Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Experimenting with experiments

A new beginning?

Today is my first day as PhD student, which feels a bit funny. As Camilla said in the morning when I left, hardly concealing her laughter: “have a nice first day of school” (when we met each other, she had just handed in her own dissertation and now, 9 years later, I’m finally ready. I guess that makes it painstakingly clear just how slow I am).

Anyway, it is the start of something new, and I’m slowly coming to terms with what that might mean. I had a chat with my supervisor, Eva, and she suggested that I start experimenting as early as possible. That’s music to my ears, of course, I can’t wait to get out there and make things happen in the world.

Those who know me will be aware that I have a rather broad interest in play, and I will only reluctantly limit my scope and prioritize certain kinds of play over others. While I initially wanted to consider all possible types of play, I eventually had to accept what a PhD project is also about and demands: focus. I chose not so much a type of play, but a context which allows for any interesting type of play I can think of: the junk playground (originally known in Denmark as “skrammellegeplads”, now often referred to internationally as “adventure playgrounds). I insist on using the “old” term, because I like how it invites a renegotiation of the meaning of junk.

While I will initially study practices, experiences and knowledge from existing junk-/adventure playgrounds, the core of my project will consist of a series of experiments, where I aim to bring the spirit of these playgrounds to new contexts and new people, primarily adults.

In designing these experiments, I wish to build on, but also reimagine and recontextualize the traditional playgrounds. The original “skrammellegeplads” was indeed also seen as an arena to practice democracy, and I believe there is still much potential here, as people engage in playful, embodied interaction with each other and the materials to create a shared reality that express their collective dreams and desires. I was recently pointed to the delightful journal “Anarchy – a journal of anarchist ideas”, where Colin Ward writes about adventure playgrounds in a way that resonates with me:

“The adventure playground is a free society in miniature, with the same tensions and everchanging harmonies, the same diversity and spontaneity, the same unforced growth of cooperation and release of individual qualities and communal sense, which lie dormant in a society devoted to competition and acquisitiveness.”

Colin Ward

That image mirrors the atmosphere of the design experiments I want to conduct, though I don’t yet know what these playgrounds will look like in detail, or how exactly I’ll organize them. I imagine that I will make a few experiments for a longer duration of time, maybe a few weeks to a month, where people can come back several times, and some smaller interventions over a few days, like a weekend. I’ll be talking to municipalities, recycling sites, companies as well as good people, who are already involved in this domain in one way or another (suggestions are more than welcome!).


For now, I’m considering really short experiments – micro-experiments – to get the ball rolling and to start identifying and playing with central traits of the junk playground. I have often thought about the smallest conceiable invitation to play, but what might be the smallest conceivable way to spark deep, sincere “junk-based play” – that can then, in turn, lead to explorations of way of living together?

What could an experiment look like? What kind of materials are essential? What would you like to do? Maybe you want to actually play along?

Please, play along

Now is the time to remind you that I don’t think of this as just my project; it is our project, and the more people will play along, challenge me and shape this somewhat daunting endeavor, the more we’ll all make of it (assuming I can live up to the responsibility of joining the pieces in meaningful ways, but for now, let’s make that somewhat outrageous assumption).


7 responses to “Experimenting with experiments”

  1. Sounds like a great way of thinking about play, togetherness and a bit of anarchism. When we are courageous in trying new thinks, remarkably outcomes can happen. In my spare time I build parks that people can play in – that is so fun using my creativity to enrich others lives 😊🌱

    1. mathiaspoulsen avatar

      Hi Søren 🙂

      I’m so sorry for my late reply, I’m still a bit rusty, blog-wise, and I guess I haven’t been used to many comments on my posts in recent years 🙂

      Thanks so much for your comment and kind words!

      Yeah, courage is important, as is creating communities and cultures where people can be expected to be couragous. Being courageous all on your own is almost too much to expect from anyone.

      Maybe there’s an opportunity to meet for a beer and a chat about grass, parks and play (once this current situation is over)?

      Have a lovely day!

      1. Hey Mathias – no need for a apology 🙂

        Togetherness, achieving goals and ideers together is half the fun. No man is an Island, so making ons projekt or vision a community thing brings all the best forward in people. But it takes some courage and personal skill to do so.

        Just a video from one of my park projekts as: The Grassnerd

  2. Great sentiments here, Mathias. Love the quote by Ward and the phrase “junk based play.” And it’s a first for me to experiment with that concept of the smallest invitation to play — though you’ve certainly thought on this a lot — and it makes me try to imagine something imperceptible, like the smallest invitation is actually a flick of a neuron in one’s mind when inviting/inspiring oneself to play — or even to have a playful split-second thought that’s enough to bring out a little smile. My mind does that to me often when I’m just out and about in the world — and I’m always so grateful. Thanks for this, too! Looking fwd to all the experimenting

    1. mathiaspoulsen avatar

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comment (and I’m sorry for my slow reply here, my blogging-game needs a bit of brushing up).

      It was Pete King from Swansey University who pointed me towards Ward and anarchy. He’s also doing some interesting research on play, playwork and adventure playgrounds himself, do take a look:

      I have often thought about “the smallest possible invitation”, maybe because my mind often veers towards really big, spectacular things, and, in the grand scheme of things, these are far less important than the small, everyday gestures and practices. It’s exactly like you describe: the small impulses, interruptions, surprises and so on, during the course of a day, that light our play desires on fire. Acknowledging those, appreciating and daring to embrace them, at least some of the time, I think that’s a key component to a “playful life”. So valuable. Let’s talk soon!

  3. Hi Mathias – Alex from PlayGroundology here. I’d like to subscribe to the blog is that possible. The adventure playground experience in Canada is very thin though we may be picking up a bit. I think of a smile as a warm gesture that can open the door to play. Cheers from Nova Scotia

    1. mathiaspoulsen avatar

      Hi Alex!

      Thank you so much for commenting – and I’ll try to reply a bit faster in the future. I’ve been used to not receiving a lot of comments, so this takes some getting used to.

      I agree. A smile is certainly one of those small invitations that can change the world – at least for a moment, in that particular situation. I hope we can smile a little more in 2021.

      The adventure playground “scene” in Denmark is also quite limited, but I feel like a few things are brewing, and I hope my project can contribute to build momentum. I’d love to talk about this at some point. Also, you should know my friend Mike (Sullivan), who has also commented on this post. He runs Whatbox, a pop-up adventure playground:

      I’ll have a look at the subscription opportunities, it’s just my old WordPress blog that I have repurposed, so the function is here somewhere.

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