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The Art of... Pop-Up Play 

click to enlarge Engaging with recycled materials - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Engaging with recycled materials

Shivering outside the Maple Street Recreation Center on a chilly Saturday morning, my 5-year-old son, Emmett, gazed up at me, his eyes full of doubt. He'd never experienced Pop-Up Adventure Play, so he had no idea what we were waiting for. Frankly, neither did I. But I'd seen photos of the first of three art sessions hosted by Essex Recreation and Parks, and I suspected that Emmett's doubts would soon subside.

Within minutes, Tara Gravelin — the series founder, mom of two and a former preschool teacher — guided us into the center's multipurpose room. Our eyes were immediately drawn to a tower of cardboard stacked on a boldly colored rug. Next to it was a six-foot-tall appliance box surrounded by piles of banana boxes, jumbles of wrapping-paper tubes, empty paper-towel rolls, egg crates, painter's tape and a bundle of sheer fabric. We joined Gravelin and her 3-year-old son, Levi, on the floor.

The Pop-Up Adventure Play movement, largely influenced by the field of playwork in the United Kingdom, contends that children should be allowed to tinker without adult interference, Gravelin explained: "There is an unknown to it. It's messy. Pop-up play is all about the process." With time for play dwindling in schools and society at large, Gravelin's goal is to put "beautiful, found, natural and recycled materials" in the hands of kids and see what happens.

By 9:45 a.m., other guests streamed into the room. One girl dashed straight to the big cardboard box, toppling it over with a loud thump. Several kids clambered through this new tunnel. Another child jumped up to greet her friends, shouting, "Look! I'm making a hat!" Emmett wandered past, the sheer fabric over his head like a ghost costume. Four-year-old Sawyer Josey shouted, "Blast off!" and pushed a cardboard box across the room. Meanwhile, Lilly Dolan, 7, and Nathalie Hooker, 6, friends from Essex Junction, diligently built a house. One girl suggested adding a garden, and the other excitedly began twisting colorful tape into the shape of a flower.

The play experience looked different for each child. Most of the young boys in the room engaged in gross-motor activities: tug-of-war, making cardboard vehicles and drumming on empty boxes. Lilly and Nathalie, meanwhile, quietly added swinging doors and a flag to their intricate cardboard house.

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Gravelin explained that Pop-Up Adventure Play is for everyone and can meet a range of needs. It incorporates movement, art and even science and math at times. During the January session, for example, kids engineered ramps and raced marbles, testing and revising their designs.

As the pile of cardboard dwindled and kids scattered the materials around the room, I marveled at how the once-lifeless space buzzed with creativity. Emmett whizzed by again, this time pulling Levi on some black fabric. Like a game of improv, one child started a creative thread and others followed. "Kids don't understand that they're learning," Gravelin said, smiling. "That's the fun part."

The next free Pop-Up Adventure Play session for grades Pre-K-3 will be held on Saturday, March 12, at 9:30 a.m. at the Maple Street Recreation Center in Essex. The theme is Nature's Gifts. Visit Tinkering Project VT's Facebook page for more information on the series and for news about Gravelin's next event.

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