In North Wales there’s a place called The Land. It’s a place where children can climb trees, crawl through cardboard boxes and plastic tubes, swing on ropes across tiny rivers of mud, and even start fires. No, this isn’t some vision of a world gone mad, but a real place where children take risks, learn their limits and push boundaries. The adventure play movement operates under the notion that loose objects, instead of fixed playground structures, are essential to a child’s growth and development. At The Land, children’s complex emotions and desire for active play lives are encouraged. It’s play taken seriously.
I had the pleasure of talking to filmmaker Erin Davis about her documentary short The Land, which focuses on this very adventure playground and the adventure play movement. Her curiosity and advocacy for adventure play and playwork provides an enlightening, informative look at an aspect of children’s lives we so often take for granted, making her film a must see for anyone interested in child development.
Richard Newby (Audiences Everywhere): First, I want to know how you got into documentary filmmaking.
Erin Davis: I came by way of radio world. I was a radio producer and made radio documentaries. I still do make radio documentaries. But I came into documentary filmmaking as a casualty of the recession. It was 2008 and a lot of radio shows were getting canceled and there was this confusing scramble of ‘how do you make a living as a radio producer?’ So I started running sound for documentary films and, long story short, I found a story that I felt you just had to see. And I thought, ‘ok, I need to make a film.’ So I went through the New School Documentary Studies Program and gathered some nuts and bolts technical skills and went at it. But really it was finding this story that I thought was just so visual and that really made me pull the trigger on making a film.
AE: How did you learn about adventure play and The Land?
Erin: I was living in New York and I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Imagination Playground near the South Street Seaport but that was a really high profile, very expensive, very exciting new playground in 2010. At the time, I was working with kids and I read a New Yorker piece about it so I took the kids down there for something to do. It was a multi-million dollar project created by some very high profile architects and the key element was loose parts. So they had these beautiful foam blocks that kids could move around and there was talk about how fixed playgrounds are limiting and kids need objects they can move around so they can collaborate and have all these benefits from their interactions with loose parts and each other. In the New Yorker piece they said this was actually informed by something called an adventure playground which has a long history in Europe. Starting back in post-War rubble, kids would walk to empty lots and use this junk to create their own places. And something just clicked for me and I wanted to know about more about it. So I just kept digging around, and simultaneously over in the U.K., The Land was opening. I just stumbled on them. They were the world’s newest adventure playgrounds and they were using the oldest philosophies of the adventure playground movement which was to use junk. Give kids stuff that we don’t need any more and let them do with it what they will.
AE: Did you get a chance to visit any of the other adventure playgrounds in the U.K. or Europe?
Erin: Yeah, I did! The Land is actually within driving distance of other older adventure playgrounds that have been around for decades. Each space is different and has a different personality and different elements. The thing about a lot of the older adventure playgrounds in Europe is that a lot of them have ended up with fixed structures. If a space is around for 30 years, it changes from how it was in the beginning. So a lot of them have fixed structures that are still very adventurous from an American point of view: very tall climbing structures, very large, elaborate pirate ships. A lot of them have these huge rope swings that kids can climb on and swing from. Those are definitely something that would not be legal here in the U.S. So they’re certainly adventurous from our point of view and they still have loose parts, but they’re not quite as junky as The Land. I think The Land is exceptional among this exceptional world of adventure playgrounds.
AE: Why do you think adventure playgrounds are more popular in Europe and the U.K. than they are in America?
Erin: I really think it’s because we just don’t know about it. Maybe it’s naïve, and some people might disagree with me, but I think we never even thought about this as a possibility- to have loose parts and waste materials available for children to play with. In the U.S. there is a history of play spaces that had staff members called parkies who distributed jump ropes, and basketballs and materials to play with, which is genius. That’s an amazing service that the parks used to provide. But why not adventure playgrounds? Here’s the reasons why there aren’t more here: because they’re ugly and we don’t want to look at it. They’re scary and we have too much anxiety to deal with it and we don’t respect children’s complicated emotional experiences. We’re out of touch with what it’s like to be a child. And we forget what children value, as opposed to what we value.
AE: I would agree with that. I think there’s a fear here in the U.S. that if we let children have a little freedom that it will turn into a Lord of the Flies situation.
Erin: Yeah. It’s true that if you let a child do what they want, they won’t necessarily do something that makes you comfortable. So I think that ‘Lord of the Flies’ can be seen as this universal term for the stuff that kids do that we don’t like. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value or isn’t important to their social development, their physical development, and their emotional wellness in general.
AE: A couple of things I loved about the film was its focus on kids interacting with each other and also kids playing by themselves. Growing up, I remember always being encouraged to interact with others at school and I couldn’t really go off and do my own thing. So I thought that was an interesting mentality that The Land had.
Erin: That’s true. The thing that has changed about me since being there is I just shut up. We have this impulse around children to always ask ‘do you need help?’ ‘Do you need someone to talk to?’ ‘Are you ok?’ ‘Can I come up with some ideas of things for you to do?’ But if the child has chosen to be alone for a while, that’s fine. That’s the thing that I do as an adult sometimes and that’s a valid choice to make (laughs). Claire, [The Land’s manager] talks about how The Land is a place where children can have a wide range of emotions. They can be happy, they can be sad, they can feel exhilarated, they might feel rejected. And I’m surprised that that part of the philosophy doesn’t resonate with an American audience. Because we have this very ‘buck up, it builds character’ mentality. We have this idea that there’s some sort of value in suffering or feeling bad (laughs). So sometimes I wonder if that would actually be a good way to pitch the idea, but in general I think there are more people who don’t want children to feel pain, or sadness, or discomfort, or anxiety. But The Land, that’s not their priority. It’s not a place where a child will never feel bad or get hurt, but it is a place where no one is going to interrupt their self-directed activity.
AE: Have there been any studies that have shown the long-term benefits for kids who have adventure play in their lives when they’re younger and how it affects them growing up?
Erin: There’s a couple ways I can answer that. Yes, there are studies that show that freely chosen play supports intellectual development, social development, physical development, it reduces anxiety in the immediate moment and in the long-term. There’s this theory about the anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. When you accomplish something that’s scary as a child, or in your adult life, it makes you less afraid of other things in life. There’s plenty of science that shows that play in general is critical for having a healthy life. And I hope when people see the film that they intuitively understand that or that it brings back memories of their own childhood. Did you have a playful childhood?
AE: Yeah. I think at home I was way more adventurous. I climbed trees, played with sticks and dirt, and all that good stuff. But at school I remember never really liking the playground structures. I liked to wander off into the field or walk around by myself. But it wasn’t really something you were supposed to do. What about you?
Erin: I hated the social stuff. When I wanted to play on the swings I hated when I had to wait to ask my turn. And when another kid would come up to me and say ‘Hi I’m Betty’ I was always kind of thought, ‘no, leave me alone’ (laughs).
AE: I think it’s good that the playworkers at The Land can recognize those kinds of social behaviors in a child and let them be their own person.
Erin: Yeah, the staff of The Land, they write a lot of case studies. So the playworkers aren’t just there to hang out and relax while kids play with fire and climb trees. They have a very active reflection practice where they all sit around and have a cup of tea and discuss each child’s play lives. They have this logbook where they keep track of these various things. Not so they can diagnose it or anything but so that the next day, when the next staff person comes in they can be made aware of any changes in any of the kids’ play lives. But who knows if because of adventure play they’ll grow up to be smarter, better, faster, stronger. Probably, but I don’t think that’s the point.
AE: Did you and the crew talk to the kids very much at all or were you more of an outside observer?
Erin: We were kind of in their territory so I made the choice not to interview the kids. Some of them liked us more than others, but we didn’t actually talk to them explicitly. We didn’t want to ask them questions like ‘why do you come here?’ ‘Is it fun?’ Sometimes they’d call us a name and we’d call them one back (laughs). So it was more like playing them.
AE: I’d imagine that it’s impossible to tell what kids are going to do, which must be a challenge from a filmmaking perspective. Did anything unexpected happen during the filming?
Erin: Oh gosh! That fire was unexpected. That was really scary for me and didn’t make any logical sense. Afterwards I did an hour long interview with [one of the staff members] Dave, and was like ‘why did this happen?’ ‘how?’ I almost bailed because it freaked me out (laughs). Most adventure playgrounds have a fire pit which consists of roasting marshmallows and burning sticks. But at The Land, because they’re in a community where they have kids for a long time, over many years, and they know them really well, they allow a sporadic fire here and there. But to have a fire in an enclosed space was very unexpected. So that’s why it became the climax of the film.
AE: How long did it take you to film?
Erin: We were there for three weeks every day. It was me and two other crew members. It was over the kids’ Easter holiday so they were off school and came and went. The space for The Land is in a neighborhood so the kids can come and go on their own two feet and get home easily.
AE: How did you decide on making a documentary short instead of a feature length?
Erin: I like shorts. Most documentaries are too long. And I want the film to be useful in terms of advocacy and it’s hard to get people to sit down for two hours. I like that this can be used in a teacher’s meeting or a parent-teacher conference. It could be screened in a classroom in a 50-minute college class with time left to discuss it. It’s a pill that more people can swallow. Plus, we didn’t have a lot of money (laughs).
AE: You used the funding platform Kickstarter, right?
Erin: Yes! Our initial funding came from a generous community of Kickstarter supporters. After the campaign we received additional generous support from an individual, plus a lot was self-funded.
AE: I think one of the things that surprised me about the film is how much information there is for its short runtime. There’s a clear message in the film. And the footage of children’s advocate, Lady Allen of Hurtwood at the beginning was great to see.
Erin: Thank you. The Lady Allen part was beautiful footage. She’s great. And she says things so straight and plain in a way that nobody talks. She says ‘it’s just not good enough’ in terms of fixed playgrounds. I think that’s one of my favorite messages about the adventure play movement, that we can do better than this.
AE: Are there any plans to show the film in schools this year?
Erin: I hope so! My real hope is that it can be screened in academic environments. I’m a first time filmmaker so I’m learning this all as I go. But hopefully schools will be interested in screening it. I’m glad that you felt like there was information in there because playwork is very nuanced, and there’s a lot of things to say about the kids and the community but I wanted to say as few words as possible and let the film do the talking as much as I could.
AE: How can people interested in supporting adventure play get more involved?
Erin: I always add an extra plug for playwork. If you have something like The Land and there aren’t playworkers, it’s just another place where adults are up in children’s faces, controlling what they do. So playwork is a really crucial ingredient in adventure play environments. It’s a very unique practice and it’s not easy. It may look easy, but they’re very good at what they do. So I encourage people to explore playwork and how it’s different and similar to ways that we approach working with children.
AE: And for people who are still on the fence about adventure play, what would you say to convince them of the benefits?
Erin: You don’t need to be in a junkyard with a box of matches to have an adventure playground. At its heart, it’s child directed activity with loose parts. So I really encourage people to start with what they’re comfortable with and allow things to grow. The Land itself started with cardboard boxes and stuff from the garage placed in their neighborhood fixed playground. And they started bringing loose parts into the community for kids to play with and it evolved for seven years before they put up a fence and it actually became The Land. You don’t have to go from 0 to 100. There are small things that happen at The Land, small lessons to take from playwork that go a long way and that’s to bite your tongue and put your hands in your pockets and wait for a child to invite you into their game before you insert yourself. And if they ask you for help, you can give it and then step back again. So for people on the fence, my advice is to start small and see where it goes.
Erin Davis is a filmmaker, artist, radio producer, and educator. Her radio work has aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, WBEZ’s Re: Sound, WNYC’s Studio 360, ABC Radio National, Australia and elsewhere. She also teaches courses on radio documentary at Middlebury College. The Land is her first film.
You can find out more about getting involved in playwork here.
All images courtesy of Erin Davis.