Among the fourth grade set, forget the McMansions: when looking for real estate, kids go after the smallest space on the block.
This was the trend, at least, that three teams of high school students found when they went out to film elementary age kids in their communities. Armed with digital video cameras and microphones, the high school students visited fourth graders at school and at home, asking them about the “secret spaces,” both indoors and outdoors, where they go to play, relax, or simply get away. The goal was simple: each team was to produce a two or three minute mini-documentary about where and how kids play. Along the way they collected drawings, led class discussions, toured playgrounds, and were invited into backyards, rooms, and even closets that contain the spaces kids call their own.
With coaching from UM-Flint faculty advisors and film producer Donna Ryen, the student teams collected footage over the course of several months, and then they pulled out themes, created storyboards, and brought everything to Michigan Television studios in Flint for a series of marathon editing sessions. The finished videos can be viewed here.
We chose three different communities in Michigan: Howell, a historically rural town in the midst of a wave of suburbanization; West Bloomfield, an affluent, established Detroit suburb; and an urban community at the edge of Flint, well known for its post-industrial economic woes.
In all three communities, kids described tiny spaces, often barely large enough to fit their own bodies: the space under a table, the inside of a tire, a part of the woods where an opening in the center of thick brush made a “secret park,” a hollow tree stump, a closet, and even a cupboard six feet off the floor.
Surprisingly, these tiny territories were most often places where kids went to be alone; they only rarely functioned as clubhouses or meeting points for friends. They truly were personal spaces. “Can you show us your secret park?” we asked the girl who had described it in splendid detail. “Of course not,” she replied. “If I did, it wouldn’t be secret!”
One fourth grader, though, was willing to show her secret refuge to two of the teenage videographers: “When I’m sad, I go in here to get away from everybody,” she says in the video, as the camera follows her inside a hollow playground tire. “This is where I come in, and I drink my milk inside for lunch, and that gets my creative juices going. For some reason, when I’m out there, my juices don’t flow, but when I’m in here they flow, awesomely.”
We expected to see differences in where and how children in the three communities play: perhaps kids in Howell, where there is plenty of open space, would play a lot outside; kids in West Bloomfield would be likely to have lots of expensive toys; and outdoor play in Flint might be hampered by a lack of attractive public spaces. What we found, though, was quite a bit different.
In West Bloomfield, where most families have no trouble affording high-tech toys, some kids still managed to find low-tech, improvised spaces to make their own. In the film from this community, one girl smiles from the floor of a closet filled with boxes; another piles blankets under an expensive-looking air-hockey table to make a cozy, dark, tent-like room.
In Howell, Kellie and Meredith, the high school student videographers, were shocked to find that even in the eight years since they were in fourth grade, children seem to have moved more and more indoors. More than either of the other teams, Kellie and Meredith were disturbed by what seemed to be a decline in imaginative (and especially outdoor) play — concerns echoed by Joan Almon and others in this volume.
“The vast majority of students we filmed preferred to play inside of their house,” reflected Meredith. “Even though they live in a traditionally rural community with many places for them to play, they preferred to play inside of their video games, in an alternate reality of sorts. Throughout the project, we were taken aback to find the exact opposite of what we expected, children in Howell no longer prefer to play outside.” Meredith’s phrase “inside of their video games” is telling: a video game can be a kind private space — sometimes solitary, sometimes social — and perhaps children find a refuge there not unlike the cozy “real” spaces filmed by each of the teams.
In Flint, some kids also liked to play “inside of their video games,” but it was here that we also found the most children who claimed wild outdoor spaces as their own — “my grandmother’s swamp,” one mentioned, or an unnamed clearing at the end of a wooded trail. We speculated that the Flint children — who were actually from an area on the edge of the city — tended to live in more crowded houses with fewer indoor places where they could play undisturbed, and many found that outdoor secret spaces provided a rare bit of solitude and quiet.
These insights were possible at least in part, we think, because the videographers were close enough to their subjects to understand what it is like to be a kid in their community, yet old enough to reflect on how play and play spaces are changing.
With guidance and technical support from Michigan Television production staff, the students were able to turn these insights into videos that have both polish and youthful energy. “As a producer, I always find it exciting to see young people film and create fresh content,” said Donna Ryen, who guided the students’ work from pre-production through editing. “The common thread in their work, I find, is a raw truth – always a unique perspective. They express themselves and tend not to hold anything back.”
Creating something new, expressing oneself, not holding back — it sounds very much like children at play, and perhaps play itself can connect us together across generations. As Meredith remarked, “Whether it be dancing in the hallways of school, or sneaking a deck of cards into the classroom, we did whatever we could to find time to ‘play’… Above all else, we found that play never stops, it just changes as we grow older.”
Project Director, Jeff Kupperman, is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Michigan – Flint, and a core member of the University of Michigan’s Interactive Communications & Simulations group. A major focus of his work involves the development of technology-mediated programs that allow K-12 and university students to push the boundaries of play, communication, social action, and culture.