CMA Stories

“If we don’t give kids the opportunity to make mistakes, they’re not going to learn” — 5 Minutes with innovative nonprofit play:groundNYC

Located a stone’s throw away from CMA’s house on Governors Island, play:groundNYC is a 50,000 square foot adventure playground and non-profit organization advocating for young people’s rights by providing environments that encourage risk-taking, experimentation and freedom through self-directed play. In light of CMA’s 30th anniversary CIVICKIDS campaign, which fosters civic engagement and shared community pride through art-making, we endeavored to find out more about our neighbors on Governors Island and understand their varied approaches to working with civically engaged children. 

CMA: Let’s start off by talking about yourself and your organization’s mission. 

Yoni Kallai: My name is Yoni Kallai, and I’m the Head Playworker at play:groundNYC. I was one of the founding board members. Our mission is to support and create environments of self-directed play for children. 

Our main project is the YARD on Governors Island. We also host pop-up events, go to schools, and bring educators here to the YARD for professional development.

The YARD uses terms from the United Kingdom as an adventure playground. Our focus is giving kids the agency and the opportunity to make their own decisions — being in charge of what they do, how they do it, and when they do it. The limit is, of course, not hurting yourself, but even within that, we think it is very important to have the opportunity to take risks on the physical side — building a structure that may not be the most stable, or climbing on a ladder. I don’t want to be facilitating everything and telling them what to do and how to do it. Rather, I want to support them in figuring out what to do in these situations. Making mistakes is part of it.

CMA: Have you ever been surprised by a lesson that a child learns in this environment?

YK: There are often situations where tensions do arise, and as an adult who’s not directly involved, you still feel it. But it is amazing to see how kids can actually let go of tensions faster. One moment they’re fighting, the next they’re best friends, cooperating on a project.

CMA: Do you ever feel yourself being taught by the kids?

YK: Totally! They come up with amazing ideas of building things and solutions, and they’re so creative. Just how they play with each other and see the world around them in a beautiful way.

CMA: Do you see kids come into this environment and gain a sense of freedom or autonomy?

YK: Yes, we have kids who are asking for permission all the time to do things, and we tell them that they don’t need to ask. We say in the beginning — if you need to go to the bathroom, you don’t need to keep asking. Eventually they get it. That’s a small thing, but I remember three girls we had in our first year of camp. They came in wearing pretty dresses and didn’t want to sit on the grass because of the dirt. By the end of the week, they were sword fighting with each other and putting aside how they’d been trained to behave.

CMA: Would you say that being in a constructive and creative environment helps kids deal with difficult conditions in the outside world or even interpersonally?

YK: Problem solving is a huge thing that humans need to be able to do, be it in the physical aspect, or between people — emotionally, socially, etc. You’ll never be able to create a formula to tell you what to do in every situation every time, and who wants that anyway? That takes all the creativity out of the picture. Just like anything else, practice is the way to learn how to do things. If we don’t give kids the opportunity to try things and make mistakes, then they’re not going to learn. What they learn in school is how to do exactly what they’re told. We want to try and offer something different.

Learn more at play-ground.nyc

This program is supported, in part, by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts with support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. CIVICKIDS is sponsored by Google.

More in CIVICKIDS

Sign up to get updates and special invitations