Dear Grouchy Guy Killin’ Our Play Vibes:
Thanks for your concern for the wellbeing of other people’s children. Well, actually, thanks but no thanks. You see, while I respect your right to express your opinion, as a playworker, I don’t believe this trumps the children’s right to play.
I get it. You don’t think that children should be allowed to play in the Champ des possibles (our favorite urban green space) because (as you said repeatedly while hovering over us):
- People walk there and shoes are dirty, which could give you gastro
- It’s possible that a dog peed there once
- There might be (unlike at playgrounds…) garbage or something dangerous close by
- There are chemicals in the soil from the railroad nearby
- Etc, etc, etc
You also think that, since I brought kids there, I must be:
- A criminal
- A fantastical dreamer with an overly idealistic view of what it should look like to spend time with kids in nature
- Etc, etc, etc
However, since you must now be the sixth or seventh passerby to interfere with my work (yes, play is my work) in the past year, mostly in the Champ, but even once in a traditional playground, I feel I must share a few basic facts about my work (play).
First of all, kids have a right to play. Period. Just ask the UN. As members of our community, they also have a right to be seen, to be listened to, and to participate. While I remain calm and joyful in front of kids, in reality intrusions like yours make me pretty grouchy myself. I see them as examples of how seldom children are allowed to participate in the public sphere and taken seriously as active members of our society. It’s a political issue of power being taken away from kids and families by telling them that they do not belong there and that they should only be allowed to exist within “kid-friendly” spaces.
Second, your opinion is not as widely shared as you think. The vast majority of people we encounter approach our work highly positively and appreciate seeing kids playing in green spaces. I’d say the sheer number of families who register their kids in our programs or put them on waitlists should be a pretty good indicator of how many people are hungry for more (outdoor and dirty) play in their children’s lives. And, of course, when I deconstructed your comments with the kids afterwards, we were all on the same page. Dirt is rad, playing with your friends is rad, and grouchy guys who yell at us aren’t.
Third, as you probably do as well, I have extensive training and experience in my field (playwork). I spend nearly eight hours a day five days a week outside with kids. I love talking about my job, my education and training, (which includes plenty of risk assessment, let me assure you). As part of my work, I have a very clear understanding of the environment we’re working in and the risks associated with it, including the levels of contamination in the soil, for example. However, since I don’t think my 5-8 year olds will be using the backs of their hammers to dig 10 feet under ground to the contaminated soil and then proceed to eat numerous pounds of it, in my professional opinion the benefits of an afternoon spent believing that treasure can be found in the most unlikely of places greatly outweigh the risks.
For these reasons and more, I for one will not stop going to the Champ des possibles or the park or any other urban green space just because a few people don’t like us being there, nor will I stop kids from playing in the mud, lying down and smelling the grass, getting dirt under their fingernails, or watching beetles form themselves into little balls and stretch themselves out again. I think we have a responsibility to continue to occupy public space as a place for play, to allow children to exist in these places, and to show how we can all share our precious fields, sidewalks and roads. My hope is that, slowly over time, we will actually listen to children’s voices about how we design our streets, our buildings, and our play spaces, so we can healthily co-exist.
While I learned early on that little can be accomplished in the moment by engaging with your type of passerby beyond a simple “thanks and have a good day”, I can’t help but ask myself if perhaps your unhappiness had less to do with the kids getting dirty and more to do with a need for more play time in your own life. With that, Sir, I invite you to come snail hunting with us, feel the grass as you roll down a big hill (as I had the pleasure of doing multiple times this week), get dirty in our mud kitchen, or test out our new tire swing. I think it will help you feel better. If not, I encourage you, as one of my kids not-so-quietly said after you left on Tuesday, to leave us (and our beautiful play moments) alone.