By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum
The new climbing sculpture in Providence Children’s Museum’s garden is mesmerizing, the way a stream or a campfire is. Children swarm up 18 feet to the top of The Climber and back down again, like water spreading in all directions.Â They climb past and around and over each other, point out ways to get up or down, boost each other up to the next platform, call out “Coming through!”Â It’s fascinating to watch because of the continuous flowing motion; The Climber designer Tom Luckey has described his creations as kinetic sculptures with kids providing the movement. So I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks observing kids on The Climber and have noticed how much it speaks to the nature of children’s self-directed play.
We intended that The Climber would be both challenging and safe. We wanted it to be artful and unique — a site-specific sculpture, not just a piece of playground equipment. And, of course, it needed to be fun and enticing. It is all of these things. but in a way that we didn’t fully anticipate, The Climber is really kid space. Grown-ups watch from below but they don’t climb very often. And because the grown-ups are pretty much out of sight, kids tend to think we’re out of earshot too. So they play in that way kids play when no one is looking — intensely. They claim platforms as their own (“This is my island!”) and defend them from all encroachers. They challenge each other to races up and down. They play a kind of hide-and-seek/tag, crouching out of sight and jumping up suddenly when another kid lands on the platform just above. Pretend play abounds; I overhear snatches of dialogue in robot-type voices and mighty roars and high-pitched squeals.
The Climber looks a bit risky, especially to adults, but it’s not — the platforms are surrounded by cabling so kids can’t fall off. When families encounter it for the first time, some parents’ eyes widen with apprehension as they spy the jaunty tilt of The Climber’s central pole and its whimsical party-hat roof. Kids’ eyes widen too, with that mixture of glee and fear that makes risk-taking thrilling. Can I get to the top? And if I do, will I be able to get down? What if I get stuck? What if I fall?
I love that kids feel they’re taking a risk. They have such a sense of competence when they accomplish something they weren’t sure they could do: “Dad!Â Look!Â I’m at the top!” It is a tricky climb — you have to squiggle through some tight places and hoist yourself up to get from one platform to the next. Kids help each other, recommending “the easy way” or the “fast way.” Little ones sometimes become baffled as to how to get down. The older ones come to their rescue, gently coaching and leading them through the maze. I’m reminded how normal it was years ago (when the grown-ups were seldom part of our play) for children to assess risk, for big kids to watch out for younger ones, for kids to set challenges for themselves.
That’s what is so interesting — and satisfying — to me. This brand new, absolutely unique play structure is engendering old-fashioned, kid-directed play. And the kids are so good at it!
Providence Children’s Museum has plenty of other opportunities for active summer fun — inside and out! Get out in the garden to create from natural materials, blow enormous bubbles, and meet live animals — drop in for different activities exploring the wonder of nature, art, and science each week. Also climb aboard a fire truck, a police cruiser, and other exciting vehicles during Wheels at Work on Wednesday mornings. Check the Museum’s calendar for details.