A visitor at a Pop-Up Art Adventure Playground might expect to find several huge cardboard refrigerator boxes, foam noodles, plastic and wooden wire spools, milk crates, fabric, costumes, storefront mannequins, bicycle inner tubes, carpet roll tubes, tires, trinkets, and toys all laid out, ready for kids to build with them. Adventure playgrounds have been around since the early 1940s, their purpose for children to engage in self-directed play without interference or instruction from adults. “Kids start out just making things,” says entertainer Richard Renner who, along with artists and collaborators Frank Shopen and Matthew Lord, has been facilitating these playgrounds here in Kansas City and Lawrence, “but if they stay long enough it’ll evolve into games based on the objects. If the kids build a bunch of forts, a war will break out. If they build houses, suddenly someone’s getting married.”
The Pop-Up Art Adventure Playground has had an eventful 2019. Since receiving a Rocket Grant award in May, collaborators Renner, Shopen, and Lord have put up adventure playgrounds at the Maker Faire, KCPT Good Neighbor Festival, KC Fringe Festival, and the Nelson-Atkins. They have also partnered with schools and free-lunch programs to host adventure playgrounds. With their initial Rocket Grant money the group bought a van and trailer, which allows the playgrounds to be quickly and easily transported. They’ve also made connections with local businesses to collect supplies. They get their large cardboard boxes from an appliance store in Lawrence, as well as little toys from The Sandbar, a local bar which includes them in novelty drinks.
They have secured additional funding from the Kansas Creative Arts and Industries Commission and a Livewell Grant from the Douglas County Community Foundation which has allowed them to expand their programming and receive additional training in playwork from Playwork Ph.D. student Morgan Leichter-Saxby. For Renner, this training has solidified the way that the playgrounds should feel. “I want a kid to be able to look at one item and see a thousand different uses for it,” he says. The items chosen for the playground should be inspirational and an invitation for children to do anything they want. The training has also given a new direction to the role of the adult playworkers facilitating. One of the key values of this kind of play is that adults should intervene as little as possible, and never without being asked. The biggest thing that playworkers do is mitigate the hazards—although not the risks—of the playground.
The training has also taught that if kids are being aggressive with each other there are ways to incorporate that into the play. Renner recalls a child who kept bothering the other children by hitting them with foam noodles. “The other kids kept coming to me to, you know, tell on him,” he says. Instead of playing a disciplinarian role, Renner watched the kid and bopped him with a foam noodle every time he did it to someone else until they had a “good old fight”. It seemed to be way the kid wanted to play in the first place.
Renner’s first foray into this type of play happened organically. As a children’s and family entertainer he created a contraption called the Recycle Cycle, a kind of car made out of found items. He says that at first, he was protective of the unique vehicle. He insisted on showing children exactly how to play with it, fixing anything that went wrong. Kids would hang around for a little while, but would drift away after 15 or 20 minutes. When Renner started leaving the Recycle Cycle for children to find and explore, though, they would stay for hours. If he saw a child having trouble making something work he would count to ten before he stepped in. But usually, he found, the kid would either figure it out or another kid would help them. “I realized I didn’t need to come in and be an adult.”
The group will continue to host adventure playgrounds, but they also have a special project slated for the summer of 2020. In conjunction with the Lawrence Arts Center, they will be putting on a summer camp. The camp is STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) centered and will include both instruction in structural engineering as well as time to work and play in an adventure playground. In addition to the camp, the project is looking to set up a more permanent space in an unused storefront in Lawrence, letting the public come to them. But Renner hopes someday to have something even bigger. “Honestly, if this were all to work out to my wildest dreams we would have our own permanent adventure playground somewhere. Our own permanent junkyard with a toolshed.”
Drea DiCarlo, December 2019