Penny has a pet theory that is close to both her heart and working practice – that of liminal spaces.  She’s often asked to describe, define or just explain what she means by the term, but this is difficult when the term itself is trying to capture the elusive and articulate a sense of the indefinable, the changeable and the fluid.

Below is a piece she’s written to elucidate the term and to suggest application of this idea to one place in particular.  Feel free to use it, so long as you give her credit!

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A liminal space is a space that has no one fixed purpose.  

Like the sea shore it is sometimes watery to swim, paddle or fish in, and sometimes dry to walk on and discover shells and build castles.  

Traditionally liminal spaces are associated with mystery, ritual and a certain sense of the poetic.  Translated into playwork terms this phrase captures for me that spaces where children are drawn to play.  Let’s return to the shore.  Nicholson cites this as the ideal playspace because of the loose parts to be discovered.  Could it be that the sense of fluctuation and transition is also powerful and appealing to us?  I frequently find that it is the “spaces between” that are most fascinating to children.  One little corner or a school playground, between the kitchen and the bike shed, or under the fire escape.  The space behind the structures of an Adventure Playground where the kids build small fantasy islands from scraps of moss and twigs and stones.  

In an over-crowded urban setting where space is defined by concrete, by permissable and impermissable use and access, both playworker and child are on the lookout for places where playing is possible.  Like a loose part, these space can be anything/where that the children need them to be for their playing.  

Two areas of Mile End Park have been identified for an experiment with this concept.  These are very natural, wooded spaces.  One is on the corner of the park adjoining the canal tow-path (as near as we have to a sea shore), and the other is land that runs beside a raised section of railway track – a place usually passed by at great speed and completely overlooked.  From conversations we understand that most people are utterly unaware of these two spaces.   

The concept is simple: to use the space as a player, and lure the child into play with a series of artifacts which act as play cues.  These artifacts will contain references to entering and leaving the spaces, or will mirror an overlooked or unexpected aspect of the spaces, literally in some instances, the urban child will be offered a mirrored surface to see themselves reflected in nature rather than a shop-front or a car wing mirror..  In marking these, the artifacts offer new ways for the child to be there, and to feel themselves to be present.  All of the play cues are intended not to become play equipment, but as to re-frame the natural surroundings and invite the children to engage with them through play.  

Examples include:

A ruined archway at one entrance to the space.

Seasonal floral plantings to articulate the non-existant edges of a non-existant pathway.

Stepping stones leading into a thicket with a half-hidden clearing.

Bells or small mirrors stringing through the branches of a tree.  

To these, add the swivelling railings on a free-standing piece of fence, apropos of nothing, or a gate leading to no-where, and we can begin to imagine the site.  It is the complete opposite of the new ‘Adizone’ at another location in the park, with its bright colours and bold location it is highly visible and depends for its function on moving from one piece of equipment to the next.    

The liminal space is contrived to create a trail of breadcrumbs to an unknown stretch of forest, as much suggested as imagined.  As you experience being in the forest you discover for yourself another breadcrumb that leads to a tree to climb or a log to balance on or a den to build.   

All the artifacts have a fairy tale flavour to them that is more Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney. 

PennyWilson© December 2008

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