Together with our friends Helle Marie Skovbjerg, play professor at Design School Kolding, and Ann Charlotte Thorsted, associate professor at Play Lab, Aalborg University, we have formed a small play club. It’s rather informal, and our collaboration simply emerged out of a common wish to play more together, to help each other understand play better and invite more people into the play community.

This quote from Bernie DeKoven’s phenomenal “The Well Played Game” quite accurately captures our intentions with the club:

“By empowering each other to create new conventions, by establishing guidelines, we assure each other of a common intention and mutual respect for the willingness to play, for the need for safety and trust”

That last bit is essential, and quite hard, but more than worth the effort. When we feel safe and trust each other, so much more becomes possible.

We recently had our second event in the “club”, when we had invited people to join us for an exploration of materials and a celebration of junk-yard play at the Design School – “When junk isn’t junk: materiality, loose parts and junkyard play spaces”.

It was our intention to explore how different kinds of materials inspire different ways of playing, and how the process of designing and building might lead to surprising results. At the same time, we wanted to pay a small homage to the amazing tradition of junk-yard and adventure playgrounds.

Pia Schytz, who’s a Design Consultant at Lab for Play and Design at the Design School, gave a talk about the role of materials in her work. It was truly fascinating to learn about her approach, where, as she said, “everything begins with materials”. That’s quite different than my own approach, but I’m pretty sure I should pick up a thing or two (also literally, yes). As a designer, she seems to see the contours of narratives in the materials, ready to unfold in surprising ways when they meet our ideas and intentions.

I then gave a short introduction to the junk-yard design challenge, where I very, very quickly mentioned the proud tradition of junk-yard playgrounds, lamenting their widespread disappearance due to, among other things, fear of risk, fear of mess, fear of a lack of predictable outcomes (and lack of funding, of course) (see my presentation here).

Luckily, there’s quite a lot happening in the this field, the entire tradition is being revitalised. Take a look here, here and here. Oh, and here’s a film I mentioned about “The Land”, an adventure playground in Wales – playing with fire:

 

 

As soon as I stopped talking, everyone  started building, and it was almost immediately a beautiful, chaotic mess. Some groups formed (and mutated along the way), some went at it alone (me included), but we were certainly in it together.

It was fun and interesting to observe the many different approaches. This was clearly more about process than the end result, about exploration, experimenting, tinkering, messing around without knowing where we might end up.

Nonetheless, some of the things created were just brilliant. To mention a few favorites:

The monster, which was quite frightening when it came alive, chased us all and insisted on eating either a few humans or monster food:

This Mad Max themed wearable house / armour for a scavenger trying to survive in the desolate wastelands had a pretty impressive backstory:

Then there was this “ROI machine” (maybe inspired by my comment about the “ROI society” and how we should do more things without considering the potential return on our “investments”). It gave you a a ton of playful experiences, if you had the courage to venture through the (somewhat) dark tunnel full of surprises:

During this hilarious process, numerous important insights emerged and were shared afterwards. We always aim to design these spaces, so theoretical knowledge, thoughts and reflections can be mirrored in the experiences of playing. Our understanding of play is bound to be severely limited if we always only talk about it without being close to the sensation of play. Even so, it remains an impossible task to fully capture in words something that is felt by our bodies. As some say, it’s like describing the feeling of being in love. Words are not quite adequate there either. This doesn’t mean we should stop trying, but rather that we should make a real, sincere effort to develop a stronger, shared language about play.

Several of our amazing participants talked about the immediate difficulty of “letting go”, of just playing in a room full of strangers. I really appreciate this demonstration of vulnerability, admitting that no, “just” playing is actually not that easy. I think we all know this feeling – I certainly know I do. There’s something about the expectations you might think you should adhere to, but it’s not just that. Opening up, showing yourself to strangers, that takes courage.We try to cultivate an atmosphere and a community, where people feel safe enough to dare to be silly and to explore the unknown, momentarily losing control. It’s tough, and it takes a lot of practice.

Linked to this, some also mentioned the challenge of getting to play with others. Sometimes you team up with friends, family or colleagues, and sometimes new connections just appear. Other times, and for no evident reason, you don’t find the same rhythm as the other players. Maybe it doesn’t matter, you find your own rhytm, and no matter what, playing around other people playing always means you’re somehow playing together. Playing like that has a certain fluidity, where you can play together, being part of the same, feeling a sense of belonging, even when you seem to be on your own. Maybe you’re suddenly completely immersed in building a huge tower, but you do so surrounded by likeminded players, and the togetherness is palpable. It’s a dance, where everybody knows (or learns) that this only works if you show a degree of openness, empathy, respect and generosity towards the other players. It can never just be about you and your little experience, but we must all pay attention to the play community at large.

There’s much to be said about the importance of materials, and how we are somehow drawn to different things, inspired to play around and build something weird. Play is always unpredictable, and having a selection of “loose parts” really demonstrates that. Maybe I had an idea when I found the first pieces of cardboard, but then someone talked about the heat in the room, and my project turned into an AC (before it became a communications device and maybe a creature). Between yourself, the people around you and the materials you engage with, who knows what might happen?

Finally, one joyfully stated that “I got into a state of flow for the first time in a long time” and what a wonderful testimony to the power of play that was. We may forget so, serious adults as we are, but that sense of being immersed in something for no apparent purpose, losing track of time, forgetting about your obligations, that’s really at the heart of it all; getting into play.

It was a blast, and certainly reminded me that I want to venture more into this particular field, developing different kinds of “junk-yard” and adventure playgrounds, but also bringing the atmosphere to new arenas.

Stay in touch, and join the play community when we’re back on November 12th!

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Mathias Poulsen

I think a playful mindset is essential for us to live better lives together. I organise the CounterPlay Festival to cultivate a #playfulsociety.

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