Palms and Pop Ups

“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):

IMG_0449 IMG_0450 Tree "cookies"IMG_0458IMG_0465IMG_0457

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):

IMG_0591 IMG_0557 IMG_0533 IMG_0507 IMG_0493 IMG_0491 IMG_0467 IMG_0484 IMG_0468 IMG_0471 IMG_0472

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?


  1. I love this post on so many levels, as a fellow museum educator and aficionado of loose parts, nature play and creative learning. I’ve always loved the term “playworker” and fervently believe we need more of them in the U.S. I’d love to know about your program. Are you doing it remotely? The smell of eucalyptus is also one of my most poignant memories of living in CA (Tilden Park, especially). Wonderful to think of coming back to your childhood terroir to play and to foster play.

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