A diary of a day with Mobile Junk and Nature Playground
9 0’clock start. I do the reverse math. 50 minutes to set up, an hour to get there, shower, brecky and shave (That’s right, I don’t shave…that’s 5 minutes saved). I have to get up at 6.30. (But what about unexpected delays? Traffic, Kangaroos, poor time management? Better add another 10 minutes). I hit the road on time (roughly on time as facebook was extra amusing this morning). Google maps said the trip would take 1 hour. They left out the part which said “as the crow flies”. I race the clock at a steady 10kmh under the speed limit (lucky for my licence I have an under powered Ute carrying a ton or so of materials).
Somehow I managed to arrive at the site at the organised time. Now to find the entrance. Yes the gate is unlocked! If I could only drive over the top of the parents’ car that blocks the entrance, then things would be sweet. I unload the trailer and Ute full of sticks, mud, rocks, found objects (Both nature and junk) and a collection of musical instruments made from recycled junk.
I have arrived (how do I get in?)
I have 50 minutes to set up. As long as I get no interruptions I will be ready to go. A grandpa, who has just dropped off his granddaughter asks about the session. We reminisce about the days of cubby building out in the wild. We share nature play scars (Only joking). Now I only have 40 minutes to set up! As quick as possible I set up everything throughout the site. I keep the water wall away from the mud kitchen (otherwise it becomes the mud wall), I find a spacious area for the stick constructions, (a child and a 2.4m branch needs space, twenty children and twenty 2.4m branches need lots of space) and I put the loud junk drums far far far away, ( small people make big sounds). Sometimes I do this before the children arrive, and sometimes I do this when the children are playing outside. There is always a plethora of little helpers wanting to help wheel a sack truck carrying 90 kilos of branches. Today I have no helpers, so the job gets done much quicker.
Once I’ve unloaded and set up a trailer and Ute full of resources (in under 40 minutes) I am ready for a lie down, however I have a chat with the children as a group instead. I stand before them with a large stick in one hand, a gas bottle drum in the other, a lumberjack grey beard and large nest with a galah perched on top of my head. The children comment that the galah is not real (in fact, aside from the rope used in cubby construction, this is the only item not sourced sustainably). I decree the values of nature and sustainable junk and get a feel for the children’s prior knowledge. Usually I find out through questions that many of the children, like myself, live in forests (their forests are full of monkeys, crocodiles and dragons…..I think they are telling porky pies). I give them a quick demonstration of safe stick handling (three stooge’s style) then we go out and play.
Sticks and stones
Certain areas, such as stick construction and rock crushing, initially need heavier supervision than say, the water wall needs, so I tend to hover around these areas. Stick construction starts off with children trying to hold long braches as high up as they can, or carrying branches they deem too heavy for a normal non-hulk infused child (Great for extending mathematical concepts: weight, mass, height length), however the lure of construction soon overwhelms and the children get down to building.
My play pedagogy consists of seeing myself as a play participant. I work at ground zero, amongst the children. I scamper along the dirt on my belly to fit under constructions, I ‘accidently’ get covered in mud while cooking and I jam on the musical instruments with other children. I don’t lead the play, yet I am always in close proximity to offer open ended questions and support when needed. Due to my childlike enthusiasm towards play, many children view me as a co-player and not an educator. I feel this enables me to get right amongst it without affecting the nature of the play.
Rope and wolves
Today the children have decided that the cubby is a trap, I am a wolf, and I must be tied up. My hands and feet are bound to various branches. The expertise in knot tying is vast. Some knots melt off of me the moment the child finishes, while others complete complex bindings that will take hours to undo (I could find myself in an embarrassing predicament of having to ask for help, if I fail to untie myself). My Houdini skills have increased over the years of doing mobile junk and nature playgrounds as it seems children really enjoy tying teachers up (some sort of mental revenge I guess).
Another common practice I have witnessed over the years is children putting every spare branch they find on the roof. In the children’s world, walls are superfluous. Part of my site set up is connecting a few load-bearing branches to the construction frames as a means of offsetting this hazard as it arises.
Over at the junk music area a child is testing the breakability of a steel drum. The drum started life as a frying oil drum and is now finishing of its twilight years as an object to be bashed by children. Some children like to bash, some like to destroy and some like to destroy by bashing. These drums have resisted all attempts and look as good today as they did when I first began years ago (your K-mart Ben 10 drum set wouldn’t last 5 minutes). Sometimes you can see the disappointment in a destroyer’s face when the drum fails to yield to his effort. My background as a musician sees me in good stead at the junk music area. Bashing turns to playing when children connect with syncopated drum beats.
The mud kitchen is another area that never sleeps. Today chocolate stew is on the menu, however after I ate it, it turned out to be poison with dog poo in it. Luckily I was a monster and poison and dog poo are my favourite things, so I had another spoonful. The mud materials were sourced from my home and surrounding Barossa Valley (beautiful Barossa red and black clay screened to avoid bringing Barossa mouse spiders, who love to burrow in the clay).
Stone crushing (legal destruction of form)
Another aspect of the mud kitchen is the rock crushing area. A collection of sleepers have been cut up and turned into mortar and pestles. Unbreakable! Smashers and crushers love to smash and crush. Instead of being destructive they are being constructive (Rock crushing for the kitchen is legal smashing!). They smash calcrete, ochre and clay to produce lovely spices. Another child fools me, telling me the spice is sweet, when it actually is red hot chilli! (the book ‘wombat stew’ has a lot to answer for!)
Like a lot of the sessions, the mud finds its way to the cubby building area (it is used as paint), as well as the water wall. Normally the water wall is a collection of old hair conditioner, milk, and juice containers cut up and mounted to a wall using magnets. Children pour water through the containers and create waterfalls that feed a large recycled coke syrup drum ready to be scooped up and poured again. Waterfalls are great. Mud falls are better. I know children are individuals, however they all seem to have an innate urge to tip mud into fresh water. I think this is the main reason I’m doing my teachers degree. I hope it will answer this question.
Amongst all of this playing are educators observing, documenting and playing. The main reason for these sessions are for children to have fun, learning through interactions with their environment, and educators seeing it happen in their own site. Reading articles related to loose parts, nature and risky play is one thing, seeing your children in their environment doing it, is another. As I slip out of my rope shackles and escape the watchful eyes of my captors a teacher asks how I sourced my materials. I give a run-down of my sources yet also mention how many other sites are sourcing resources (one site has access to a dump, one has good relations with the local arborist, and another has a parent on the council). I try as much as I can to talk with teachers regarding this play experience, discussing major theorist, case studies, research and my own observations of what is happening in South Australia unfortunately as mentioned earlier my main pedagogical practice is being a play participant and before I pack up and head off to another location I have to squeeze in a few more minutes of pirate play followed by some nice chocolate coffee near the rock crushing restaurant.
After two hours of play I start packing up, and once again the helpers have gone inside for lunch, so I will get it done quicker. It takes me nearly an hour (those knots…..so many!), I curse myself for encouraging open ended play where children are encouraged to move resources from one station to another (a concept that divides opinions). Some of the most creative learning I have witnessed has been as a result of materials being used in a completely new context. The clay, originally brought as a material to join the small building blocks together, found itself at the mud kitchen, where it was watered down and added to general mud, then it moved to the stick construction site, where it was stuck to the side of a blue drum (to make the drum invisible) before ending up all over my t-shirt as I attempt to empty the drum of gas bottle drums (put in there as a way of holding down the blue drum while using it as a ballet studio).
Ute and trailer loaded, I bade goodbye and head to a new location. (if I don’t have another show then it’s an early minute and I can go back to my forest. Hmm…I think there is a Brewery along the way)