for these brightly colored plastic playscapes because they were clean and bright and told me what to do.
In contrast to the plastic play utopias that started to appear all around me in the 1990s, there was an incredible, free-standing wooden world called Kidspace designed by famous playground architect Robert Leathers. On special occasions, I would drive fifteen minutes with the neighbors to visit the playground, stopping to get Subway sandwiches along the way. My neighbor’s mom seemed to like taking us there—maybe it was an escape from reality for her, too.
In 1987, parent volunteers from a local elementary school raised $48,000 to build Kidspace. After purchasing supplies and architectural plans, members of the community came together to build the playground in only four days. It covered 15,000 square feet of a formerly empty field behind the school, and it included “a haunted house, boardwalks leading to suspended networks of automobile tires, to rope catwalks, to parallel bars, to slides. There [was] an amphitheater with a stage, a wooden car, a rocket ship, even—something special for Gainesville kids—a big wooden alligator.” After school hours, the park was open to the public.
All of Leathers’ playgrounds are built by “community volunteers,” usually the parents of the kids who use them, and in this case, a representative from Leathers’ architectural firm in Ithaca, NY came to the site to collect ideas from students about what they wanted to see in their playground. The kids suggested: “pretend go-car shark car,” “a robot that talks,” and “a fish sumdareem (submarine) that goes underwater that kids can get in and see fish and sea animals with 5 windows.” None of those things made it into the finished park, but maybe the kids felt a sense of ownership anyway as a result of this process. After twenty years, the playground was dismantled when it was determined that the elaborate wooden structure was leaching arsenic into the soil.
Apparently, Robert Leathers used to wear a red T-shirt with the message, WE BUILT IT TOGETHER. When I think about the process the parents must have gone through to make this playground a reality, I’m impressed by the collaborative spirit and I see their smiling faces as they hammered the wood together, but I also think about the privilege they had to volunteer their time fundraising and building. I’m not aware of a project like this existing on the east side of Gainesville where the families at the time were mostly working class. When I traveled to Kidspace, I could tell this structure wasn’t just a sculpture, it was infused with community care and consideration, and it was a platform where we as kids could design our own ideas and experiences—an opportunity the ordinary, city-funded playgrounds didn’t afford.
When I was sixteen, a veil was lifted and I realized the amount of production adults require in fostering and maintaining play in plastic playground environments. I was hired as a “play leader” at O2B Kids, an Edutainment Company that offers programs for children 0 to 13 years old. As a play leader, I wore what all the play leaders wore: khaki pants and a branded purple t-shirt. I had a pixie haircut, and once a kid asked me, “If you’re a girl, why do you have short hair?” I said it was because I am a princess, and every real princess has short hair. News got around, and I reveled in my new “Neighborhood Time” identity. There were ways to subvert how Neighborhood Time was used, but ultimately, it was a commodified experience contrived by the company, as stated on the O2B Kids website:
Neighborhood Time is a time to give kids a choice of things to do – just as they would experience in a safe neighborhood of yester-year. Choices include a combination of program calendar classes, non-scripted inside and outside play, and counselor led activities. This provides crucial time for your child to explore, make choices, develop friendships and gain independence. Our Counselors are stationed in zones to facilitate safe play.
The entire playscape exists inside a building adjacent to a mall, and I really question the amount of agency children have to make choices in that space.
Everyday at the end of my shift, I crawled through the plastic play tubes, tediously cleaning the shiny interiors. While I wiped away germs, the tubes vibrated with the sounds of dance class (Lil Mama’s Lip Gloss was popping). Not only was I hired to facilitate “Safe Play,” but I was also required to make sure the environment remained sterile for all the kids who came through. I like to think of this place as a painting. All the colors swirl together to make the secure world we want to be in; where the neighborhood is inside and the birthday party is purchased as an all-inclusive deal. But, instead of a birthday party, it’s actually a cruise where you know everyone, even the strangers. The ocean clouds start melting onto everyone’s faces, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I recently came across a photo of the Noguchi Playscape designed by Isamu Noguchi for Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. I thought it was a sculpture park, but then I read more about it: it is a playground that was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of a project with the High Museum, completed in 1976. The Playscape reconceptualizes play equipment as sculpture, obscuring the divisions between fine art, real life, and playtime. Supposedly, Noguchi’s goal in designing playgrounds was to make sculptures a useful part of everyday life. At first, the sculptural quality of the playground made me feel excited because it looked like an enjoyable way to experience art, but later, I started to worry about the dangerous quality of how it might administer play. Noguchi calmed my worry with his vision:
“The playground, instead of telling the child what to do (swing here, climb there), becomes a place for endless exploration, of endless opportunity for changing play.”
When I saw the photo of the playground in Atlanta, I was transported back to a moment in 2012 when I visited the Isamu Noguchi Museum in Long Island, NY. During that visit, my friends and I intuitively began shaping our bodies to match the forms of the sculptures. We were freely playing in a very reserved, private yet public space. The photos of the playground got me thinking about my own necessary conditions for play, and I reflected on the publicness of the playground and the privateness of the museum. I searched for images of that trip to New York.
Now I work at an elementary school, and I wonder if the students feel permission to play there. My job at the school is to help organize programming for the King School Museum of Contemporary Art, a contemporary art museum operating inside a functioning K-5 public school. In the museum, there’s a confusing mix of public and private where anyone is invited to visit, but only during school hours and typically with permission of one of the museum administrators. When we invite artists to do workshops with the students, I see everyone playing. The adults are playing with expectations and materials, and the kids look delighted and surprised by what happens in the workshops. It seems like the intergenerational, playful environment is only possible through face-to-face collaboration and conversation. A very serious combination of whimsy and wisdom, freshness and perspective, listening and being heard. More often than not, our team takes cues from the kids about how to “facilitate play.”
Based on this research, I’d like to fill an entire neighborhood with sculptures of giant friendly spiders designed by the kids I work with. Each spider could have an escalator, or an elevator, or a soft sculpture ladder, or even a happy badger with wings that floats you to the spider’s peak if you’re scared. You would have to choose your own adventure, build your own platform, and you would definitely have to let the sculpture tell your story, instead of the other way around. Noguchi’s playgrounds are too beautiful, and they make me nervous—like art is going to take over the world. What I really want is for the world of a painting to spill into reality, and me and the neighbor’s mom could eat subs together in the pebbled floor where falling doesn’t hurt and the vending machine closet comes with unlimited quarters. The birthday party has no adults and kids are screaming and running until they hurt themselves on accident and everyone starts self-policing. If this could happen, WE BUILT IT TOGETHER.
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