Wes and I are playworkers on an adventure playground in Houston, Texas, where children come to play after school on three acres of muddy grassland, Monday through Thursday. We are playwork-based, so the children choose what to do, how to do it, and with whom. In the process, they build a physical and psychological space that belongs to them. Sometimes they use lumber and tools, but most often it’s with some random stick or broken piece of electronics, a couple of other kids, and their imaginations. We feel really fortunate to be a part of it.
When the stay at home order started in March, we spun our wheels trying to figure out how to provide services to children who normally come to our playground. We have 40 children, ages 5-12 who come 2-4 days a week. As the City of Houston made the difficult decision to quarantine, those children, along with everyone else, lost a lot of support systems.
We weren’t too worried about some. Their parents would figure out ways to build temporary supports. They would call grandparents on the phone for chatting, set up areas of the house where kids could make and do what they needed, go on bike rides to visit friends and talk through the fence, set up rope swings and hold wrestling sessions on the bed.
But there were others we worried about. Homes that were already in distress because of addiction, family illness, divorce, recent job loss, children and parents who live daily with the trauma of racial inequity and ableism. All of these situations would now be amplified by a pandemic and a stay at home order. Our adventure playground is also on site at a school for neurodiverse children, who make up about 65% of our attendees. And the statistics for abuse in the homes of populations with neurological differences added to the worry.
To take care of the children from our adventure playground we needed to do what we could to take care of their families. We needed to provide a service that did not take more of our parents’ scant time and energy, nor add stress to their daily lives. It needed to be something safe, where kids could connect with one another, and where they could play.
Minecraft has always been a part of our adventure playground. Children have been pretending to dig for redstone and diamonds for years. Any old window screens we bring onto the site, quickly become sifters where kids blast mud with hoses to find precious gems. I used to think it was a general interest in geology, but after they kept mentioning ‘endermen’ and zombies along with the ore, I did an Internet search and figured out it was a little less scientific, but very intricate.
A lot of what happens in person, in real time and space on our adventure playground, translates surprisingly well into the flat, blocky world of Minecraft. People who love nature can focus on the biomes, those who are drawn to engineering can make elaborate builds, people who want to bend space and time can do it, and those who want to sit and talk, or make gifts for others can.
There are limits, to be sure. There’s the whole not-actually-being-in-the-physical-presence-of-other-people thing. All of the input is coming visually and auditorily (because we accompany our Minecraft meetings with a Zoom call). Nuanced, multisensory signals are difficult, which limits what sort of play cues are sent out and which can be received. But children are really good at finding freedom within rigid settings. They play with magazines and gum, while sitting in a grocery cart waiting for their parents to pay. They pass notes between one another during instructional time at school. Even in the midst of crises like hospital stays, or sheltering from hurricanes in sports arenas, children play to process what is happening and to find peace within themselves. So they are making Minecraft work for them.
And there’s a pandemic. Play is rarely the peaceful, straightforward thing we remember as adults. On our playground, conflict is as much a part of play as laughter and squeals of delight. But when people have been quarantined for a month or two, tempers fly, and it gets harder to identify and communicate your own needs much less others.’ So there is conflict. Plenty. And it happens on a screen with parents nearby, so we don’t see the same productive conflict resolution we know and love from adventure playground.
But there is real, honest to goodness play that is “personally directed” and “intrinsically motivated,” ticking two of the components of playwork’s definition. It’s hard to say whether it’s freely chosen, when it’s the only opportunity to see peers on offer during a pandemic.
Sarah and Juan (names changed), ages 8 and 9, are in a breakout room of a Zoom call and Minecraft session, sometime in April. While the two of them play in shared schemes and often in close proximity on our physical adventure playground, their play is never quite this fluid, with so much verbal language
Sara: Hey, thanks for the kitchen thing.
Juan: Yep. This is my potion room. There. A potion brewing stand called Brewey McBrewston. Do you have a furnace?
Sara: I have a furnace
Juan: Yay! I’ll go collect some sand and remind you when I need help.
[Juan goes to another part of the game for a few seconds.]
That was easy. This is our new wooden house. How do you like it? We are about to make some improvements.
Sara: [giggles] I think we need a toilet. I need to pretend-go to the toilet.
There’s an urgency to the play, but things are also under their control:
Juan: Hey, do you want me to take you somewhere? Do you want me to take you to another world? That my brother plays in?
Sara: No, no, no.
Juan: Why not?
Sara: Because I need to do something really important today. I need to get my very own food.
There is negotiation:
Juan: How about we have more enchanted things? Do you want more enchanteds?
Sara: Yes, I want more enchanted things.
Juan: Do you have an anvil, because I literally have an anvil, so I can enchant
Sara: Can you give me an anvil?
Juan: You can borrow it, but don’t steal my stuff.
Risk and adventure:
Juan: let’s go mine the trees outside. C’mon Sara. Let’s go
I’m trying not to die out here. Ah there’s a zombie!!!!! Hey, leave my friend alone zombie. Before I get you.
Sara: I’m really scared. [She screams. Loudly.] Help me help me!
Sara’s mom in the background: Calm down sweetie.
Juan: I killed it. Aaaaaah. It’s a zombie with armor. Hurry! Come up the ladder.
Sara: I can’t. I’m dying. Can someone help me, I’m gonna hide.
Juan: Sara you are so scared! Sara is just acting a chicken!
Sara: Let’s make a secret base.
Juan: C’mon Sara. This part connects to it. C’mon Sara I know a way! Stop being scared of everything! I am never scared of everything. And I’m the bravest kid my family knows. Sara, I found another place we can build our base.
Sara: I’m scared. Let’s live in an underground base.
Children need us playworkers to provide spaces where they can be themselves, while being with one another. Minecraft wouldn’t be my first choice as a 48 year old lady who is used to running around outside helping children create a play space in three dimensions, but it’s what we can do right now and the children are as amazing as always.
Wes and I will offer a webinar about playworking in Minecraft through the newly formed Playwork Collective on Wednesday, June 17. We want to share our experiences, but also connect with other folks who are interested in online playwork, so we can learn together.
Webinar Registration: https://forms.gle/k31euoWikyYmREof9