The Mary Poppins playground kit

This post shares an idea from a parent who was frustrated that her kids were finding it hard to have much fun in their local playgrounds. I’ve called it the Mary Poppins playground kit, for reasons that should become obvious.

2 bags of play items

At the end of this post, I will say more about why I like the Mary Poppins playground kit so much. First, the idea itself, in the words of the parent herself (whose chosen name is Djindjer):

I have a son who seems to need free play far more than most, and who craves the company of other children like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We recently moved, and I was determined to give those things to him as best I could.

The playgrounds where we live are so neglected (due to lack of demand, I assume) that most of the equipment is usually broken. I also noticed that the kids who we met were micromanaged by their parents to an outrageous degree. As their parents tried to keep them as close to the parental orbit as possible, they didn’t socialise much with each other.

So I came up with the “playground kit” idea. For two years, as often as I could, I took the kids to the same large, but often fairly empty playground with two enormous shopping bags in hand. In the bags were:

  • Bubble and water toysA croquet set with giant plastic mallets
  • Armour and weapons we made from cardboard and duct tape
  • A variety of water toys to use at the drinking fountain
  • Many, many bottles of bubble mix with a variety of bubble-making toys
  • Home-made bows and balsa wood arrows
  • Little cars and action figures (cheap, so that no one noticed or cared if they were pocketed or lost)
  • Balls, hoops, chalk, sand toys
  • A selection of cookies, crackers, and juice boxes

– along with whatever else tickled our fancy that day.

And it worked. My kids would offer toys to other kids close by and draw them into the fun. A favourite activity was that an older child would blow bubbles from the top of the slide while a dozen little ones would run around beneath screaming and slashing at them with the paper swords. Another was to shoot at trees with the bows and arrows, which my son was good at and enjoyed showing other kids how to do.

bow arrow boy

I had made a play quiver from an old belt and a piece of felt, which he would strap onto someone ceremoniously – everyone loved that. I myself would hang back around a tree in the centre of the park on a bench with treats in my lap for anyone who wanted one.

Quiver, bow and arrowsThe most interesting thing to watch was the parents. At first I worried that mothers and fathers would be angry with me for drawing their kids into “violent” games. In fact, no one ever pulled their children away or said anything negative to me.

Quite a few would thank me on their way out. Perhaps this was because of the awkwardness of saying anything, but – I truly believe – also because there was really never any actual danger involved and everyone could immediately see that the kids were just having fun.

The kids loved the armour the best and would sometimes see us coming from a long way away and stand at the gate of the playground to be the first to swoop down on it.

P1050443 (800x593)

Sharing was easy. When others saw my son with his armour on, happily swinging his sword about, they’d come over and peek into the bag out of curiosity. I’d wave them to go ahead and take whatever they wanted, and they were never hesitant to do it. They’d turn the top of a wishy-washy, practically unusable, “safe” plastic slide in no time into a fortress to be defended (bubble bombs!)

Luckily, my son is extremely aware of what he’s doing with his “weapons”. Mothers who seemed leery or unhappy at first soon settled down as they understood that what he was teaching their children was more like choreography than actual fighting. My son has very great difficulty communicating in any other way than through physical play, so this sort of thing was really important for him to feel socially accepted at some level.

One important detail in this story is the choice of playgrounds. There was a big central one close to where we lived where there were actually a lot of people – perhaps too many. I worried that the sword swinging could cause an accident and we would become the centre of something ugly and it would defeat the purpose.

Some of the other parks were too empty for us to have a hope of much company. So I chose an empty park just behind the largest grocery store around, where there were a lot of “passers through,” walking back to their cars or to the apartment buildings nearby.

Sandbox toysIt was interesting to see how parents who had only intended to stop for 5 minutes while their kids tried out each piece of broken equipment (there was actually a huge sandbox with no sand in it, if you can imagine that) would end up staying a couple of hours and, looking relieved to have their kids engaged and out of their hair, would happily chat with other parents.

Parenting becomes a breeze if you don’t have to be everything for your kids all the time.

I’m sure many parents have a bag of favourite toys ready by the front door, or a bat-and-ball in the car boot. We certainly did. But Djindjer’s approach goes well beyond this.

Her over-riding aim was to draw other children into playing with her children. She and her kids pursued this goal with enthusiasm, creativity and playfulness (while taking a healthy and balanced approach to risk).

Anyone versed in playwork will recognise some of the ideas that Djindjer put into practice. These include: the introduction of loose parts, the use of play cues and play frames to increase the affordances of a play space and the play types that it supports, and an appreciation of rough-and-tumble play.

The Mary Poppins playground kit also addresses a key question posed by many parents: “what can I do to improve outdoor play opportunities for my children?” While Djindjer’s answer is perhaps a little unconventional, it does not seem such a big ask for parents – indeed according to her, it makes life easier.

The idea invites parents to look beyond the boundaries of their own family lives, and to take the kind of collective action that is surely essential if outdoor play is to be revived. It subtly and gently bridges the gap between the nuclear family – ‘what I can do for my children’ – and the immediate community – ‘what we can do for the children in our neighbourhood’.

Boy with cardboard and duct tape suit of armourWhat do you think? I would love to hear if you are as keen on this idea as I am. Even better: if you are a parent reading this and are willing to give it a go, let me know how you get on. All comments gratefully received, as ever.

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Djindjer (who wants to remain anonymous) for agreeing to let me share her idea, and for generously giving her time and thoughts by email. Thanks to her, her family and her friend for the images. Her idea was first shared as a comment on an article by US psychologist and play advocate Peter Gray that explored the ‘Playborhood’ model promoted by US play advocate and parent Mike Lanza.

18 responses to “The Mary Poppins playground kit

  1. Hi Tim

    I think its a great idea. And there are lots of different elements that parents can introduce.

  2. Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    Great example of activism to encourage play in a neighborhood, or what psychologist Peter Gray calls “Playborhoods”. :)

  3. What a wonderful, positive, good news story. I particularly liked the armoury made from cardboard and duck tape – such useful stuff.

  4. This is great, and yes we did a similar thing ( by default not design though I admit) in my local park when the children were young, mostly with kites of varying descriptions and ability to fly or lack of ability to fly…in fact anything that flew that took up more space than the garden allowed. A small group of children would always pull in a few more. The example given here is a great model, as is the ‘after school after dark’ model ( JM may comment?) to promote more play outdoors in the local community. I look forward to reading more comments about this.

  5. Thanks for the reactions and comments so far. Over on my Facebook page someone asked ‘why not just bring in loose parts?’ My gut feeling is this wouldn’t work so well, because it wouldn’t draw kids in so easily – especially kids who may be strangers or occasional visitors. Any thoughts?

  6. Thanks Tim. its great to see these #rougeplaygroundinterventions popping up around the place. Right now outside in the park just beyond my back gate is a Tee Pee built from a bunch of branches cut from that park by a crew of tree loppers, some wheeled toys collected from the local houses who threw them out, a couple of tree swings and an octopus!( .

  7. Djindjer must live in a very different world to us. Our local playgrounds (Dundee) are full of such interactions and sharing of toys/equipment. So much so in fact, that I was surprised to see this as a worthwhile article (I’m not negating its validity to others).

    What may differ significantly though is that we live amidst one of Dundee’s numerous ex-Council estates. These were designed with generous green-space and many well located play grounds covering a radius of several hundred meters. Children (and parents) see the play areas as their own and the community “claims” the space rather than neglect it. Kids get to recognise each other and the general ‘good-feeling’ of the space translates into them welcoming others just visiting the area into participation with their games.

  8. Marcus and Ian – thanks for your comments. Nice image, Marcus! Ian: of course outdoor play cultures vary widely in different neighbourhoods, and your comment is a helpful reminder that in some areas spontaneous outdoor play has not died out, but rather is common and accepted. My hunch is that this is the exception, not the norm, though I have seen it elsewhere. Interestingly, I’ve seen signs of growing outdoor play in a few streets in my own part of London, where good green space and recent ‘home zone’ style traffic-calming and road closures in residential streets allow for high levels of everyday freedom for children – it reminds me of Delft in fact.
    In areas where there are reasonable numbers of children, but they do not play out much, I reckon Djinjder’s tactic has a good chance of being the catalyst for a virtuous circle of growing engagement with, and appreciation of, local outdoor space. One of its strengths is that it is an approach that is well within the grasp of many parents *this very evening*. Whereas campaigning for traffic calming or investment in local green spaces can take a long time and a lot of energy, and not everyone is up for that.

  9. Hey, Tim. I applaud Djinder’s passion and creativity. However, in taking her kids and the playground kit to a park some distance from her home, she committed a fundamental error, in my opinion. She made a large investment in a place that her kids will never be able to take charge of, on their own. This is absolutely crucial, in my opinion. The goal should not simply be for kids to play freely. The goal should be for them to get on a path to take charge of their own lives. This simply cannot happen if they’re dependent on adults for transportation, let alone if adults must be somewhere close, hovering.

    So, I firmly believe that the place where this sort of initiative must take place is close enough to home so that the kids could roam there on their own, unattended. There may be no grass that close to home. There may be no comfortable open space. However, that’s where the children live. That’s the only place where they can learn to be independent, until they learn to drive.

  10. Mike – thanks for the comment, and great to see you here. I agree that fostering children’s everyday freedoms is a key part of the picture for parents. And I agree that focusing on the local neighbourhood – on places that children can eventually get to by themselves – is crucial. But this is quite compatible with Djindjer’s tactic. By the way, it’s not obvious to me that the park she chose is too far away for her kids to get to on their own eventually. One sure thing about children’s independent mobility is that it increases with age. So the Mary Poppins kit can – ideally should – be a stepping stone to children getting to such spaces under their own steam.
    On a different tack: I would not underestimate the value of simply reinforcing the idea that being out of doors with other kids is a fun thing to do.

    • “Eventually” might be a long time. I think the best location for kids to play is a place they can get to on their own today. One crucial point about loose parts play is that when it’s hyper-local, the loose parts can be left behind from day to day. So, the parts may not have to be neatly collected in a bag at the end of every session. Projects can be continued, and built upon, day after day, so that much more complex projects can be built. Also, the folklore that comes along with those parts can become a lot deeper.

      • Hi Mike! Djindjer here. You’re sort of a hero of mine, so I couldn’t resist responding to your comments. I don’t see my actions here as a satisfactory or end-all answer to the woes of modern society or the destructive influence of modern attitudes on the lives of children. My problem was super-specific and for us, this was construed as a temporary fix. We were in a new country where we barely spoke the language and were forced to choose a place to live in the course of a day. The only acceptable flat of the four we could cram into one day’s viewing was on the top of a hill outside the city along an extremely dangerous road (barely 2-lanes of winding mountain track with high-speed traffic and no shoulder) that even I would not walk on as an adult, let alone allow my children anywhere near. The house itself was nice and there were three other families sharing our yard, so my kids got some free play, but it just wasn’t enough, as I could see in particular with my 3rd son. We knew we’d be moving along within the space of a year or so, so my problem was simply to find a way to get my children some relatively consistent company for that space of time in a setting that allowed them to be as free as possible under the circumstances. what I did was to observe what sorts of things they liked to do in chance free play with the children in our building (when they were available) and transport the props involved to one of the closest playgrounds to our house. During the two years that followed, I found that the prop kit did several things: it served as an ice-breaker and permitted my kids to meet other kids in a non-threatening way (in our case, the language barrier added significantly to factors such as natural shyness and parental hovering); it freed parents up to mingle and exchange phone numbers and the like; and it at least created the illusion of freedom for the kids for a short time, and though no replacement for true freedom of the sort I had when I was a kid, it at least built their confidence in a way they could not have achieved in our yard with more limited play space and company. If we had been forced to stay in that less-than-optimal setting, it might have been the only way to give them a sense of freedom and self-direction in early childhood. It would have helped us all learn the language and make friends in our area, as well. Luckily, we spent the next year searching diligently and now live in a neighbourhood with multiple parks within walking distance, nice, safe, sidewalks, and good bus connections to everywhere, so none of this is necessary anymore. In my original post on Peter Gray’s blog, I prefaced my comment with “if you don’t have the means…” precisely because I intended it as a second-rate substitute for what you did – the real deal! – as a thought for people struggling with a variety of circumstances. Most European homes don’t even have a yard, for example, so a park would be the only place for kids to meet other kids. With great respect and sincere admiration, Djindjer

        • Hello, Djinder!

          It’s wonderful to hear from you. I very much appreciate your story. There are so many compromises one must make when looking for a place to live. I’m glad you’re in a better place now.

          It sounds like you certainly “made lemonade out of lemons” in that year that you were in the other place.

          Good luck at your new place in your quest to instill independence and confidence in your kids.

          BTW, this week is a vacation week for my kids’ school, and right now, they’re sprinkled about the neighborhood with other kids, having great times. Sigh…

  11. Ashley Rogers

    Love it! :)

  12. Fantastic! I’m seeing increasing bringing of playful things into my local park in Hackney, and think it particularly signifies a community that is settling down, a community people are raising kids in instead of a stopever community that people just live in for a couple of years on theor way elsewhere. I agree totally with your point that this is so great because it doesn’t involve a three month consultation, doesn’t need permission and is something kids can make their own. Take back our communities! Thank you for sharing – and great to read all the comments too. Cheers, Cath

  13. As you say Cath, great to see the conversation evolving here. The exchange between Djindjer and Mike shows, I think, the importance of respecting where parents are – literally and figuratively. While some parents are in neighbourhoods and circumstances where hyper-local action is possible, others are not – and may not have the option of moving any time soon. That does not mean staying silent about parents’ motivations, beliefs, attitudes and decisions. But as I’ve said here before, I don’t feel comfortable telling parents how to do their job. In squaring this circle, I think in terms of offering lines of thought, insights and ideas rather than formulas and recipes.

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