Monday, October 17, 2011

Adventure Playgrounds: Putting ADVENTURE in the Playground
Part 3 in a 3 part series

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London.

There are concerns afloat about whether or not playgrounds have gotten too safe and sterile. A summer New York Times article addressed this issue and discussed how playgrounds and parks that offer some risk-taking can be places that encourage children to address their fears and have the opportunity to conquer them. Have adventure playgrounds in London found the right balance?

My observation is that some have worked hard to create environments that are unique and interesting, but that most are staying away from any actual danger or risk. Here, the words “health and safety” only need to be uttered and any risk is squashed out of any idea involving children or presentation to the public in which someone will have to take responsibility for any potential injury. That said, there are a quite a few public places where children and families can have a big adventure, but public playgrounds don’t necessarily seem to be those place.

Adventure playgrounds in London do seem to be succeeding in creating spaces that are unique and different from “off the shelf” playground equipment. In researching the best adventure playgrounds in London (and awards are given annually), several rise to the top. Two of the most highly ranked include:

The Charlie Chaplain Adventure Playground, and

The Kilburn Grange Adventure Playground

Like playgrounds in the United States, the Adventure Playgrounds in London have many goals. Along with the desire to provide imaginative and fun places for children to create their own play and environments, the playgrounds are also seeking to meet universal design and green building standards. Construction materials are often re-claimed and climbers need to offer ramps and alternative ways for children with different abilities to interact with the activities. Sometimes these goals conflict, but all are important to the community and can force interesting and novel solutions.

A lovely way to use re-claimed materials at the Kilburn Grange Adventure Playground.

Many of the adventure playgrounds in London serve children in need and are part of housing projects (the Glamis Adventure Playground is associated with the Tower Hamlets). These larger organizations, along with the local council, supply needed funds as the operations of adventure playgrounds is expensive. Cost seems to be the most limiting factor in providing risk – providing supervision and reviewing safety concerns are staff-intensive endeavors and high cost. As a result, these Adventure Playgrounds have limited hours (after-school and weekends) but provide staff to help and offer more complex opportunities for building and fort/den making.
Glamis Adventure Playground.

So where are these bigger adventures occurring and how are they financed? Across Europe and the United Kingdom both for-profit and non-profit outdoor centers are giving children and families access to scarier adventures.

One of these is the “Go Ape” series of parks in the United Kingdom.

With 27 centers throughout the UK, Go Ape parks are located in forests with tree-top wires, crossings (using ladders, walkways, bridges and tunnels made of wood, rope and super-strong wire) and zip wires all taking place in tree-tops. Attendees are required to attend a safety briefing and training and instructors can be found throughout. It’s not in-expensive with three hour sessions costing £30 per adult ($47) and £20 ($31) per child.

I must admit that the most adventurous museum experience I have seen was at the Tate Modern in 2006/2007. Artist Carsten Höller installated enormous five story steel slides within the turbine gallery. The longest slide was 182 feet long with Holler claiming that slides can help combat mental health problems and viewed the installation as a “playground for the body and the brain.” The slides could be enjoyed as a participant or a voyeur as the top sides were transparent. During the run of the exhibition, children of all ages could be found leaving their adult concerns behind as the experienced the thrill of feeling like a child again and experiencing an activity that made one feel like they were taking a big risk.

The slides were not necessarily for children. Only people taller than two feet and 35 inches could go in the small slides and visitors had to be at least four feet 55 inches to ride the tall slides. Free timed tickets were available for the tallest slides with the smaller sides offering rides on a first come, first served basis.

Safety did remain a concern and the Tate brought in an expert from Germany to check the weldings and screws. Holler reported that the inspector had a great time for half the day! The slides attracted more than 500,000 visitors with the gallery reporting only five injuries.

In conclusion, Adventure Playgrounds in London provide much needed access to outdoor space and spaces that children can create themselves, but increasingly these spaces must limit the interactivity and staff-intensity of their offerings due to cost constraints. The private marketplace is providing adventurous outdoor play spaces for those who can afford to pay for them and some institutions are choosing to take risks to offer visitors of all ages opportunities to take risks and have an adventure.

Let us know what your museum has been doing to provide visitors with some adventure and/or what adventurous experiences you’ve seen recently in the world!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What Does it Take to Nurture a Successful Human Being and Can Museums Help?

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

A recent article in the New York Times profiles the Riverdale Country School and its head, Dominic Randolph, as he and his prestigious private school aim to graduate students that demonstrate strong character. As part of Randolph’s exploration of character, he engaged with Martin Seligman (one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement) and David Levin (superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City) on the topic of developing character as part of the education system.

Seligman recently co-authored a book called “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” which outlines 24 character strengths that reach across cultures. These include traits like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity as well as love, humor, zest, self-regulation and gratitude. They found that a cultivation of these strengths represents a reliable path to a life that is not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.

Levin discovered that of his graduates that went to college or university, those that stayed on through graduation were not the students with the highest IQ, but the students who showed the highest character strengths. Added to the mix was the work of graduate student Angela Duckworth, whose research showed that measures of self-control are a more reliable predictors of grade-point average than IQ. But she found that outstanding achievement was accomplished by people who combined passion with unswerving dedication, a combination that she terms “grit.”

Duckworth, Randolph and Levin condensed their lists down to a final list of strengths that they believe are likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

Some of the changes in their schools have been the abolishment of AP classes and standard tests and include systems to train their students in standard curriculum of math and language, but also in perseverance and empathy. Students receive grades and assessments on their academic work but also on their character. Messages about behavior and values permeate the school day and are included in assemblies and explicit talk about character strengths are incorporated into every lesson.

These schools are also working with parents to help them understand that their children may need some hardships in life to overcome in order to establish their own “grit.” The struggle to pull oneself through a crisis, to come to terms with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them is what is missing at many academically excellent schools and many of the everyday lives of American youth.

Museums are well positioned to assist in building character traits in visitors of all ages. Some ways of doing this include:
• Helping to develop a sense of empathy through diverse programming and exhibitions, as well as presentations that tell individual stories;
• Building persistence through programs and exhibits that encourage visitors to create something, test it, tinker with it, and try again;
• Developing and encouraging passion in individuals through engagement with meaningful problems to be solved and beautiful objects;
• Inspiring curiosity and creativity through interactions with valued cultural objects with opportunities to take apart, create, explore;
• Setting up situations in which visitors can work together socially while problem solving.

Any other ideas about how Museums can help nurture happy, productive and high-performing citizens?