Pop Up Park Buffalo: Changing the Idea of Play

image: Pop Up Park Buffalo

Changing the Idea of Play Through Personal Empowerment that is Fun & Risky

Pop Up Park Buffalo is a grassroots organization committed to providing community-based “free-play” opportunities for kids in Buffalo and Western New York. In recent decades, opportunities for free-play have been greatly reduced due to parental fears, overscheduling of children, and a general feeling that children should not be on their own. Yet, evidence suggests that free-play is the very best life-lesson tool, and is vital to the growth and development of children into healthy and productive adults.

Being a teacher, an environmental activist, landscape architects, and a planner, we, as founders of Pop Up Buffalo, were specifically interested in creating an experience that fostered the next generation of inventors, philosophers, and designers. As parents, we were also interested in the personal empowerment of risky play and how we could create a free-play experience that parents and communities could be equally empowered in providing. In 2012, we came together to “change the state of play for just one day” and after a very successful event our concept of “Community Based Free-Play” was created. Our one-day experiment was so successful we were urged to continue, and in 2013 we went on to host five more Pop Up Park events in Buffalo and by 2015 we were under the umbrella of The Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo & WNY, Inc., a non-profit incubator organization.

image: Pop Up Park Buffalo

Today our temporary pop-up events allow us an opportunity to reach a wide audience and to have a bigger impact by enhancing community involvement and participation. By bringing this event to a different neighborhood each time, we’re able to build a wider and more diverse audience than if we had one single location. We like to say we are “quietly building an army to support play.” Perhaps the most unique aspect of our style of community-based free-play is how we have embraced risk as an imperative part of the play experience. Our day-long events bring together real tools—hammers, drills, and saws with a variety of scrap materials—and the commitment of volunteers to support each child as they create whatever inspires them. The children develop their own ideas, with no prescribed project for the day or any templates to follow. The experience is completely child driven. We purposefully bring a wide range of scrap materials, knowing that inspiration is more likely to come in the randomness rather than the ordinary.

image: Pop Up Park Buffalo

Additionally, our events last most of the day, encouraging kids to take time to really explore, think, try, and retry. All too often we are rushed through tasks, through lessons, with little time to really take things in. Pop Up Park Buffalo creates an environment where failure is considered a success and where scooters, cars, houses, towers, mazes, obstacle courses, and “thing-a-ma-bobs” are created because kids were given the opportunity and the time to use their hands and imaginations to work collaboratively and to step into responsibility like they never have before. The parks “pop up” and are not permanent, so we encourage kids to take home their creations before we clean the site and remove all the materials we brought with us, as we are committed to leaving the neighborhood or park cleaner than when we arrived.

Successful events take strong commitment and sponsorship funds, but true success is achieved when we consistently hear kids saying, “I’m a little scared, but I think I can do it” at the beginning of the day and “what should I build next?” by the end.

Pop Up Park Buffalo Team:

Melissa Leopard, Marika Frankenstein, Joy Kuebler, ASLA, Crystal Surdyk, and Kim Klavoon, Associate ASLA

by Joy Kuebler, ASLA

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