Monday, 25 June 2012

Baui means build, speil means play, platz means place.

For a few years I managed the transition of the only self-build Adventure Playground in Bradford, the Big Swing, from the statutory into the voluntary sector. Supporting the staff and managing the site through a period of transition gave me a real insight into the value of Adventure Playgrounds and the capability of children and young people.

In April this year I spent a week in Hamburg and Berlin with a study tour for play professionals co-ordinated by ip-dip.com and www.meynellgames.org. The tour took us to scrapstores, public parks and playspaces, community provision, waldkindergarten and green school playgrounds. We also visited a number of Adventure Playgrounds in both cities.


We first heard about the Adventure Playground movement in Hamburg and Berlin from Christe-Beate of the European Play Association (EPA). She was one of the first women to work on an adventure playground in Germany and a real advocate for play. What we hadn’t really understood was how the playgrounds fitted into society in the two cities;


Bauispeilplatz is known locally as 'the Baui'. Baui means build, speil means play, platz means place. I do love a German compound noun! 

Tony from the EPA playground invites us to visit the Baui with him. It has been open for nearly 30 years, since 1984. The tall tenement style houses crowd around the playground but mostly relationships with the local people are good, especially after the death of the Baui cockerel!



Armin, one of the playworkers, talked to us about the Adventure Playground and the things that children can do; jumping, building huts, lighting fires, arts and crafts playing football and keeping chickens. So far so familiar; but if you have never been to an adventure playground this doesn’t really convey a feeling of the place. The very first adventure playgrounds in Britain in the 1950’s were called "junk playgrounds" or "waste material playground" and this gives more of a sense of how a good adventure playground looks. 

“The junk playground should be characterized by signs of wear and tear. It should be a safety valve to children whose town existence otherwise keeps them nice and well-ordered.
John Bertelsen (1959)


The Baui definitely lives up to this description, like a refugee camp of the anarchies of childhood with heaps and piles, self expression and half finished and half started projects. This was also the day that I managed to completely break my camera in a game of tig-off-ground. This can be a dangerous place. Armin talks about the perception of how dangerous the playground looks; "children are not stupid, they can see dangers and learn to handle them and experience them and go to their limits. It is better they go to their limits here rather than in the Reeperbahn (the red light district two streets away) or with drugs" There are very few serious injuries. In 18 years Armin has seen 3 or 4 serious injuries. But many small injuries occur. 




Kai and Lukas are both young people who have grown up in the playground. Kai has been here 15 years, I ask him; "does it look the same?" "No! No way. It always changes." he describes himself as a child of the playground, a native. On an average day 90 children come to the Baui, mostly from close by, within 500 meters of the gates. The philosophy is that the gate is always open. No age limits, tiny children up to older teenagers. Parents come too, for advice, support and to socialise.



Most funding for the playground and the projects come from the City of Hamburg through Youth Project, Preventative and Social Deprivation funding streams. "Applications each year are the sword of Damacles"!  Although the Baui has been very lucky, or very creative and has escaped the worst of the cuts, the Ministry of Social Affairs is restructuring work with young people and there will be a move to another department which will inevitably bring about a new agenda, based more on individual interventions. The staff feels this is a contradiction to the philosophy of 'open gates' and makes the Baui become part of the authority. This may change how the baui is seen by the locality. On the day of our visit talks are going on at the town hall that will influence their ability to offer open access in the future. Charitable funding only makes up 5% of budget. Charitable funding is not an established way of working in Hamburg. 


Well ordered tool systems. I take note; hammers, numbered. With
 a board showing who has each hammer. Tickets issued with tools.
Changes to the school day in Hamburg are impacting on the playground. Children used to come after school at 1pm and eat lunch with the staff in a big communal meal, but this ended now the school day ends at 3pm . Some schools in St Pauli now send school groups here as part of the school day. The children come with the teacher, the playground offers activities but fundamentally what takes place is free play determined by the children. "Lessons after the Baui are calmer, when the children go back to school."


The change in the structure of the school day was seen to be a challenge at first, but actually by working closely with schools they are meeting and working with more children and families. They also do 'play actions' in schools and take groups out canoeing, on camping and hiking holidays to the countryside. The playground is relied on by many families to help them with things like reading letters or helping with social issues. 


There are 20+ playgrounds across Hamburg, all of which work in different ways. The playgrounds network together once a month and this playground is also part of local networks. They use these networks to support children who are finding it hard to access other provision. 

We have lunch at the Baui, this is still such a traditional part of the Baui day, staff, children and visitors all sit down together and eat. When children finished school at 1pm there would be lots of children here but today there are a few young people and 3 or 4 children under 12. Annie tries her German on one boy who is making faces at the green bits of leek in his soup. "Es ist gr√ľn" :(   Annie asks him in German if he thinks it will make him big and strong to eat his greens. A member of the staff asks again if he thinks so. "I don't understand English" he replies, poking his leek with his spoon. "But, she asked you in German!"... 


As everyone arrives there are greeting and hugs for staff and young people alike. There is a very relaxed family feeling.  Armin says that he has worked with generations of the same family, Bettina, who was one of the founders in 1984 still works here and I imagine there will soon be grandparents of children who come to the playground who were children on the playground themselves.

The hen house

We had passed another adventure playground when we had been walking around Hamburg, then, from the train we spotted another that looked very interesting so we ranged through the Sternzschanze and St Pauli districts, following(ish) the line the train had travelled. Annie's nose for direction is impeccable and we found another local adventure playground that is also protesting against the same cuts. It is closed now but we peer through the fences and look at the posters and signs on the fence. The realisation strikes us, we have seen playgrounds similar to these in the UK, some of our group have worked in or on them, but they are not in every neighbourhood like this. A map of all the playgrounds protesting the cuts shows the scale, and these are old, established parts of the community.


The dots on the map; bottom left, show the members of the
  bauiplatz association in Hamburg
When we move onto Berlin there are more chances to visit Adventure playgrounds. Founded on 2nd April 1990, less than 6 months after the fall of the Berlin wall, Kolle37 was the first adventure playground in former East Berlin. The impact of such provision in the political climate of the time is hard to fathom. It must have been a phenomenal leap for the staff involved, the organisation symbol has within it the anarchy sign and this speaks to me of how radical it must have felt at that time to be creating a project like this. 



Martin, who was the originator of the project, tells us that the things that most adventure playgrounds have in Germany are hut building areas, a fire place, the use real tools and places to keep animals. He describes the playground as a combination of 3 elements:
"- Dangerous supervised situation.
- You can build up and destroy.
- Social connections are needed, you cannot build a hut alone." 
The hut building area is at one end of the playground. They take it all down every year and then hold a hut building festival between March and June and rebuild. They have a well set up craft workshop, with a Blacksmith's forge and power tools. There is a replica stone age round house on the site which is used with schools for teaching lessons about stone age technology and history. There is an area designed for smaller children and when we look around there is a group of 2-3 year old children attending Kindergarten sessions. 


The kinder area

The main building on the playground was finished in 1999 and is the heart of the company Netzwerk Kultur/Speile . The main foyer is big enough for all the tables which are used for lunchtimes with the children. There have not yet been the reforms to the school day like there is in Hamburg so children finish school at lunchtime, they also have space they can go and do homework before going out into the playground. Kolle37 has a contract with the families of about 20 children to provide daycare on the playground but most children are free to come and go. 

The majority of the funding comes from The city of Berlin which provides for 3.5 full time equivalent staff which is used for 6 part time posts. The daycare group, of 20 children, funds another 1 full time equivalent post. The children who come to free play sessions are 6-16 years old. We ask about the reason behind the age limit; “They have to be over 6 because whilst the staff is responsible for everything they can't see everything. Younger children might not be able to perceive the dangers like loose planks or sticking out nails.”



We later come back to Kolle 37 to meet up with one of the playworkers. The site has 7 entrances so it is easy for children to come in and to leave but easy for adults too, we are asked to arrive just as the children are leaving. It's really important to Kolle37 to be an adult free space, so adults don't interfere with children's play processes, but also because of concerns about paedophiles or inappropriate adult behaviour. All adults on the site can be challenged as to why they are there.


"Parents corner." During the week parents are encouraged
 to spend time chatting with each other but away
 from the main part of the playground.

Marcus describes the way the playground works. “Every kid is welcomed and they try to find out their interests and tell them the rules such as don't climb on this particular roof. Some rules you can't put in a positive way. They can climb on all the other roofs but this one is not so safe.”
Every two weeks children and staff get together to talk about what is good, what is annoying and what rules work. Every person has one voice so the children can out-vote the pedagogues (the staff). There is a red, yellow and green card system similar to the one we saw in the playgrounds in Hamburg. Cards can be used as currency, yellow and red are given out for bad behaviour, green for good, which you can swap for more nails, more lunch, to make a phone call etc.

the rules
I am intrigued by this, we talked about similar systems on the playground I managed, the pros of being able to discourage behaviour that the staff found difficult to manage, the cons of unduly adulterising the children’s play process, the inconsistency of who got cards for what from the different staff members, the fact that the children who would buy in to such a scheme are not the ones who the staff needed to engage the most etc etc, the arguments went back and forth and we decided not to bring a scheme in. But here most of the playgrounds use this sort of scheme. Apparently the children here voted to remove this rule but when they found they couldn't use green cards to earn their lunch anymore it came back. 

The rules stay in place for at least a month. There is a mail box where they make suggestions based on things that come up during their play but rules are only discussed during meetings. Children can make petitions if they feel they are strongly attached to a particular rule or can't make the meeting. 


Sale of craft work made by children.
I did manage to get one of these back on the plane! 

The children come here by themselves after school, they have lunch and do homework before doing any projects they have in mind. There are special projects too at different times of year, like blacksmithing or the hut festival. I’m initially challenged by the idea of the hut building festival. One of the elements that we noticed on the Big Swing Adventure playground was the natural cycle of creation and destruction. The building of dens and treehouses which would gradually be abandoned and the materials ransacked for a better, more exciting project. This had a seasonal element, winter tended to be a time of destruction with the most fervent growth in spring.




The Hut Building festival at Kolle 37 means every hut was torn down and rebuilt at the same time.  Children work on one hut in the plan but they can change groups and huts at any time, they build the small model huts before hand they don't have to realise this plan exactly but it helps them plan how to make a hut. Each hut has the same space; 2m x 2m and they are limited to 4m in height. The kids have to dig a hole as deep as your knee for the posts to go into. Then the post goes in with rocks and is packed in well. Each hut gets 200 starting nails. It used to be 20 per person, but the children voted to change that.  When the hut is built they can spend a night in it. Occasionally children hide hammers so they can come and build in the evening. Occasionally they come in and destroy others houses but not so often. All much more structured than the processes I am used to.


 But when you explore the hut building area you can see how many huts they have managed to pack into what is in effect a tiny space, you sense the care and attention and skills these huts have been created with. Some look barely begun and are being built by very small children. Some are sophisticated and have complex security systems (I manage to overcome the most complex system for the best view by leaning a pallet against a wall and shimmying through a high window!) 



"Six years ago there was a very different social demographic. Kids needed something to do because they had nothing else." This is still true to some extent and some children are at Kolle37 all the times that it is open because they don't have a parent at home or because they don't have a parent who cares about them. There are an increasing number of children from more affluent families too, which was a challenge for staff but they have had a growing realisation that all children just need space to calm down and just because they have lots of lessons like piano or ballet they still need time and space to be themselves. 
“Here there is a levelling of the social structure because you will get dirty and you can't wear designer clothes everyday. You do need people to work together to make a hut.” 

Whatever they want to do they the staff help them realise it. 


For more about Adventure playgrounds in the UK;

Friday, 1 June 2012

“When the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful*” or, celebrating International Mud Day

“When the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful” E. E. Cummings

The fact that it is InternationalMud Day 2012 this month got me to thinking about the role that mud plays in outdoor learning, play and Forest School sessions I deliver.


Sometimes it is a barrier. A group of older boys I was working with brought their best trainers to wear at sessions.  They are allowed to wear their own clothes to the woods, their need to show their personalities has not yet overcome their dismay and the urge to clean their trainers afterwards. At our first really muddy session  I was glad that this didn’t stop most of them from really getting stuck in (in one case literally), though they did spend a lot of time and effort getting rid of the mud from their shoes afterwards.


I had a four year old girl coming to sessions last year who had been told so many times that she wasn’t allowed to get dirty that even with a full waterproof suit and boots to protect her, she couldn’t sit or touch or be near anything dirty. She gradually acclimatised and, with sleeves rolled up is the first one to get stuck in to all sorts of messy play. In a survey of 7-11 year olds 25% didn’t like getting themselves or their clothes dirty. 57% worried they would be told off for getting dirty and two thirds of parents worried that being seen with a child with dirty clothes would make them appear to be a bad parent.* 


But more often than not, rather than a barrier, mud is a key resource for our learning and play. The most solid and tangible of the four elements it is easily accessible and easily manipulated. It is right there under our feet.  Helping children overcome those barriers allows them to explore a fantastic resource. I often find role modelling is a good way to encourage the children who are averse to dirt. I’m the first with my hands in and I also show these children what I have brought to get my hands clean again. Sometimes the language I use and comparisons help. There are children I know who will play with play dough and clay indoors but won’t touch soil or dirt outdoors.  Digging up our own ‘clay’ can be the first step for some children to make contact with mud.  I love the approach taken by Stuart Lester and Martin Maudsley that dirt, stains and smells can be treated like ‘badges of honour’, ‘evidence of successful outdoor play’ and learning**


More often we need to overcome the pressure, be it real or perceived, that comes from parents. Giving them advance warning of what to expect, helping them prepare their children with appropriate clothes works with most parents. As can highlighting the benefits, describing and telling stories of what the child has done and achieved. Showing them photos, journals or learning stories of their child. Some parents find it helpful to see the comparison with sports like rugby or football where the children get muddy. There is also the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, a growing body of evidence which holds that exposure to germs during early childhood primes the body against allergies. Research in recent studies indicate that treatment with specific soil bacterium,  improves moods, makes the brain more receptive to learning, and reduces inflammation of the skin.
So really what more reason can there be to celebrate with a mud day? A trickling hose or bucket of water should give you all the access to mud that you need, even better it might rain and the mud will make itself. Mould it, sculpt it, build with it, cook with it, (mud pie anyone? ) paddle in it, slide on it, find worms in it, squelch and squerch in it. Look at it with a microscope, make space for it in your garden, track animals through it,  print with it, paint with it, bathe in it, dig it, probe it with sticks, bury treasure in it, and bury seeds in it. Check out these photos for more inspiration and celebrate mud in whatever way you can!


Birch leaf mud print 
*From the ‘Positively Dirty’ report, Persil 2005 www.dirtisgood.com
** Lester and Muudsley 2006. Play, Naturally. www.playengland.org.uk/media/130593/play-naturally.pdf

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