There’s a new playground in our neighbourhood and the kids are flockin’ to it. It’s shiny-off-the-shelf with multicoloured artifical turf. There are climby things, swings, yellow wind socks on poles and a moulded plastic percussion station. It’s a prefab wonder replicated in numerous jurisdictions across the continent.
It’s after supper and our guys are clamouring for a visit. When we arrive with scooters, a bike and unbounded energy there are probably about 10 other kids already there. We are in Erindale an as yet unbuilt subdivision. Streets are paved, curbs installed and one lone show house looks out over empty lots of earth and rocks. The playground is an island surrounded by newly installed sods of grass and bordered by empty streets.
I notice the boy and girl as soon as we arrive. They’re whaling away with great intent in a muddy puddle. Each of them is wielding a wooden picket. I lean on the fence that separates the playground from the land under development. They see me watching them and continue with their play.
At this particular moment in time, these two kids only have eyes for the landscape around them. They are immersed in activity of their own design showing no interest in the playground that is only 100 metres distant. Their play continues in a leisurely fashion for nearly 20 minutes.
When the two playdirt kids come into the playground they tell me they are having fun over in the empty lots. They still have their stakes which are doubling as swords that they are brandishing in the air. The girl’s hands are caked in mud and both of them are coated liberally with dirt. The dirt does not seem to be a worry for either of them. Quite the opposite, there appears to be a quiet satisfaction in their state of blissful unkempt. The girl says her mom will just pop the clothes in the wash.
They chat with some friends in the playground, give the swings a desultory try and then it’s back to dirt paradise. The expanse of uneven terrain is a game changer for these two kids representing some variety in public space play opportunities.
I’m reminded of three things. First is the empty box at Christmas time. You know the one, it becomes the most fascinating play thing under the tree eclipsing even the toy that was packaged in it. On this occasion, our intrepid players choose hills of dirt, boulders and puddles over a brand new playground and in the process create their own play experience from what they have at hand.
The second thing I thought of was a conversation I had a few years back with Cornelia Oberlander, Canada’s doyenne of landscape architecture now in her 90s. She shared with me a conviction she has held for many years that I paraphrase here – all children really need for play is some sand, or earth, water and a place to climb…
Lastly, I remember my own fond encounters scrabbling about in the dirt, reveling in it in a Pig Pen kind of way.
So, here is a shot of the forsaken shiny new object. On this particular evening it did not have sufficient play magnetism to win over the two adventurers. It’s good to have alternatives and a muddy earth scenario can certainly be a winner.