Go play!

How our living room became an adventure playground

Maggie living room fort

I’ve been reading lately about “adventure playgrounds?” They’re theseĀ “parent-free”(ish) play zones, where trained adult “playworkers” supervise for safety but rarely intervene. The idea is to let school-age kids negotiate and even build their own space and kid culture, sans adult guidance and pesky restrictions. I guess they’re basically semi-regulated dumps, full of movable parts, like old, crappy furniture, cardboard boxes, and other random, rotating junk. They can draw on stuff, knock it over, climb it, take it apart, make a mess of it, even set it on fire! (Seriously.)

Hmm… sounds a little bit like our living room (Minus the fires! Thank God.)…

Let me point out here that we are living temporarily in a rented apartment in a Belgian college town with two kids under five. Everything in our apartment was acquired second- or third-hand. Much of it free, from people we knew who moved away or upgraded, the rest of it cheap, and none of it (oh, none of it) fancy. Also, almost none of it joining our trans-Atlantic move, aside from some books and favorite toys. (Don’t get me wrong: it’s not cluttered. I’m actually a meanie toy-hider momma, allowing only a few articles of random, rotating junk to be played with at a time. But let’s just say Better Homes and Gardens will not be round for a nursery photo shoot anytime soon.)

As such, beyond making sure the kids are safe, we rarely intervene when chairs or small couches get flipped over, scooted around, and climbed upon. We do, of course, protect permanent fixtures, like walls, doors, and windows, from risky play or “artful” vandalism, but a few crayon marks on the wobbly, coffee-ringed, hand-me-down Ikea table? Eh. Sure, I’ll make a half-hearted “only on paper” plea, but since I know it will end up in a neighborhood bonfire in a few months time, I’m not going to sound too convincing there, am I?

At first I worried that we were encouraging bad habits, thus making our eventual move to permanent residence in the U.S. — complete with objects we care about, paid for, and hope don’t break — that much harder.

And that’s undoubtedly true.

Actual adventure playground

Actual adventure playground

But when our dinner table chairs get pushed over and turned into a “train,” or the wicker love seat felled so that the kids can precariously climb its spindles before leaping from the top onto the cushions that have dropped to the floor — at least now I can pretend that my permissive attitude reflects a deliberate decision to help our kids learn how to assess and take risks, create their own spaces, and invent new games in a “rich play environment” (read: domestic junk heap).

You know, instead of just being too tired and/or relieved that they’re actually playing together without fighting or requesting help at the moment to risk drawing attention to myself.

Yes, that’s it. I want our children to engage in cognitively stimulating, innovative, unstructured, and child-directed play. Because it’s good for their social, physical, and psychological development, and I have been doing this on purpose.

The whole time.

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