“Today, we have a real playworker among us,” San Diego Civic Innovation Lab Strategist for Public Space and Ecology Ilisa Goldman said as I and five adult volunteers at the Pop Up Nature Play event in Balboa Park circled for a pre-play briefing. Standing among somewhat orderly piles of palm fronds, “tree cookies,” bamboo and pinecones, I realized that Ilisa was the first person (well, other than me) who had called me a “playworker” since I began the graduate program in Play and Playwork at the University of Gloucestershire in 2012. In the United States, a place where the term “playworker” is as exotic a word as “unicorn,” being called a playworker felt a bit exhilarating. And then a little strange. And then I started questioning myself. Am I a playworker? Do I get to call myself that? Do I have to earn more merit badges before I can officially say that I am one of this mystical order of Peter Pan players?
And then I was reminded of something someone told me at a party recently. He said that after he moved to California from Kansas, he noticed something. In California, people introduce themselves not by what they do for a living (“I’m a waiter”) but by what they aspire to be (“I’m a transcendentalist meditation specialist who dabbles in reiki and acts.”) So, in California,where I, luckily, do make a living playfully designing transformable spaces for kids, I can fully embrace my new identity:
I am a playworker.
So now that we got that out of the way, here’s the play-by-play of the Pop Up Nature Play experiment in the park:
1. MATERIALS (lovingly gathered by Ilisa Goldman):
Before (well, I guess right at the beginning– this kid and her little brother came to the event last year and were chomping at the bit to get started again):
And after (some of my favorite images):
One of the funny realizations of the day was this: since I have been a playworker, I have not played with the materials of my California childhood. It brought back lots of memories of playing with California pepper branches, eucalyptus, and palms. The smell. The razor-tipped fronds. The shagginess. This is my terroir. What better place to become a fully realized playworker than in the land of my first playing?