A while back, I was invited to train a group of instructors, who would be leading six play camps across branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia. “Teach them about play”, my friend Joel requested, and of course I immediately said yes. The training week took place from August 7-10, and it was so much FUN! What a great group of people, who were incredibly eager to play and to create great spaces for kids to play.

Playful Training Week

I aimed for a playful training week, that would mirror the principles of play, we use for designing CounterPlay. The goal was that the instructors would develop:

  • A deeper understanding of the nature of play
  • A shared understanding of “play literacy”
  • An appreciation of the diversity of play and experience with different forms of play (nature play, dramatic play,
  • A basic skillset to design for play in practice

The purpose of the camps were revolving around a notion of “play literacy”, to simply allow the kids to play and to improve their abilities to play well, alone and with each other. It was quite a privilege to be able to focus on “just playing”, as this is where the magic really happens.

You can read more about the plan here, but we moved between many different formats and types of activities (short presentations, discussions, design challenges and play sessions) to understand play from many different perspectives. I really wanted to demonstrate the diversity of play, to encourage them be open to the ways the kids would want to play, and to make them feel confident in their own creativity and capacity to design and change games and play activities. We played a lot, everybody started sharing with the group, and the designed many, many brilliant activities, as I tried to provide them with some guidelines and things to consider:

  1. Always consider who will be playing in the space. How old are they? What is their background? How many will be playing at any one time?
  2. Try to accommodate for many different ways of playing. Create a range of invitations and make them open.
  3. Don’t make the space too safe. Allowing kids to play with risk is important!
  4. Include “loose parts”: things that can be moved, used and combined in many different ways.
  5. Be prepared to adjust the space when people start playing in it. Observe and listen to the players, they’ll be the experts in what works and what is fun. Trust the players!

It was tremendous fun, the group were so friendly and passionate, and I think we got quite far in just four days, that flew by, really. We were playing most of the time, after all.

I have collected a bunch of materials for the camp here.

Play Jam at Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse

While I was in Philly, I also got to host a small “play jam” at the wonderful Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse. It was a beautiful summer afternoon/evening, and a nice crowd showed up, ready to play!

We started by playing the not-that-famous “Danish Clapping Game“, before I asked everyone to think about and share their “favorite play memory” (what is yours?). I talked a little bit about why I find play to be so incredibly important for the good life, also and not least for adults (here’s my presentation).

It’s always a delicate balance, where I feel it’s important to frame my way of thinking about play, but I’m also quite eager to get people playing before they fall asleep. It seems like we struck a decent balance here, and you really sense the energy: these people came to play!

I challenged the participants to design a new form of play with the theme “change” – in 30 minutes! I brought some balloons, soap bubbles and chalk, while the brilliant Smith people had a much larger collection of “loose parts“. People could use whatever they wanted as “props” for their play activity – including everything on the fantastic playground!

Just as I had hoped, all the groups immediately embarked on an exploration of the loose parts and (not least!) the playground and the famous old wooden slide.

It was amazing to see how they all just started playing, and then ideas and concepts started growing out of their shared enjoyment:

“This is fun, but what if we do this?”

“Yeah, and then we can use these balloons…”

“Oh, yes, and if we all get on to this thing that goes round and round, then we have to pop the balloon…”

“…with spaghetti?!”

I was completely blown away and deeply impressed by their willingness to play, be silly, experiment, be open to each other and actually come up with some pretty hilarious concepts along the way! There was the “pop a balloon with spaghetti” game, the “ride the slide in a big bunch of people”, a haunted house, tag on a climbing…thing, a fantastic contraption, a soap bubble blowing game and a group, who were just looking for an excuse to hit each other with balloons.

It was completely impossible to bring everyone back to present their ideas, since they just wanted to keep on playing.

I *loved* it!

The ideas were great, but the most important thing was the process, the exerimenting, designing and playing, the confidence that designing play activities are not really that hard and that everyone can do it.

All in all, I enjoyed the trip to Philadelphia immensely, and am really grateful for the opportunity to meet and work with so many brilliant people; I can’t wait to find an excuse to go back!

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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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