Democracy + Habits of Playfulness

The morning after the final presidential debates, some thoughts on play and democracy from Meier et al., Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground:

“Leaving no time or space in education for children’s ‘playful’ efforts to make sense of the world risks the future not only of poetry and science but also of our political liberties. The habits of playfulness in early life are the essential foundations upon which we can build a K–12 education that would foster, nourish, and sustain the apparent ‘absurdity’ of democracy.”

Right on!

Nostalgia, both Sippy Cup- and Super-Sized

From Hurtwood, Planning for Play

At work, we have been thinking deeply about a milestone: next year, we’ll reach one hundred years of developing playful people and spaces.

Nested within those hundred years are millions of stories of people who experienced those exhibits and spaces, from the 72-year-old man who remembers a displayed object and its exact location in the museum to the woman who cut my hair yesterday and said she always heard about the “giant phone” at the museum but never visited as a kid. It takes just seconds to unpack those memories from almost any person who grew up around the museum. However, after a short while, this richness starts to feel like a bit like the last scene of Citizen Kane: a collection of crates and boxes stretching across the interior of a palatial room. The memories are rich and unique, but where do all those memories go next? How can we encapsulate the experiences of millions? Should we even try to encapsulate, or somehow let the stories tell themselves?

Much of this discussion, on the part of we as practitioners and on the part of visitors, would fall under the category of nostalgia. Nostalgia’s etymology is technically the Greek nostos— a return home– and algos, meaning pain. I prefer the definition provided by Mitzi Myers, the late UCLA children’s literature scholar (and one of my mentors), who called nostalgia “longing for the dead”– drawing connections to Nosferatu. Nostalgia as longing-for-the-lost also invites a connection to sodade, a Cape Verdean Creole word that means “longing for home” (a word that becomes, clearly, more poignant for people who long ago left the physical settings of their childhood– but don’t we all do so?). Many people, returning to all kinds of playspaces as adults, experience a kind of nostalgia-sodade: a longing for a dead place. Where is the place I remember? What happened to X and Y? The longing is as much for the space as it is for an (often invented) memory of what it was like to be a kid.

Nostalgia, left unchecked, can turn into the old things-were-so-much-better-then discussions. Colin Ward writes that “Anyone who looks at one of those pairs of photographs of Main Street, Anywhere in 1900 and Main Street, Anywhere in 1975, will feel that something has been lost.” That is certainly true in this case; just substitute “museum” for “main street.” There will always be some sense of loss. However, that’s not the whole story, and a bit more unpacking makes those obvious truths clear.

One of the main spaces that comes up in conversation with visitors is a space that, in the 1970s through the early 1990s, held office items enlarged to 2.5 times their normal size. A pencil– with actual pencil lead– dwarfed your average 4-year-old. The coffee mug resembled a Japanese style bathtub. A ruler stretched out 12 feet. Not surprisingly, the nostalgia for this exhibit is hardcore.

When I ask adults why they want to see this exhibit again, the answer is almost always the same: “It seemed so big then. I wonder if it was really as big as I remember it.”

That’s the core of this, right? We use these memories of past childhood experiences to measure what we have become. In this case, it’s literal: am I bigger than the coffee mug (and by the way, you probably are)? Could I easily pick up the giant phone now (you probably could)? What will it be like to see my own children, so small, interact with things that were once, similarly, so big to me? We measure our childhoods with different rulers: sometimes, those rulers are as tall as a port-a-potty (sorry– that’s just the most readily available comparison). Sometimes they are miniature and nestle in a tiny dollhouse. But at some point, we have to come to terms with our own tools of nostalgic measure.

We’re working on bringing some of the giant exhibit back for the centennial, but in a slightly different form. I’m excited to see how it works.

Halloween + Grown-Ups

Halloween season is one of the few times– at least, in American culture– in which grown-ups and kids play on somewhat equal terms. Commercially, costumes for adults are about as prevalent as costumes for kids; in October, it’s socially acceptable for an adult to put on a bunny costume, go to a party, and sip a gin and tonic through prosthetic rabbit teeth.

But Halloween night , especially when it falls on a weekday, belongs to the kids. Oddly, for such a kid-focused event, it’s also one of the few times neighbors open the doors of their homes to (often) strangers. Think about it: in a time of cell phones, when was the last time you opened your door and felt some uncertainty as to who was standing at your threshold? And we somehow open our doors on a night when Freddy Krueger might stand on the stoop just as easily as Sailor Moon? Really– in a risk-averse society, we still let kids do this?

I’m grateful that we do, and I’ve been thinking a bit about the role for adults in the trick-or-treating tradition. Adults, even if they’re in costume, are often a trick-or-treating child’s accessory, as necessary as a mask but not (usually) as fun. What do adults get out of Halloween, once the cuteness of their kids’ Spiderman or kangaroo costumes starts to dim? How can we involve adults more in the spirit of the experience: the playful opening of doors?

This Halloween, my neighbors and I got a little grant from the Grove Hall Trust to try out an experiment that pairs the potential playfulness of Halloween with the “open door” aspects of trick or treating. We’re proclaiming our street a “safe street” for Halloween. We’ll create a little map that indicates “open houses” that have special activities, games, candy, etc. There will be some sort of incentive for adult caregivers who walk kids door to door– perhaps a scavenger hunt with a super-fancy candy bar as a prize?

First step: I gotta put the word out on the street; gather folks; and build. Stay tuned to see what happens.

A little nonsense, now and then/ is relished by the wisest men

Willy Wonka in Smellovision was a 2008- 2009 collaboration with artist Bridget Matros. We wanted to create an outdoor movie theatre experience that was truly multi sensory and required some kind of physical participation on the part of the audience beyond seeing/feeling.

The result, a scent-enhanced screening of the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, was part performance art and part family picnic. Here are the main ingredients:

– 1 parking lot

– 8 Oompa-Loompas, our shorter-in-stature friends and dancers dressed in identical green wigs, pink face make-up, white chef’s coats, and striped stockings

– 3 electric fans

– 8 3-foot paper fans

– 3 sterno-heated bowls of cabbage and water

– 175 chocolate bars

– dryer sheets

– 8 TV dinners

– Airzookas, plastic devices that launch a burst of air about 30 feet

– 400 audience members

In planning, we focused in on the insider-outside aspects of the original Roald Dahl story. Charlie is a dreamer and an outsider. He’s a kid surrounded by lots of adults. Instead of being allowed to act like a child, he is forced to play an adult role because the majority of grown-ups around him are only capable of emotional– but not financial– support. He’s a kid suffering from standard play deprivation. Then this opportunity arrives– to acquire the golden ticket that offers entry to Willy Wonka’s factory. He, like other people around the world, becomes hopeful but grabby. Everyone is trying to acquire, acquire, acquire. It becomes obsessive, even mores after the five prize winners and their parents enter the factory and compete for the final prize.

Even though the screening took place in a parking lot with somewhat ample space, we limited the number of people allowed in within the “scent perimeter”– a roped off area in the center– to 175 people. As audience members crossed the threshold, this was the sequence of events:

1. A surprisingly tall, 6′ tall Oompa-Loompa, wearing a bright blue security shirt and sunglasses, used a long plastic wand to “de-perfume” the audience member.

2. Bridget Matros, in a character that merged Willy Wonka with a sort of circus-like ringmaster, made each audience member raise his or her hand and promise “to do as you are told.”

3. A normal, small Oompa Loompa handed each audience member a small brown paper lunch bag that read, in large letters, “Do not open this bag until you are told.”

The bags held items that the audience would use at timed intervals: chocolate to eat when the fudge river gushes onscreen, bubble gum to chew when we see Violet Beauregarde, party poppers to pull when the elevator pushes through the glass ceiling. The bags also had quotes from the 1971 film and references to their sources; many of the memorable lines in the film were taken directly from poetry, largely British and Victorian, and were not in the original Dahl book. For instance, Wonka says “Oh, you should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about,” a direct quote from Hillaire Belloc’s The Microbe.

People who did not get into the scent perimeter were sad and disappointed; they stood just outside the neon orange surveyor tape marking the perimeter, and begged to get in. There actually wasn’t much of a difference between being inside the perimeter and outside the perimeter. Everyone could see the movie and smell the scents we would waft using fans and other devices. Some people outside the perimeter even got goodie bags. The tension came from being in or out; included or excluded. And many adults, in their disappointment, began to act a bit more like children.

I won’t talk much about the secrets of the scents we actually projected during the movie. That’s part of the mystery of the show, and should we ever do it again, I would want you to be surprised. Because beyond the insider-outsider perspective, that’s the core of the show: the wonder of what-if, what-now, and what-can-happen. In the end,  HOW we push scent into the space doesn’t matter as much as the fact that four hundred people are gathered, under the stars in a lot usually reserved for cars, and breathing in deeply to pull a lone scent of ginger ale into their nostrils.

These Play Associations

Tino Seghal’s These associations, in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Gallery, took me by surprise, which is exactly how I recommend that anyone should experience it. If you have an inkling that you will see it in London before it ends October 28, stop reading this now.

No travel plans? Then read on.

These associations, viewed from above, is a shifting landscape of human bodies:

On the neutral backdrop of the Turbine’s concrete floor, approximately 35 people run in tight circles, playing tag. Most people appeared to be in their early 20s, with the exception of one brunette man in a maroon sweater vest who I imagined to be in his 40s or 50s. My first assumption, perhaps a telling one, was that this was a college course, that the majority of the people were students, and that the man in the vest was their professor. I  stopped and watched.

I had no preconceived notions of what the Tate typically shows in the Turbine Gallery. Creatively curated spaces like the Tate’s Turbine Gallery or MASS MoCA’s football field-sized installation area allow me to imagine what it would be like to go to a museum– any museum– for the first time; to feel the surprise and uncertainty I might feel if I had no sense of an art museum as a place in which framed artwork hangs on white walls. I don’t remember the first time I went to a museum as a child, but I imagine it might have felt a bit like this.

I left the mezzanine viewing area and walked down the stairs to the main floor of the gallery, still not knowing that the game of tag was a different type of game. I leaned against a shiny black steel support girder. Two small, blonde girls, perhaps six and eight, watched the game of tag nearby. The woman with them encouraged them to go play the game, almost pushing them gently by the shoulders. The girls looked at the game, and then looked at their feet. They each nervously twisted their toes into the concrete floor. And then each hid in the space provided between the sides of steel girders identical to the one where I leaned.

They may have been feeling what I at that moment felt: a transition from curiosity to a sense of exclusion. This was clearly more than a pick-up game in a gallery. There was a culture to it that was not immediately accessible to the average bystander (or by-leaner, in my case, and by-hider, in theirs). At that moment of felt exclusion, whatever was happening in that space went from private game to performance, almost as a form of emotional defense. I would not feel excluded from a painting, so why should I feel excluded by a performance?

I’m not sure if the woman who pushed the girls to play was aware of this being a performance. I also found it interesting that she nudged the children with her to join a game with all adult players, rather than joining the game herself. The girls clearly knew, from the basic indicators of the age and behavior of the players, that this was not a game for them. What was the woman seeing? Did she see the game as playful, and therefore appropriate for children? Why didn’t she join in herself?

As I watched, a man approached me. “I’d like to tell you about my best mate Pete,” initiated a story of how his friend bought him surprise tickets to see a Jay-Z concert: a short story about a nice thing someone did for another person. I asked if I could play the game, all the while acknowledging that the first rule of Fight Club is to not talk about Fight Club. Did asking this man– who had just shared a sweet personal story– about the game diminish the game? He seemed a bit uncomfortable, but, when pushed a bit, said that they were all trained volunteers. As I and the little girls had guessed, we random bystanders could not “join” the game. However, though we were an essential part of the performance as consumers of stories and watchers, we could truly only observe, and not play ourselves.

I don’t know whether play– on the part of the viewer or the part of the performer– was central to Tino Seghal’s intentions in creating a performance for deployment in a museum gallery. I imagine that it was. Either way, the experience was transcendent, for certain, in the way play can often be and feel.

As the group of performers sat down on the concrete floor and began singing, slowly “E…. lec… tri… ci… ty,” what felt like a game one moment transitioned into something sublime. When the overhead lights dramatically went out at the clipped, tail end of that word, I was left in darkness in a turbine room with only the sound of a reverberating syllable sung by strangers. When the lights flickered back on, I moved on through the museum, subtly changed.


I traveled to Norway this month for a vacation with my good friends Emily and Joel. Emily and I have been playmates for years, united by our mutual Scandinavian ancestry and zeal for playing with our food (Emily records her experimentation here at Five and Spice).

I knew, from once living in the city of Lund in southern Sweden for half a year, that Scandinavian countries take play very seriously. What I wasn’t completely prepared for was the ubiquity of playgrounds that were truly innovative. In every city we visited, a playground seemed to push the limits of what we expect children to be able to do.

Geopark, in Stavanger, was the high point of this experimentation with limits. Staged just outside the Oil Museum, the playground uses leftover stuff from the oil industry to create a fantastic landscape for play. Big, buoyant, orange balls that once buffeted docks become the most amazing “bounce field” I’ve ever seen. Steel construction elements that look like giant bedpans form places to jump and climb. On a rainy afternoon like the one on which I visited, the playground feels one part apocalyptic, Mad Max, graffiti-covered landscape and one part Disney acid dream: a potent combination.

Paige Johnson of the Playscapes blog does a nice write-up of the thoughtful, very user-focused design process taken on by Helen and Hard  behind the project here.

During my visit, an eight-year-old in a white karate uniform with a white belt played among the pipes. He was a classic avenger in the sand. I wondered what he was thinking about as he hid and emerged, emerged and hid.

Cryptozoology 101

The Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute (GBBRI) lies between a gas station and a laundromat in Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston. Since 1963, GBBRI has convened researchers focused on cryptozoology, or the study of “hidden” animals. GBBRI became a hotbed of activity in the 1970s following the emergence of the now-iconic Patterson-Gilmin Super 8 film, which depicted an adult male bigfoot moving across a meadow. Loss of funding in the mid-1980s led to a near-disappearance of the institute; in 2009, I joined a star team of researchers to bring this research center back from extinction.

If it was difficult for you to tell fact from fiction in the paragraph above, then you have an inkling of what it is like to visit GBBRI.

The GBBRI and associated retail store is, in fact, an elaborate front for 826 Boston, the innovative writing lab that offers free or low-cost creative writing experiences to kids ages 6 – 18. When you walk into GBBRI, you might hear a low din of children’s voices. Look a little harder, perhaps past the Bernard Heuvelmans Communication Center/secret door, and you will find at least a dozen kids and volunteer mentors, doing homework, writing manifestos, singing newly minted rap songs, and more.

826 Boston is one of a national network of 826 workshops, started by Nínive Calegari and Dave Eggers in 2002; the first workshop was at 826 Valencia St, hence the 826 name, and San Francisco zoning laws required a retail operation at address. Thus, the pirate supply store was born. Each subsequent 826 workshop has been anchored by a similarly creative retail store, offering both a revenue stream and inspiration space for young writers and the adult volunteers who make the place work.

I did, in fact more than fiction, work with a star team on the project to develop the storefront for the newly initiated 826 Boston workshop. Under the leadership of  826 Boston Executive Director Daniel Johnson, I acted as exhibit developer in very close collaboration with graphic designer Amanda McCorkle, writers Max Greenberg and Peter Sherer, researcher and expert circus gaff maker Dave Bickham, mad scientist Brad Simpson, the brilliant scatologist Ali Reid and many other volunteers to create a space that would pair serious retail objectives with a need for a playful laboratory for young writers and scientists. We wanted to emphasize that much of science– of experimentation and discovery– has its roots in play and inquiry. What better way to get kids asking good questions than to create a space about cryptids, creatures that may or may not exist?

To emphasize our creative mythology about the roots of GBBRI as a struggling research center and create a stage for play and inquiry, we set a few rules.

1. SOCIETY FOR CREATIVE ANACHRONISM: First, nothing in the shop could have been invented after 1978. After all, we had just rescued all this equipment from a basement in Cambridge, where it went after GBBRI’s physical lab shut down in the mid-1980s. Mimeograph machines, slide projectors, tape recorders, Super 8 cameras, light boxes, scavenged binoculars: this is what constitutes high-tech at GBBRI. The nostalgia factor grooms adults into thinking about stuff they saw/used/recognized when they were younger, and subconsciously brings them back to a time when they were about the size of the kids behind that hidden sliding door.

2. QUESTIONS COUNT: We set up a number of subtle interactives that would allow kids the opportunity to question and grown-ups the opportunity to be playful. An owl pellet– purchased from a science supply store– became a “yeti hairball.” The first question kids ask is “Is that real?”; to which, the “researchers” in the space always respond, “Well, what can you notice about it?” To allow grown-ups to walk the fine line between absurdity and teachable moments, we had to create objects that flipped power dynamics. Sometimes, an adult in the space will know about as much about whether an object is “real” (or, rather, really what it says it is) as the kids do. That allows for a creative moment in which a kid can tell a story about some crazy hybrid animal it once saw in Franklin Park, and the adult is primed to follow that story wherever it goes: and vice versa.

3. SECRET, SECRET: Adults might walk into this space once or twice to check out the wares (yeti hairballs, for instance, are for sale and all proceeds go to the writing workshop), but kids were going to be in the space day after day. We needed to embed some surprises and rewards to keep the store fresh. For example, playing off the idea that kids think their teachers sleep at the classroom and have no life outside school grounds, we created a suspended bunk bed above our back storage closet, complete with a pillow, foam mattress and a sleeping bag. Researchers shift the covers around a bit every day or so, and switch up the book that is propped by the bed. Elsewhere, we transformed a big art transport crate into the “Pre-Expedition Literacy  and Research Pod” by upholstering the interior in tan nagahyde (in keeping with our 1970s aesthetic), installing small reading lights, and hinging the door. Kids who finish their homework early get to tuck into the crate and read, hidden in plain sight. Most people walking through the big wooden box have little idea that there’s often a kid reading away inside.

Overall, it takes a committed team of crazy makers to make something this dynamic and keyed into the stuff kids think and dream about. For more information about 826 Boston, go here:

For information on 826 National and a look at the creative products sold at 826 stores nationwide, visit here.

D & D, Island Style

I never played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid. However, when I learned later about the Dungeon Master’s role in setting up D & D play, I saw a fuzzy reflection of my role as co-curator of the Bumpkin Island Art Encampment.

Ultimately, the Bumpkin project is about conflict and play. There is constant tension that strings itself through the weekend; tension to produce, tension to create work that does not harm the island environment, tension between curator and artist, artist and place.

It is at these moments of conflict that I feel like I’m seeing the heart of the project, the part that rarely gets much play: that Bumpkin is about the issues surrounding the claiming of space and about repetitive human drama. In 2007, we chose the Homestead Act as an organizing metaphor because of the policy’s damage and progress. On one hand, it offered many marginalized people– women, people of color, the poor– an unprecedented opportunity to claim, work and improve their own land. On the other hand, Manifest Destiny, as we all know, was no picnic– people were displaced, ecologies forever altered. And you can’t deny that tension.

In the form of Bumpkin, the government (the National Park Service and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation) again offers an often marginalized group– artists– the opportunity to claim land. Yet Bumpkin is no blank slate, in any way. In addition to the island’s long history of people displacing/displaced people, there are people already “living” there, from campers to boaters to volunteers like Friends of the Boston Harbor volunteers. Artists often enter the island thinking only about claiming land, and sometimes neglect to work with the people and ecologies already there.

If you’re pretentious, the island’s human ecology  will throw that pretension into stark relief. It’s this overall interplay that keeps me interested in a project that, frankly, does not always produce the most fully formed, captivating visual art (it’s hard to expect too much from artists who have only five days to make; it’s the process that counts). What is interesting is that this very basic human story of negotiating space and resources continues to play itself out in the microcosm of the Encampment year after year, all on an island with a very clear, 400-year recorded history of displacement (all the way down to the island’s formation out of rock transformed by glacial movement).

And, all the while, I continue to play the character/part of the “curator,” already a well-discussed, debunked, decried term. I approach the word in the sense of its etymology– that it comes from the Latin cura, to care. I take care of the storyline, who the actors are, what they eat, when they drink coffee. Talking about the project as a “human experiment” sounds patronizing and overstates my role. I also don’t talk about the Dungeon Master aspects of this because I don’t want to upset the delicate balance of the project. To reveal that the Encampment, to me, is a play– from the opening curtain of getting on the boat to the moment you step back onto the Boston or Hingham dock– would be like screaming that the Emperor has no clothes. I’m afraid that that type of denoument would keep visitors (and the artists) from having the truly earnest, sometimes life-changing experiences that can occur while on the island searching for “art” and negotiating their own preferences and boundaries.

At the same time, I wonder what would happen if I lifted the curtain and explained that this is all very simple and that the visitors are as much players in this process in the art– would that break the magic that allows these adults to play? Would visitors and artists just add another layer of irony to the project– “Oh, you mean like LARP-ing [live action role playing]?” Many LARPers are actually more self-aware and able to separate fantasy from reality–  much more so, frankly, than the Encampment LARPers and our often self-aggrandizing notions of ourselves as artists or art consumers. But when done well, Bumpkin, and LARPing, can be very earnest. That’s why I love it; at the core, it is about 20 to 30 strangers coming together on an island to play with possibilities, try on new roles, get down and dirty.