Almost anything goes in the Anarchy Zone.
At the unique new adventure playground, which researchers in Cornell’s Department of Human Development helped fund this summer, children can dig in the dirt, roll around in the mud and, if they so desire, spray themselves in the face with a garden hose.
The playground, called the Anarchy Zone, is a place where children “are supposed to have total freedom to play,” said Prof. Elizabeth Stilwell, human development. The ‘Anarchy Zone’ was created during Summer 2012.
The project started as a collaboration between the Ithaca Children’s Garden and Rusty Keeler, a local “playscape” designer who seeks to connect children to nature in a “less scripted environment,” Stilwell said. Keeler creates “extraordinary places for young children to discover themselves and the world around them,” according to his website.
An adventure playground is an outdoor space with random “loose parts,” said Alexandra Côté ’13, one of the Anarchy Zone “playworkers” — volunteers who supervise the children who play there.
These loose parts can be bales of hay, shovels, rope, dirt and any number of other objects, according to Côté.
“It’s a space designed to let children have complete free play experience, which they don’t get in a lot of areas of their everyday lives. It’s mostly natural and recycled material [and] there’s no fixed structure,” she said.
This notion of a “free play” zone originated in Europe, according to Côté. She said that after the bombings in World War II, children used the destroyed sites as play areas.
These less conventional play areas, including Ithaca’s new Anarchy Zone, provide a different experience for children than “fixed playgrounds, “ according to Stilwell.
“[The fixed playground] is a novelty at first, but it’s very clear about what the expectation is. It is a climbing structure. Loose parts give more of an invitation to be creative and problem solve,” Stilwell said.
This type of play gives children an opportunity to “grow cognitively, socially and emotionally. Kids today are over-scheduled, over-supervised and inside a lot,” she said.
The Anarchy Zone’s less restrictive environment also allows children to learn on their own without too much assistance from adults, Côté added.
“We try to let kids make their own mistakes. So, through that, they begin to develop resistance and resilience and creativity. Instead of waiting for an adult to fix it, they figure it out,” she said.
The Anarchy Zone is not completely without adult supervision, however.
“I am there during open hours,” Côté said. “I open the shed and bring out ropes and shovels that can’t be out when adults aren’t around. I help communicate to parents about what we’re trying to do, because it’s very different … If they have an idea or a plan I back them up.”
Playworkers at the Anarchy Zone also encourage constructive, task-oriented play without imposing restrictive rules, Stilwell said.
“When [children’s] ideas are well supported, their purpose is usually about being creative and doing something purposeful and useful and meaningful. Fewer rules means very little dissention,” she said.