Dismantling A Play Space: Having The Feels


I’m generally not a sentimental or emotional kinda guy, but this afternoon I came down with a case of The Feels.

For nearly 25 years, the yard on the south side of my home was a children’s play space. First for my children, then for the kids in our family child care program, then for my granddaughter and grandson. Last fall, the grand kids and their parents moved out of our house and into their own–4.5 hours away.

Last November, before the snow started to fly, I looked at the mess and decided it could wait until spring. Today, I decided I needed to clean up all the bits and pieces that supported play for so many children over so many years. It was more emotionally challenging than I had expected:

  • There was a bit of melancholy. Something not uncommon during times of transition.
  • There was joy. Mostly at remembrances of the hours and hours of self-led play that children had enjoyed in the space.
  • There was anger. How dare my wonderful daughter and her amazing husband take off with my grandbabies to live in their own home chart their own course in life?
  • There was more joy. My wonderful daughter and her amazing husband were able to buy a house in a nice community where they will chart their own course in life.
  • There was sadness. It may be a long time before the lilac bushes hear the daily yells and giggles and happy conversation of play.
  • There was more joy. I can now trim the grass without first picking up 3,798 loose parts.
  • There was love. I can’t recall a single moment I spent in that corner of the yard while kids played that did not bring me happiness. I’m sure there were such moments, but those things tend to fade away.

You get the picture–my head felt like an emotional yo-yo.

A few things will go to the trash, some have been saved for visits from the grand kids, the rest will be donated to the program my granddaughter attends in her new community. I think I’ll turn the old metal Tonka dump trucks into planters.

Along with all the emotions came some observations:

  • In all those years of adventurous play with pointy sticks, heavy bricks and rocks, long hunks of plastic pipe, long ropes, bugs, fallen apples, and all the rest I can’t recall a single injury more serious than a scrapped knee. It seems kids are generally injury adverse and when they push their limits they tend not to push too far.
  • The more I learned to fade into the background the richer the play became. I learned to be attentive and available instead of intrusive and overbearing.
  • The most popular ‘toys’ were always loose parts. Aside from a few trucks and dolls, all the toys were just random bits of stuff that allowed kids to further their play.
  • Play is in the child, not the toy. Their play grows from their knowledge of the world, their interests, and their curiosity. The toys are just props to further the play narratives they’ve created.
  • Play spaces don’t have to be beautiful or expensive or Pinterest perfect. Because there were always kids playing, I sometimes let the yard get a bit wilder then I would have preferred. They seemed to love the space more when it was a bit wild. Maybe adult aesthetics shouldn’t have as much influence on children’s play spaces as they do.
  • What really matters is relationships. My case of The Feels was not about removing a bunch of bits and pieces from my yard. It was a stroll down Memory Lane. A look back on lots of relationships with lots of little humans. Remembering how Jack would climb to the top of the apple tree in his flip flops. How Annie and I would lay in the cool grass and watch the birds flit from branch to branch in the huge honey locust tree. How kids dug a 5 foot deep hole that measured 10 feet across one summer. How my kids would chase fire flies on summer nights.

I’m unsure how to wrap this up, so how about this: I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has had The Feels at transition times like this. Raising your own children and working with the children of others is an emotionally intense experience, so it’s only natural. I used to fight these feelings, now I embrace them.

I’d love to hear your stories and observations in the comments below.

Update (05.17.2018):

Granddaughter Rowan helped drop off a truck full of loose parts at Butterfly Hill Nature Preschool when we went to visit for her 6th birthday. Here’s a couple shots of a couple of the items hard at play. I miss our play space, but am happy to see the odds and ends sparking play.


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Jeff Johnson is an early learning trainer, podcaster, and author and the founder of Explorations Early Learning and Playvolution HQ.


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