That the subtitle of my book, Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die
, seems more apt now than it did when it was first published last year is something I have noticed with some dismay. Savage Park
is not about current events per se. It takes an adventure playground in Tokyo as a jumping-off point for writing about space, risk, and play.
For readers who may not know, adventure playgrounds are a type of playground first developed by landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorenson in 1943 in Copenhagen, when that town was under German occupation. These types of playgrounds, beautiful in their radical simplicity, are composed of three elements: a vacant lot, donated tools or scraps, and a playworker who is there to facilitate children's play but not to direct it. At the time my family and I visited Japan from our hometown of New York City, I had never encountered a playground like this. I wanted to write a book that paid homage to the space and its playworkers, and that acknowledged some of the difficulty in, and resistance to, being present in the way that this place encourages and provides for it.
I am writing this in December 2015, and the recent events in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino have reverberated here in New York. There is heightened police presence in the city this holiday season, as well as an increase in the number of times a disembodied voice on the subway platform reminds me to say something if I see something. Walking past the policemen posted at my subway stop in midtown Manhattan, I have thought several times about how, in a completely different way, Savage Park
nonetheless advocates for a similar thing: a consciousness of local space. Space is "a beautiful and powerful medium that we are all connected in and through," I wrote in the book. "[It] can, and should, be felt."
|“Perhaps it is not so strange that a playground that offers such spectacular freedoms would emerge at a time when freedoms were limited.”
Contemplating this overlap, I have reminded myself that adventure playgrounds themselves were created in the shadow of war; that perhaps it is not so strange that a playground that offers such spectacular freedoms would emerge at a time when freedoms were limited. These thoughts about play/war commonalities have also led me back to a book I read during the course of writing Savage Park
, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga's brilliant and idiosyncratic Homo Ludens
For a book about play, Homo Ludens
offers a surprising number of observations about war. Written in 1938, before the outbreak of World War II, Huizinga identifies war as an element of culture and notes that it is, in many ways, played by rules. "It is the degree to which we leave gamesmanship out of war," he writes, "that we become barbaric." Placing war in the context of culture as a kind of rule-bound play allows Huizinga to make what I think of as one of the more provocative assertions of his book: "It is not war that is serious," he wrote, "but peace."
I love that line because it is so simple and yet so revolutionary. To say that war is not serious seems taboo. But one of Huizinga's achievements in Homo Ludens
is that he places play and war in the same field, and then doesn't get stuck there — he looks through them. In a truly insightful move, he frames peace as something other than the absence of play/war, instead viewing it as a state that culture arrives at after having finally passed through those straits. He writes: "Only through an ethos that transcends the friend-foe relationship and recognizes a higher goal than the gratification of the self, the group, or the nation, will a political society pass beyond the play of war to true seriousness."
That this wisdom appears in a book about play is miraculous to me, but really, it shouldn't be. Play, as I have come to believe, is not frivolous. And to write about play is to some extent to agree to take on a host of perhaps seemingly unrelated abstract concepts, among them freedom and consciousness.
The notion of consciousness in a playground brings me back to what I think of as the boldest aspect of Sorenson's adventure playground design: the playworker. The playworker's presence means that adventure playgrounds are "overseen" but not in the way one usually thinks of that word. As the person who is there to facilitate children's play but not direct it, the playworker is not a teacher, camp counselor, nurse, or psychologist, although she/he may function in all those ways. In the words of adventure playground advocate Morgan Leichter-Saxby of Pop-Up Adventure Play
, "playwork is an education in presence, and can be framed as a reflective practice of nonjudgmental empathy and support." The policeman at my subway stop, standing silently amidst the recorded reminder to keep up one's vigilance, is one type of approach to presence in space. A playworker's presence is another approach. I would say, though it may look unlikely, that both parties are aiming towards a similar goal: ensuring a space where living freely — i.e., playing freely — is possible.
Adventure playgrounds are a timely topic in that they offer a different way of approaching the place where some of our deepest fears are being projected now: everyday space. Perhaps this projection is just the shadow side of living in the digital age. With virtual reality poised to go mainstream, maybe this focus on all the potential — good and bad — of space, is a natural part of a major human move deeper into the virtual.
Where and how people will play in the future, I don't know. One thing I am sure of though, as a mother of three, is that kids today do play. A premise of my book is that their play is meaningful and can be challenging. As Leichter-Saxby's states, "It can be hard for adults to accept play's darker elements, to support children's right to experiences which have nothing to do with us, and to value play for its own sake." Yet I believe, and my book underscores, that these acts are important, and all the more so for being done in this particular day and age.
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is the author of The Pharmacist's Mate and 8
. As Dr. Fusselman, she writes the Family Practice parenting column for McSweeney's Internet Tendency
. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine
, and ARTnews