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5 tangible tips for hosting a pop-up playground in your neighborhood

Decades of research show the benefits of unstructured play—so two nonprofits have created a comprehensive tool kit to help you get started.

5 tangible tips for hosting a pop-up playground in your neighborhood
[Photo: Atlantic Terminal Mall/Brooklyn Bridge Parents]

City kids need places to play outside, but too many neighborhoods don’t have access to parks or playgrounds. This is where pop-ups come into play. And if you’ve ever wanted to host your own, then keep reading.

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Nonprofits Pop-Up Adventure Play and play:groundNYC have just created a comprehensive tool kit that outlines everything you need to know about running your first pop-up playground, whether that’s a set of cardboard tunnels on an open street, or a painting corner in the park. Supported by The Lego Foundation and ChangeX, which matches nonprofits with individuals who want to put together an event in their neighborhood, the tool kit focuses on New York City, but most of the advice could easily apply to around the world.

Decades of research have shown that unstructured play can boost problem-solving, reduce aggression, and improve self-discipline. In underserved neighborhoods, pop-up playgrounds can also act as temporary public spaces for children and parents alike. But organizing a pop-up can be daunting if you don’t know where to start. If you want to give it a go, (and secure $500 to help you set up the pop-up), you can apply here. In the meantime, here’s an overview to get you started.

[Photo: Atlantic Terminal Mall/Brooklyn Bridge Parents]

How to choose a site

Cities are filled with potential spaces for play: parks, beaches, that vacant lot near your house, your local library, or even the nearby church. Some of those places need permits—for New York City parks, for example, a special event permit costs $25 and takes between 20 and 30 days to process. Others need permission: “On any given space, you need to work out who owns it, so you can ask nicely if you can use it,” says Suzanna Law, who cofounded Pop-Up Adventure Play in 2010 with Morgan Leichter-Saxby.

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To get around permits, you can also partner with preexisting events: the farmers market, a block party, a music festival, or even Business Improvement Districts that may already have a program in place in the neighborhood. Ultimately, it depends on how big an event you want to organize and how many kids you envision joining, but according to Zoé Fortin, the executive director of play:groundNYC, about 500 square feet is usually enough. Just don’t forget about bathroom access, and get some chairs from a nearby restaurant so parents have somewhere to sit!

[Photo: courtesy play:groundNYC]

How to source cheap materials

Once you have a site, you’re going to need materials for children to play with. New York City is home to countless upcycling organizations like Big Reuse, donateNYC, and Material for the Arts. In Los Angeles, there’s the reDiscover Center. Norfolk, Virginia, has the Creative Reuse Center. If you can’t find a dedicated organization, Leichter-Saxby suggests calling up municipal trash collectors, getting spare tires from a local mechanic, seeing if a carpet store has unwanted samples, or checking with moving companies for cardboard boxes. “We encourage people to be brave and make those phone calls,” she says.

[Photo: Atlantic Terminal Mall/Brooklyn Bridge Parents]
In New York City, sidewalk scavenging can also yield surprising results. Find out the recycling days is in your neighborhood, and go treasure hunting. If all else fails, you can always ask parents to bring toys they want to donate—or partner with a school that can organize a “recycling week” to source materials for the event.

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[Photo: Atlantic Terminal Mall/Brooklyn Bridge Parents]

How to gather support

Pop-up play comes with inherent risks. This isn’t a fenced-in playground with traditional slides and swings, so you may need to educate people about the importance of free play—and gather support. The tool kit emphasizes the difference between risks (exposure to danger that a child can choose to engage with or not) and hazards (the possibility of harm that a child can’t foresee, like a rotten ladder). Risks can be healthy, but make sure you’re aware of any possible hazards, and monitor them constantly.

As far as your team goes, Fortin says play:groundNYC has two experienced playworkers at all times; but for inexperienced folks, she recommends recruiting 2 to 3 volunteers on top of the organizer. To spread the word, you can put up flyers, post on social media, or have the organization you’re partnering with advertise it in a newsletter.

[Photo: courtesy play:groundNYC]

How to stage the pop-up on the day

Pop-ups usually last 2 to 3 hours, but you need to set it all up before the kids arrive. Start with fun signs. You can make up a hashtag and have parents post their own photos of the event. (And if photo consent is necessary, based on your permit, signs might be a good place to communicate this.)

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[Photo: courtesy play:groundNYC]
Whatever you do, make it fun, and keep it casual. You can build a tower or a tunnel out of empty boxes waiting to be knocked down—or drape fabric over it to make a fort. You may want to leave some paints and brushes out so kids can choose their own activities. “Sometimes, we put some chalk out because that feels like a good entry point,” says Fortin. “Sometimes, we’ll keep things in our back pocket for when the energy starts to come down.”

[Photo: courtesy play:groundNYC]
If you’re in an area with cars nearby, think about how you’re going to protect the space with hard barriers. Otherwise, you can outline the play area with chalk or a colorful ribbon. But whatever you do, don’t impose any activities on the kids. Instead, Fortin suggests you start interacting with something and wait for them to notice and naturally join in.

[Photo: Atlantic Terminal Mall/Brooklyn Bridge Parents]

How to wrap up—and do it again

The end of a pop-up can go a million different ways. (If you’re thinking of applying to this particular program, you’ll be encouraged to fill out an impact report for ChangeX.) Some kids may want to take their creations home, others may want to leave them behind. “Make friends with the recycling company,” says Law.

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And maybe next time, you can organize a grown-up pop-up “playground,” be it at a conference or a team-building event. “There’s a misunderstanding that play is just for children, but play is for everybody,” says Law. “There’s just simply not enough time for us to control and determine the intent of stuff, and play is a perfect antidote to that.”

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