If you spend any amount of time with groups of children, it’s easy to start creating labels for the stereotypes you might encounter - the children often know these labels too! There’s the cool guy, maybe a class clown, we’ve all met a chatterbox, the star athlete and the popularly depicted quiet kid or wallflower. *
This story isn’t about any of those, it’s about a new subcategory which seems to be more prevalent now… I call them, “The Worrier”.
Over the last few months, I have had the privilege to support local primary school students with the design, build and maintenance their very own adventure playground. The group of students at the school who lead the process were aged between 5 and 11 years old. The early sessions spent at the school were primarily indoors as we talked about the name, features and mapping everything out.
This is when I first began to spot signs of The Worrier.
As we asked the children whether they would like to be indoors or outdoors, The Worrier would choose indoors. “There’s snakes and strangers out there!”, they would say.
We asked the children what they would like to see in the adventure playground, and the group replied with all kinds of fantastic ideas: tyre swings! Zipline! Slides! A café! Rock climbing wall! Water pump! Then a lone voice would pipe up… “That sounds pretty dangerous to me, someone could get hurt.”
As it goes in any society, it takes all types, and throughout the process the voice of each child was valued and respected. As adults, we usually learn that one quiet voice might represent the silence of others who aren’t ready to share their thoughts. When I heard this voice pipe up, I would feel a small shadow of doubt and disappointment. As I wondered what this child might get out of Joomunjie Land, if anything at all.
Soon we would move our sessions from the classroom to outside as we got better ideas for how to incorporate the already existing elements of the land where the adventure playground would be.
The group had been divided and the students outside were meeting weekly to take part in Maintenance Activities. This group was responsible for clearing weeds, conducting safety sweeps and building playful structures.
In our second session outside I heard a call for help, “Miss, Miss! Taylor* has been hurt!”. My heart sank further as I heard The Worrier is the child who needed help. They tell me how there was a rolling tyre which collided with them, causing Taylor to fall and hit their shoulder on the ground. I quickly check for injuries and take them to the office for a cold pack and some rest.
Taylor didn’t come back that day, but instead returned to class.
The next week, we are back outside and working together on a giant tyre pyramid. I watch as the children try to assemble a structure before they realised a more coordinated effort was required and trying again. Behind me there was a shrill scream and loud sobbing. I turned quickly and discovered children picking up toads from inside the tyres. Taylor is frozen in fear as they watch on, tears making rivulets on their face. We talked together for a while about toads and their poison, how it could be harmful and why, and how we might feel safe around them. Taylor finds a place to hide when toads appear throughout the rest of this session.
Working with children, we learn that not all children seek adventure, and some prefer structure, order and no surprises. There is nothing wrong with this at all, as these children are brilliant and often skillfully organised, diligent, and thoughtful – a necessary counterpart to their friends who dive into experiences headfirst!
But I was unsure if we would continue to see Taylor in the new adventure playground, as it didn’t seem to meet their needs. This work was and always will be completely voluntary for the children, they had total power over their involvement.
The next few weeks passed quickly, and the children rapidly created an amazing gift for the school and local community. A day before the public opening for this space, all students from the school are invited to join a play session and test run of the adventure playground.
About an hour in… I’m consoling Taylor who has collided with another student. Their face is reddening as they recount the story of a ball meeting their cheek and forehead. We walk to the office together for another cold pack and some attentive care from the school staff.
As I walked away from the office, I sighed and thought about one of our earlier indoor planning sessions, when a smiling Taylor told us, “Playing is good for social development... and bugs are cool.”
It is the grand launch of the adventure playground.
Children and adults alike are excited, and the air is filled with contagious, electric energy as the school principal ceremoniously removes the “Out of Bounds” sign from their new space. Adults watch on as students announce the space to be officially open and children who have come from far and wide, stream in to play, play, play!
As an adult and Playworker in this space, my main job is to observe the children at play. I exist in this space to ensure that play can continue and how I do that varies, it might be providing tools, stealthily stablising a new structure or encouraging children to think about how they might try something a little differently.
The space is incredible, and I am beaming with pride as all the students and other children get a chance to play in their new community backyard.
A child runs by with their friends, I can see they’re in everyday clothes and not a uniform – a child who has come to the school because they wanted to play in this new space. “Hey Miss!”, the child says, and I recognise Taylor as they run by me, a couple friends in tow. I beam and wave enthusiastically, watching them play for a little while before moving on.
Children might not always be able to tell us exactly what they want, or explain how they are feeling… but watching Taylor return to Joomunjie land again and again and again, after their fall, after the toads, after getting hurt colliding with their friend and a ball… I walk away knowing there was a warrior within Taylor and have no doubt that I will see them in this space again as they test, grow and play!
*Please note that I would like to clearly state that I do not firmly categorise any child with these labels. They are simply references to popular stereotypes or categories based on observations. Claiming any child fits one of these categories would be extremely reductive. The purpose of using these categories is simply to give quick context to a short story.
*Names have been changed.