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"Make a Mess Day": Making Room for Unstructured Play in an Structured World

July 19th, 2014 | Posted by sarah_yahm in Organization News - (Comments Off on "Make a Mess Day": Making Room for Unstructured Play in an Structured World)

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When we nostalgically look back on our summer childhoods we talk a lot about freedom, but the actuality of being a kid involves lots of rules and regulations.  Most of those rules come from adults and are of the ‘don’t run by the pool’ variety, but they also come from the games themselves (‘offsides,’ ‘travelling,’ ‘foul’).  And sometimes trying to have fun in the midst of all those rules can be exhausting, and kids need a break from order.  PlayCorps is distinct from all of the other recreational activities around Providence because it is one summer-long break from structure.  Kids can create their own if they so desire, but we don’t impose the play rules, they do.

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This week at Pastore Park, one of our play leaders, Greg, noticed that his bunch of regulars was chafing at the indignities of being children.  They wanted to be free and wild and so within the safe contours of the Pastore Park basketball court he initiated “make a mess day,” an opportunity for them to create chaos in a contained space.  When I first arrive it looked like all of our materials had exploded onto the basketball court, but when you look more closely you see signs of kids establishing their own forms of order . 10354666_10152284239207572_6965596074866008093_n 10565246_10152284239222572_5026337274435186727_n

In the pictures above

one young girl directs traffic and two older girls float on makeshift

rafts, carving out a calm space for themselves in the midst of “make a mess day.”

“Make a mess day” creates the space for the type of imaginary play which can’t flourish in structured spaces or during games with rules.  Over here we have two boys fashioning these halved plastic drums into boats and “fishing’ on the basketball court.

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To their left a small child hiding in a box plays “mouse.”  While the PlayCorps team feeds him “cheese” in the form of loose parts, the other kids quickly adopt the game, creating hideouts in other scattered objects.  In this picture one girl “pets” the mouse and then they both climb inside and feast off an old industrial spool of thread which has been transformed into a wheel of cheese.

10387316_10152284240002572_3937226617789850081_n10552425_10152284240222572_2886571121375721772_n                                                                                 Petting her Mouse Friend                                                                 Hiding out in a Mouse House

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                           Eating “Cheese”                                         Taking Mouse House Building Seriously

While the smaller kids imagine in the middle of the basketball court the older kids continue to play on the hoops at either side.  But they’re forced to create modified forms of basketball because they don’t have the whole court, to come up with their own rules for a standardized game.  These two forms of play coexist far more peacefully than you might imagine.  When one girl does get accidentally hit with a basketball (an event that occurs frequently in more structured settings as well) the boy responsible apologizes immediately.  They are all very protective of this space that they’ve created and will do whatever they can to keep their chaotic ship sailing without adult intervention.  And in turn we’re learning to step back and hand this business of play over to the people who take it the most seriously, the children themselves.

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The PlayCorps team in Bucklin Park has established their home base underneath a sweeping maple, setting up their assortment

of boxes and loose parts, arts supplies and blocks in the shade beneath its branches. Although the kids are interested in the materials that we bring, the tree itself is the most exciting object of all.

When I arrive on a hazy humid Tuesday morning there are a group of girls huddled around the tree tossing a rope over a low hanging branch. Abel, our play leader, stands unobtrusively near them. He’s around if they need help, otherwise he’s trying to be invisible. He doesn’t want to get in the way of their play or “disrupt their playframe” to use the technical term. They do call on him to help tie the rope and they collectively make sure it’s secure and then he “puts on his invisibility cloak” again and seems to disappear even though he’s standing right beside them. The younger girl pulls herself up by the rope and snakes her leg over the tree branch while the older girl spots her from below. When she’s perched on top of the tree branch the older girl asks her, “do you know how to get down from there?” echoing the phrase that we use to make sure that kids are safe. “Yes,” the younger girl announces proudly. The older girl and the PlayCorps team are reassured. We’ve noticed the way she carefully and confidently climbed up, paying attention to safety and making responsible choices.

Most of us who work with children spend our days trying to eliminate risk, but in the process we’re creating hermetically sealed environments and preventing kids from engaging in the type of exploratory play that teaches them how to make good, safe decisions for themselves. We take safety seriously at PlayCorps of course (identifying and removing hazards from our sites, untying our rope swings when we leave the park) but we also try and create opportunities for kids to take healthy risks. And we believe tree climbing is one of them. When this group of girls turns a piece of twine, a block, and a sturdy tree branch into a swing they improve their motor skills, learn about fulcrums and levers, learn how to negotiate successfully with each other, problem solve, and perhaps most importantly make mature, informed decisions about safety. When the summer is over and our PlayCorps team leaves the parks, these kids will carry these skills with them as they continue to play by themselves in their neighborhoods.

We started this program with the belief that when you take kids seriously they take themselves seriously. In the two and a half weeks that we’ve been in Providence parks we’ve noticed again and again that when you give kids responsibility they make responsible decisions. Before these kids starting climbing and swinging they tested the rope in a variety of different ways to make sure it was safe. We’ve watched them check and re-tie knots, add extra ropes, and spot each other carefully and consistently. And we’ve watched them explore critical physics questions through trial and error. Once they settled on the idea of a rope swing they tied one end of the rope to a tree limb and then debated how to safely secure the other end. They tried attaching it to the ground which failed, they eliminated the possibility of tying the other end to the same tree limb, and then they settled on a basic fulcrum system. Although the PlayCorps workers helped throughout this process – they tied knots, tested for safety and operate the fulcrum – they refused to solve the problem for the kids. As Abel, the play leader explains, “this is your thing, you need to figure out how to do it. We’ll tie knots for you and help you throw the block over the tree but it’s yours.”

These kids live in neighborhoods surrounded by fences, not trees, and so they’ve honed their climbing skills on chain-link. Tree climbing is an exotic activity, something they’ve read about in books or seen in movies. The tree is an ongoing presence in Bucklin – the play leaders have decorated it, hung art from its branches, turned the area underneath into forts and makeshift shelters. And in the process they’ve turned biophobia, fear of nature, into biophilia, love of nature. Summer is a time for adventuring in the wild and we’re creating our own wild places in Providence Parks one tree at a time.

The PlayCorps team arrives at 10 am laden with recycled objects (gigantic appliance boxes, tape, tinsel, industrial-sized spools, 20 pounds of donated sheets from a local hotel) and claims their corner of Harriet and Sayles Park. The adjacent water park is still shuttered, scheduled to open for the summer at noon, and the park is deserted.  They unfold their boxes in the early morning heat, attach a few together with tape, the mere suggestion of a fort.  We call this seeding – creating the framework for future play, a foundation for the imagination to build upon.  They they draw some pictures on the pavement with chalk, leaving other pieces scattered about for future users.  A few feet away some other team members begin to weave materials through the fence, turning the chain-link into an impromptu sculpture.  By the time I arrive just a few hours later, the water park is packed and the PlayCorps corner of Harriet and Sayles has been turned into an elegant dinner party.  “Put your name on the guest list,” a little boy tells me imperiously, gesturing towards a piece of cardboard with names scratched in multi-colored chalk.  He is small, dark-skinned, wiry, not a day over 7, and deeply invested in proper birthday party protocol.  He waits impatiently by his two tables (constructed out of foot long spools and hotel sheets) for the imaginary party to begin.

Harriet and Sayles Park is located in one of Providence’s low income neighborhoods and is one of approximately 36 sites in Providence where the city distributes free lunch daily throughout the summer.   But attendance has been low for the past few years despite the high participation in the free lunch program in Providence schools. This summer The Partnership for Providence Parks, the Providence Children’s Museum, the City of Providence’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the Healthy Communities Office have collaborated to create PlayCorps, a pilot program where trained play facilitators activate Providence parks, introducing neighborhood kids to exploratory, imaginative play.  The hope is that these PlayCorps teams will attract more kids into the parks, increasing the number who receive lunch.  The goal is quite simple – to feed their bodies, their minds, and their imaginations simultaneously.

When I arrive at 12:30 the kids are already lined up, waiting impatiently for lunch, squirming on their sandy feet.  Historically free summer lunch has been stigmatized in Providence, the bags themselves read as a mark of poverty, even though anyone 18 or under is eligible.  And the kids often complained about the content of their lunches, griping about sandwiches and quickly abandoning their fruits and vegetables.  But today they can’t wait to bring their paper sacks over to Jonah’s elegant tables and begin their party.  And they eat everything, each piece of food magically transformed, running in and out of their cardboard box “elevator” between bites. This is exactly the type of symbiosis we were hoping for, a seamless link between bodies and minds, imaginations and meeting basic needs.  We’ll be continuing our work every weekday until August 14th, building healthy communities throughout Providence one cardboard fort at a time.

Click below to see a video on our Facebook page of kids in Pastore Park Drumming with recycled parts on recycled parts!  And while you’re there LIKE us!



Celebrate Providence! 2014 Neighborhood Performing Arts Initiative

Events July – August

Smaller Sights+Sounds 2015 

Providence, RI – Mayor Angel Taveras, the Department of Art, Culture + Tourism, the Department of Parks & Recreation, and Partnership for Providence Parks are pleased to announce the Celebrate Providence! 2014 Neighborhood Performing Arts Initiative.  From music and dance to storytelling in the park, Mayor Angel Taveras’ Celebrate Providence showcases the art of local neighborhoods in city parks throughout the summer.  All events are free and open to the public.

Opera Providence will present Opera in the Park during four Sundays (July 6, 13, 27 & August 3) this summer starting at 5pm at Hopkins Square (at the intersection of Charles St. and Branch Ave.). The series features exceptional talent from all over the region. Each performance will highlight favorites from the operatic repertoire along with popular Broadway hits.  On July 6,Afternoon Delight” from the Italian Operas will kick off the Opera series.  The group “Opera to Broadway” will take the stage the following Sunday, July 13. “Gilbert, and Sillivan, and More “ will take the stage on July 27, followed by “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart!” on August 3.

Community Health Innovations liven up Billy Taylor Park on four select Tuesdays (July 8th & 22nd, August 5th & 19th) with the Billy Taylor Summer Performance Series.  The first performance on July 8 will feature Case Closed!, a hip hop dance group that will be sure to get you moving! On July 22, get ready to take a trip to the Island of Hawaii with performance by Flowers of Polynesia. Get ready to hear some great poetry, and even learn some poetry writing skills on August 5 with James Monteiro and Hannah Resseger. The series will close on August 19th with Valarie Tutson and Friends who will present stories celebrating the Mount Hope area. All events will feature face painting and open air art displays by Barbieo Barros Gallery!

Elmhurst Clean & Green’s Fargnoli Concert Series takes over Fargnoli Park (Jastram & Smith Streets) for six consecutive Tuesdays (July 15, 22, 29, August 6, 12 and 19).  Each week there will be a Farmer’s Market from 4pm – 7pm, Providence Community Library’s story time will take place at 5:30pm followed by a performance from 6pm – 7:30pm and concluding with Films at Fargnoli from 8pm – 9:30pm. Join us on July 22 for instrument making with the Children’s Museum, and a performance by Keith Munslow, an award winning performer who uses improvisation, music, and visual art! Come back on July 29 for an evening of Rock n Roll with local band Roslyn! Joe’s Backyard Band will be performing on August 5, and will be sure to get the crowd movin’ and groovin’! Island Farm Bluegrass will play traditional bluegrass music in the style of the founding fathers on August 12! Join Nickel Jukebox on August 19 to hear some good old songs by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder!

On select Wednesdays this summer (July 16 & 30, August 13 & 27), the Friends of Brown Street Park will present Summer Concerts at Brown Street Park (behind Hope High School) all beginning at 5:30pm.  On July 16, a local band, Ragged Company, will kick off the series, and get you groovin’! Come back on July 30th ready to rock and roll with Smith and Weeden who will play a mix of rock n’ roll and country. On August 13, Ravi Shavi will have the crowd moving with their combination of classic punk, modern indie, and new wave sound with a shot of rock n’ roll. The Children’s Museum will also be instructing an instrument making class!   On August 27, Joes Backyard Band will close out the series, and have the whole crowd toe tapping and hand clapping!


For three consecutive Wednesdays in July (July 16, 23 & 30) Family Service of RI / Providence Children’s Initiative are presenting their Annual Neighborhood Block Parties at Harriet & Sayles Park (Harriet & Sayles Streets) beginning at 5:30pm.  On July 16 the Providence Children’s Museum will be present leading an instrument making tutorial. There will be a performance from hip hop dance group, Project 401, and a Zumba instructor. Be sure to bring your dancing shoes! On July 23, come learn some salsa dance moves from Mambo Pa Ti,   and listen to some poetry!  Come watch Extraordinary Rendition Band, a street band of brass, reeds and percussion, and watch Samia, a youth dancer on July 30th to end the series.

Dexter Training Grounds (Armory Park) (Parade St. between Cranston St. & Westminster St.) is the place to be on three consecutive Thursdays (July 17, 24, 31) as the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA) presents West Side Thursdays beginning at 5pm.  The series will begin with a performance by Keith Munslow, an award-winning performer who combines music, storytelling, visual art, and improvisation on July 16. Come back on July 24 for a performance by The American Band! They are one of the oldest bands in the US, who play works ranging from classical, popular, and modern works! Join us July 31 for the final performance of the series.  Hip hop dance and theater performance group, Everett Company, will put on a great show!

On Saturday, August 2nd Oasis International brings the African Summer Bash to Richardson Park beginning at 1pm.

On Thursdays in August (August 7, 14 & 21), ECAS Theatre will bring Spanish-language and bilingual music, dance, and theater to the young and old alike during Gozadera en el Parque at Roger Williams Park (Broad St. Entrance). Performances begin at 5pm.  Come by on August 7 and catch a play by Ta’To Nitido, the ECAS Theater’s youth team! There will also be a folkloric dance presentation, a performance by Babum the Clown, and a karate demonstration! Join us on August 14 for an poetry reading with Marleny Luna and Sussy Santa. Las Chapanecas from Mexico will perform a folkloric dance, and Poder 1110, a local radio station, will be holding a vocalist contest!  Come enjoy the final performance on August 21, which will feature a Dominican folk exhibit, a folk dance presentation as well as performances by local musicians!

West Elmwood Housing brings Simmer Down Thursdays to Bucklin Park on August 7, 14 & 21, all shows begin at 6pm.  Join us on August 7 for a night with a Rhode Island Black Story Teller and Play Date. Come by and enjoy the World Celebration on August 14,  which will feature music and art from various cultures residing in the West End! Don’t miss the final performance of the series on August 21, which will feature dance performances from the West Elmwood Cheerleading Team, who will perform their winning routines from Nationals!

The Summit Neighborhood Association will present the annual Summit Music Festival on Saturday, August 23rd beginning at 10am in Lippitt Park.

The Smaller Sights and Sounds program, now in its second year, engages smaller or newer volunteer park groups by transforming their neighborhood parks into community hubs for the arts, healthy living, and play. The seven additional parks are: Peace & Plenty Park, Corliss Park, Viscolosi Park, Fr. Lennon Park, Gladys Potter Park, Patterson Park and Blackstone Park.  Come to Peace & Plenty Park from 7-8pm on July 10 for an evening with The Wilbury Theater Group, who combine the greatest writers with the occasional modern twist. Return to Peace & Plenty Park on July 31 for a fabulous rap workshop with group Bmor 7 from 7-8:30pm, followed by the Burundian Drumming performance on August 7 from 7-8pm!

Friends of Paterson Park will be hosting events on July 2 and July 30. Come to Paterson Park from 5:30- 7pm and watch a performance by the creative entertainers from TEN31 Productions.  Join us on the 30th at 7pm for performance by Part of the Oath: Dancing Blues.

Friends of Viscolosi Park will be holding events on July 15, July 29, and August 5. July 15 will include a performance by Extraordinary Rendition Band, and will get the whole crowd up and dancing from 6-7pm! On July 29 from 6:30-7:35, Circus Dynamics will perform and offer an a circus experience you will never forget! On August 5, from 6-7pm, Part of the Path: Dancing Blues will put on an excellent ballet performance.

Blackstone Park Conservatory will host events at Blackstone Park Meadow on Wednesday July 16, and Wednesday July 23 from 7-8pm. July 16will feature a performance by the talented Rhode Island Philharmonic Jazz Quintet. On July 23, Joe’s Rendition Band will perform, and play a variety of music for the whole family to enjoy!

Friends of Corliss Park will host performances at Corliss Park on Thursday July 24, and Wednesday August 6. Storyteller Raffini will kick off the series using, acting, art, and other creative elements to portray her message. The series will close on August 6 with a performance by Extraordinary Rendition Band, whose music celebrates history, life, and culture!

Cambden Park Friends will hold events on Tuesday July 22, Tuesday August 12, and Thursday August 14 at Father Lennon Park from 6-7pm. The Laotian Community Dance Teams will perform on July 22, followed by Part of the Oath: Dancing Blues on August 12. The series will conclude with a performance by Project 401, a talented hip hop dance group on August 14!

For more information please visit www.providenceri.com.  The 2014 Celebrate Providence! Neighborhood Performing Arts Initiative is sponsored by the City of Providence, Angel Taveras, Mayor, Department of Art, Culture + Tourism, Department of Parks & Recreation, Partnership For Providence Parks and CW28.