A photo of children playing in a stream. There is a bike sitting on a rock, a trashcan in the stream, as well as hoses and pipes.
The Loose Parts project’s first event, “The Fountain,” transformed a portion of Reedy Creek in Forest Hill Park into a temporary adventure playground. (Courtesy photo)

Loose Parts connects art and play to the serious work of child development

Building on an overseas tradition, a VCUarts and humanities team is creating engaging local play spaces where children won’t hear the common refrains “Don’t touch” or “Get down.”

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This fall, a team of Virginia Commonwealth University faculty and students from the School of the Arts and the College of Humanities and Sciences is working on a project called “Loose Parts,” which will bring adventure play to the Richmond community. With a well-defined tradition in Europe and Japan, adventure play entails loosely structured play environments in which children can test boundaries, manage reasonable risks and develop an autonomous, self-directed mode of exploration.

Conceptualized by VCUarts sculpture professor Corin Hewitt, ”Loose Parts” will generate a series of short-term play spaces that also contain artworks commissioned from local and international artists, which children may respond to by ignoring, defacing, building upon or destroying. The artworks are unannounced and unspecified to the children playing amongst the myriad of other structures and materials.

“As an artist, I am excited about how artists and the larger public could have artwork interpreted even more openly by children,” Hewitt said. “Kids are frequently told that they can’t touch, climb on, add to or remove parts of artworks they encounter.” This lack of capacity to physically interact with artwork made by adults limits the ways in which kids are able to both interpret and find relevance in that artwork.

“There is great potential for the tension within this collaboration to energize the way we think about contemporary art, children and the nature of play,” Hewitt said.

Jesse Goldstein, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and director of the Humanities Research Center’s Environmental Humanities Lab, and Aspen Brinton, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of World Studies and associate director of the Humanities Research Center, are Hewitt’s primary partners on the team, which is also exploring how adventure play allows for meaningful engagements with the natural and physical environment.

Risk within reason

Hewitt became fascinated with adventure play in 2015, when he lived in Germany with his wife, Molly McFadden, also a VCUarts faculty member and Fulbright Scholar, and their then 1-year-old daughter. On a walk, he heard the sounds of hammers pounding and kids yelling with joy from behind a tall, homemade wooden fence.

When he peered through, Hewitt said, he “saw the most spectacular improvised structures being built and climbed on.” Intrigued, he began researching the playgrounds and their history.

Carl Theodor Sørensen, a renowned Danish landscape architect, conceived of “loose parts” play spaces in the 1940s, thinking that providing children with raw materials and tools could foster their creativity and independence. The first of his “junk playgrounds” opened in Emdrup, Denmark, in 1943 and included loose parts such as planks, old tires and barrels, as well as hammers, nails and saws for the children to use in building their own play structures.

Sørensen inspired Lady Allen of Hurtwood, a British children’s advocate and activist as well as a landscape architect, to further develop his experiment into what became the adventure playground. Her major innovation was the role of the playworker, often a teen or older mentor who was trained to help remove hazards and steward risk-appropriate play. The playworker role has remained a central and growing part of the playgrounds, and Hewitt’s team is working with the university’s Vertically Integrated Projects initiative to train VCU students to serve as playworkers for their events.

“The playworker is one of the most important parts of these spaces,” Hewitt said. “They facilitate risk-appropriate play through a variety of methods including parallel play that are meant to support play without controlling it”

“It is the role of trained playworkers to eliminate hazards while allowing for a wide range of opportunities to embrace and manage risk,” Goldstein added.

The principles of adventure play focus on trusting young people to navigate risk. Within a carefully monitored environment of intentional risks, adventure play offers children the chance to learn how to manage risky situations — in the playground and beyond — by allowing them a safe space to experiment and test boundaries.

“While it may not be right for every child — or parent — we see the freedom and unscripted nature of adventure play as an important developmental opportunity,” Goldstein said. “For young people it is a chance to learn how to assess wild terrain and navigate the world based on their own creative agency — and for parents to learn how to let go a bit and trust their children to explore and develop independence and bodily autonomy.

“Ironically, in a world that’s increasingly obsessed with things like ‘entrepreneurship,’ we actually have less and less opportunity for young people to try out the sorts of creative, risk-taking behaviors that will become exalted later in their adult lives,” he added. “If play is a training ground for creative expression, then adventure play is one potentially powerful instrument to help young people develop the freedom and autonomy to flourish.”

Playing with fire

The first Loose Parts event, “The Fountain,” engaged a fourth-grade class at Richmond’s Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts charter elementary school, with a portion of Reedy Creek in Forest Hill Park transformed into a temporary adventure playground. VCUarts assistant professor and sculptor Massa Lemu provided the art intervention — a series of three heavy tricycles with hoses coming into and out of them.

“While we provided a lot of interesting loose parts for children to engage,” Goldstein said, “a good deal of the time, the stream itself was the most engaging fountain of all.”

Subsequent Loose Parts events in development include “The Crater,” where kids play inside a 20-by-30-foot space dug into the earth, and “Small Fires,” where children play in a space that includes contained fires they can use to cook for one another and carbonize organic objects.

“Kids are constantly told that they can’t touch, climb on, add to, or remove parts of artworks they encounter. … There is great potential for the tension within this collaboration to energize the way we think about contemporary art, children and the nature of play.”

Corin Hewitt, VCUarts sculpture professor

With funding and support from Virginia Humanities as well as VCU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment and the Humanities Research Center, Loose Parts are creating this series of pop-up adventure play spaces, accompanied by community events to discuss the importance of play socially, culturally and developmentally. In addition, the team will produce a series of films using footage edited from GoPro cameras worn by children and playworkers who choose to record their play.

The Loose Parts play actions are building up to Hewitt’s vision to create a permanent, artist-activated adventure playground in Richmond. Hewitt is currently working with Richmond Parks & Recreation, the local nonprofit Blue Sky Fund and a variety of other partners and community members throughout the city and nationally to get funding for a  longer-term play space.