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Marcus Veerman is making play
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Marcus Veerman is making play
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Marcus Veerman is making play
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Conversations
15 November 2019

Marcus Veerman is making play

Interview by Daniel Teitelbaum
Supplied by Marcus

Marcus Veerman is a hands-on inventor. He’s also a passionate educator and a playground builder. He stumbled into building playgrounds while traveling South East Asia, doing not a great deal, and now, over 10 years later, has provided 1 million plus children with a safe place to play. A playground isn’t just a patch of grass with a slide and some monkey bars. A playground is one of the only spaces in a community that is created just for children. In the developing world, in many communities, no such space exists. Children play in interstitial spaces – the in between places like the side of the road or the edge of a rubbish tip.

Marcus believes that a stimulating space to play is a fundamental element to a good education. Longitudinal studies from around the world agree with him, or rather, he agrees with them, doesn’t matter – providing time and space for children to play freely is about the most important thing a parent, school or community can do for its kids. That’s why Marcus and his team at Playground Ideas provide open source guidebooks, resources and support to local playground builders around the world. The Global Play Alliance is a network of community groups, NGOs and other organisations dedicated to providing safe and stimulating playgrounds to the next generation.

Marcus isn’t done. His latest invention is Nüdel Kart; a loose-parts play wagon that offers students a million different ways to play, together or alone, and it’s self-directed and incredibly stimulating. As he says, and I agree, school is a trap that does a disservice to about two thirds of students. Education is in trouble but Marcus is trying to make sure we harness the most powerful learning tool we have, play.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

DANIEL – About 10 years ago you found yourself building playgrounds in South East Asia. How did that happen?

MARCUS – In 2007 I was given an Australian Volunteers International position to work in Thailand. I was doing a bunch of weird stuff. I made solar hot water heaters out of agricultural pipe and plastic rubbish bins, then I installed some in the homes in the local villages. We were in the mountains and it got quite cold in the winter. We were kind of in the middle of nowhere in a rural center.

We’d been there for a few months and the organisation my wife, Willow, worked for said, “We run these children’s programs, could you help us build a playground?” I was open to saying yes to anything. We built this really cool dodecahedron, two-storey cubby house with local thatch. I became friends with the local welder’s shop. I just was doing it for fun, there was no foresight. Then there was this lovely local school principal that I had met. She was coming into town to do some shopping and drove past the playground we were building. She saw what we were doing and asked if I could help build one at her school.

She invited me to come see their playground, so I went, and it was the worst playground I’ve ever seen. One of the pieces was a 44-gallon drum with the ends taken off. It still had the ladder on one side, and it used to have a slide coming off the other side, and it just had these two rusty pegs coming out where the slide had been. In the rainy season it used to fill up and then it totally rusted out. The kids would go up the ladder and crawl over this rusty jagged metal and then jump out the other side over these sharp metal pegs, like a tetanus nightmare.

So, we started to build a new playground there.

The community were fantastic. Local builders basically built the whole thing with machetes, hammers and nails.It’s still one of the best projects in terms of community involvement I think I've ever done.

I come from a country that has playgrounds everywhere. We take those for granted. There were no playgrounds here. Through some friends I’d made, I got a whole bunch of NGOs together and we made a list of all 75 schools in the region we were going to target. We’d created criteria; they had to have more than 100 kids, and a principal that wasn’t corrupt, that was doing the right thing by the kids.

For the next two years we built a new, custom playground, every two weeks.

We had this leapfrog system; we’d be three quarters of the way through one playground, then a couple of us would go to the next playground to do the community consultation, on, say… the Wednesday of the second week. Then you’d finish the first playground and have the opening ceremony on the Thursday, Friday and then on the weekend you’d do the next design. Then on the Monday you’d start shopping.

Wow. How did that lead you to getting started back in Australia? 

I got home and thought, “What if we took everything we learned and fully documented it?

We could build playgrounds, but I wouldn’t have to travel anywhere.” I couldn’t see a way that we could make playground budgets work for these grassroots communities if I had to fly. This was about 10 years ago, so the Open Source movement was massive. There was this big concept that people could put stuff out there and a community would pick it up and run with it. So, we did.

In 2010, every Saturday, I invited landscape architects over, working with the Australian Institute for Landscape Architects and Co-Design, and a bunch of other organisations. I put the word out to all these amazing designers, and in return for making them a really amazing lunch, I’d give them the photos of all the different things we built, and they would create these IKEA based, step-by-step plans. Other volunteers were working on The Five Step manual or The Safety Manual. the idea was to create, essentially, a place where we had all these elements for others to use.

We've now impacted over a million children through those online projects.

A million children, you could say that a million children have a place to play without extreme risk of tetanus. How do you describe the impact you’re having?

A million kids have access to a stimulating play space based on the resources that we’ve offered that community.

At a bare minimum, what they get is a place that says, “play is important.”

It’s hard for people in places like Australia to understand, we take it for granted. It’s putting a circle around that place and saying this is not for doing academic learning, this is not for farming, this is not for a market or a bus stop. This is not an empty site. This is for you, and you can play here.

For a lot of children, that is the only place in their entire existence that is for them. In many developing countries, there is literally no space for children. Children play in the gaps and often in quite dangerous places; empty sites full of broken bottles and rubble, in the dark back corners of markets and things.

I’m not some paranoid person who thinks that children need to be constantly tucked away, but for these kids, as a starter, having a space that says, “you’re actually a part of this community and we’ve allocated space for you”, is essential.

What makes a good playground?

Playgrounds shouldn’t follow the “amusement park ride” kind of structure. Not just swing, slides, seesaw. What holds a child’s attention is imagination, creativity and the social aspect of play. Our playgrounds have shifted much more to putting something like a stage and amphitheater in, even if it’s tiny. Or a puppet theater.

One thing that we often do for, say children in a refugee or hospital context, is put in something like a mini-hospital.

Because one of the things that kids do really well in play is process the trauma and daily stress that they're going through, they do that through play.

Giving them a place to nut that stuff out with their friends is important.

And takes care of itself if the space, time and permission to play is given. 

We’re naturally driven to find answers to things. Play tends to reflect that question asking.

Play develops a whole bunch of skills like resilience and courage, persistence, social skills, creativity and especially, self-regulation. Teachers can't teach self-regulation. You are actually disabling self-regulation in trying to teach it.

There’s this paradox about it, right.

When we talk about play based learning, it’s problematic in the context of a classroom. It’s not problematic in a playground because the definition of play is that it is self-directed and freely chosen. The power of not having an end goal means that all of a sudden, the whole focus is on the process and it’s in that process that we learn particularly important things, things linked to success like self-regulation, social skills persistence, grit. If no one’s driving you, and there is no end goal, the only person responsible for the outcome is you.

How do you change the classroom?

Children are not learning the things that they need to learn to thrive in the 21st century.

We are still stuck in this 19th/20thCentury education model which is hard to break out of. I think there is a massive discrepancy between what children focus on in their childhood and what they need to focus on, what real life will force them to focus their time on. I’m not talking about the basics: maths, science, history etc. They are important but we focus far too much time on those things and far too early, before we look at things like executive function, socialisation, problem solving, self-motivation, self-regulation, fundamental principles that children need to learn. We live in the world of the professional who is meant to be a self-motivated, self-directed, critical thinking, creative problem solver. I don’t think we are encouraging that in children.

We need to give them spaces where they can explore their own gifts and talents at their own pace.

If you put my son in the bush, give him a snack and point him in the direction he should walk, he would have no problem being comfortable in that environment, happy to be there navigating his way through. If you put him in a classroom and his effort and behaviour drops to zero in about five minutes.

And we’ve known this for probably 100 years, and yet we still measure children’s effort and behaviour in a classroom environment.

It sets children up for failure.

It’s a set up!

Daniel Teitelbaum

Daniel Teitelbaum is a faculty member in The School of Life, as well as a performer, radio broadcaster, teacher and facilitator. Daniel specialises in creating playful, memorable and meaningful experiences for people. Daniel has been a strategy consultant working with social enterprise, the Head of Content at The School of Life Australia and an associate teacher of design at Monash University. With a background in philosophy, law and theatre studies, in recent years Daniel has focused on play-based professional development for companies, NFPs and local governments – using games, toys and theatre to help others develop important skills and ways of working. Visit playfulthinking.com.au to get in touch.

Supplied by Marcus

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