Adventures of a playground

Published 8:40 am Monday, July 30, 2018

By Gabriel Kwan

MPR News/90.1 FM

Elijah Gudmestad looked long and hard at the two lengths of PVC pipes he was working on. When he secured the pipe in a vise for another round of cutting, his movements were smooth and intentional. He spoke without looking away from the pipe, or the handsaw he was using.

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“I’m making cuts into the pipe so that hopefully the bits can go in … I’m trying to connect the two,” he said.

Elijah is a regular at the Adventure Playground at Leonardo’s Basement, a creative spin on the traditional playground. Instead of rigid play structures like slides and swing sets, everything the eye takes in is the product of a child’s imagination.

In one corner, children can run in and out of a replica of the Millenium Falcon. The grounded spacecraft, made from white wood and the size of a small apartment, sets the scene for alien invasions and self-destruct sequences.

In another corner, a water slide built from recycled materials shoots out of a 30-foot-high tower, providing relief from the hot sun.

These unconventional structures are the creations of children and teens, built in past summers as grand projects. The water slide, originally intended as a rain gutter for rubber ducks to go down, was expanded to handle human traffic.

For smaller projects, the children have everything they need at their fingertips.

Scrap materials like PVC pipes and pieces of wood are scattered all over the playground, waiting for a child with a creative spark, said Steve Jevning, the director of Leonardo’s Basement, the nonprofit after-school club that runs the playground

“At the adventure playground at Leonardo’s Basement, we intentionally stock the building area full of things to play on, to improvise with, to make a mess,” he said. “There is water and wood and metal and wheels and carts and all of those kinds of things that are open to multiple interpretations.”

The rules are simple at the Adventure Playground.

“Be safe, be nice, have fun,” said Chris Groth, an instructor, or “play warden,” at the Adventure Playground. “Within those rules, basically anything can happen.”

The playground caters to children and teens, from 6 to 16 years old. It engages each child in its own way. Many of the younger children are drawn to pre-existing structures like the Millennium Falcon and the water slide, as their imagination cooks up limitless ways to play in those spaces.

“[Normal playgrounds] get boring, this is … kinda special because you don’t have a Millennium Falcon at every park,” said Lucie Gudmestad, Elijah’s younger sister, “or water balloons, or a water slide.”

These unadulterated play areas trace their roots back to Europe in the 1930s. Carl Theodor Sørenson, a Danish architect, noticed that children played everywhere except for the playgrounds he was building. He imagined a playground where “children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality.” He opened the world’s first planned adventure playground in occupied Emdrup, Denmark, in 1943, and the uninhibited play space became a symbol against Nazi oppression.

The children’s wild creativity was a necessity during World War II when many European cities were reduced to rubble. During that time, children turned bombed-out buildings and junkyards into play spaces, and adults were too preoccupied to tell them otherwise.

After the war, adventure playgrounds persisted in small numbers in Europe and in the U.S. There was even one in Minneapolis about 70 years ago, but it closed along with the school that operated it.

Today, children at the Adventure Playground may have more tools to make their vision a reality, but that wild creativity endures. Several like-minded adventure playgrounds exist today in the U.S., including one in Berkeley, Calif., and another in Brooklyn, N.Y.

On the subject of the philosophy behind adventure playgrounds, Jevning said he believed in an experience-based learning process, where children are allowed to experiment, succeed and fail.

“The only way that you develop those muscles is by trying things and making mistakes and scraping your knees and cutting your finger and smashing your finger with a hammer,” he said. “Those kinds of things, they’re not bad experiences, they’re just experiences.”

When asked if there were any safety concerns about handing children power tools and telling them to go play, Jevning chuckled.

“Sure, [every day] for 20 years,” he said. “The way we approach safety here is creating a safe environment, but then teaching kids how to be responsible … helping them moderate their own behavior. If they can’t do that, then adults intervene.”

Nancy Stachel, the principal at Sheridan Hills Elementary School, agreed with Jevning’s experience-based approach to learning.

“You can’t do for. They can do it. You have to step back and let them do it,” she said. “And yes, they can, they can just do it, if you give them that space and you demonstrate confidence in their ability to do it.”

The approach nurtures creativity, and the creativity is contagious. Asher Kiecker, 8, noticed Elijah working on the pipes. He wondered if he was old enough to start a project of his own. He decided to take it up with the instructor.

“I’m asking like, if you can build stuff out of that,” Kiecker asked.

“Out of what?” Groth answered.

“Out of these things,” Kiecker said, gesturing at pipes and tools laid out on a workbench, “like, do you have to be older to do it or no?”

“You can build projects, yeah, you can build projects,” Groth responded.

“Cool!” Kiecker said.

While children get free rein to build projects in the playground, they don’t get to take them back home. Jevning said that this rule refocuses children on the process of building.

“It’s a new lesson for other kids, especially when they’ve spent a lot of time working on something and they have that sense of ownership,” he said. “Our job as adults is to help them understand that it was the process of making that thing that was the valuable experience.”

Jevning said that some parents may be disappointed that their child couldn’t bring back concrete results. But other parents are secretly relieved, and even see the projects their children leave behind as inspiration for other children.

“If everybody took stuff home, we’re all going to be stuck with the same thing, building that same box … but if [the kids] see that there’s a human hamster wheel, [they will think that] the possibilities are endless. ‘What can I do?’” said Amy Gudmestad, Elijah and Lucie’s mother. “Plus, I don’t want a human hamster wheel in my backyard.”