Ithaca CHildren’s Garden Play Symposium aims to dig deeper

By Pete Angie
Tompkins Weekly

ITHACA – The Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone at the Ithaca Children’s Garden is a beloved place to many area kids and families.
There are boards, tires, pallets and ropes with which to build forts, inventions and swings. Some of these items have rough edges and splinters, and the ground isn’t covered in squishy rubber pellets. It’s a space where kids can be creative in their play in ways that conventional playgrounds –fixed to the ground – can’t offer, and it is one of only a few such places in the country.

Photo provided by the Ithaca Children’s Garden Local children take advantage of the unstructured play available at the Ithaca Children’s Garden’s Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone.
Photo provided by the Ithaca Children’s Garden
Local children take advantage of the unstructured play available at the Ithaca Children’s Garden’s Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone.

The uniqueness of this play space, or adventure playground, as they are called, makes it a fitting venue for the 3rd annual Play Symposium, which will take place at the Ithaca Children’s Garden on Friday, September 30, and Saturday, October 1
“Many people are realizing play is being lost in children’s lives…realizing it’s very important, and wondering how to get it back,” said Alex Cote, lead playworker at the Children’s Garden.
Cote noted that many children’s lives are highly scheduled. Activities like sports and homework can leave little time for unstructured play and the resulting learning, development and satisfaction. One hundred people have registered so far for the event, double the number from last year, and more are anticipated. Registrants are teachers, a couple of local principals, day care providers, occupational therapists, parents, and some individuals who want to establish their own adventure playgrounds.
The symposium started three years ago as a one-day event that served as a means for professionals in the field of play and education to get together and learn from one another. This year the event, themed “Digging Deeper,” has grown into two days and features film screenings, a panel discussion, and multiple workshops.
Presentations will include topics such as regulatory policy and building play spaces, reconceptualizing recess, the impact of play on language, risk and play, and sustainability in the play movement. There will also be two well-known key-note speakers in attendance. Thomas Holson, known as Teacher Tom, is a Seattle-based blogger and pre-school teacher. Fraser Brown, of England’s Leeds Beckett University, is the world’s only playwork professor and will deliver a talk on Friday called “Stories of Children Playing: what do they tell us about the significance of play and playwork?”
Many may wonder what the term playwork means, and if it is not an oxymoron. According to Cote, “(a) playworker is present, keeps the site going, observes play but doesn’t interrupt it, helps kids play the way they want to.”
She added, of the Ithaca Children’s Garden, “(i)t has been really exciting for us to provide children with a place to be with their peers and be themselves.”
Cote cited the first adventure playground, built in Emdrupvej, Denmark, in 1943, as where playwork got its start. Landscape architect C. T. Sorenson wanted to give city children the same kinds of diverse play experiences that children in the countryside had, with opportunities to build their own structures and explore. He also saw a need for a place where children could play safely without inciting the occupying German forces. The playground, initially called a junk playground, was built to compensate for those factors.
“Today it is compensating for our fears of what could happen,” said Cote, of the way many parents are afraid to allow their children to roam or explore, though they themselves might have done so growing up. “Ideally we won’t need adventure playgrounds at all. Kids would be out playing.”
The Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone at the Ithaca Children’s Garden provides a place where parents can set some of those fears aside and children can get their hands dirty. The Zone, created four years ago, is one of only a few adventure playgrounds still existing in the United States. At their height of popularity there were almost 20 around the county, but now only a handful remain, such as the Berkley Adventure Playground, started in 1979, and a new installation on Governor’s Island in New York City, which opened in May of this year.
Europe, by comparison, has hundreds of such playgrounds. They can be found in numbers in Japan, as well. One key component of an adventure playground is “loose parts,” said to Cote. Quantities of things like lumber, barrels, crates and other building materials are available for children to make their own creations then tear them down at will. Research on, and proponents of, this type of play say that creative and cooperative building aids in development of language skills, social skills, and problem solving of both the physical and interpersonal kinds. Being able to build the playground themselves also instills a sense of responsibility and ownership in children.
One of the reasons the Ithaca Children’s Garden promotes such hands on play in a natural setting is not only for the development of the children using the space, but also with an eye towards the future health of the planet.
“Our mission is to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Cote. “All the research points to playing outside as key to kids growing up to care about their environment and want to protect those places.”
Cote’s statement is indicative of the fact that many playworkers and advocates of play see themselves are part of a movement with many far reaching benefits and implications. There is fear that as children’s schedules grow tighter time for play is getting pushed out, and as gaming, social media and entertainment technologies multiply outdoor active play is on the decline. Restoring outdoor play and unstructured time to children’s lives may not seem revolutionary, but many in the play movement feel that getting out there and playing will help change the world for the better.
Registration for the symposium closed on Friday, September 23, but those interested in registering can still email the Children’s Garden at The film screenings at 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 30, at Lehman Alternative Community School, are open to the public and cost $5. The full program of events for the symposium can be found at