On making mistakes, and finding spaces for play

This morning I hopped on the 9:40 Blue Bus to make the trip over to Bryn Mawr; I had the unexpected pleasure of running into Conor Brennan-Burke ’16, one of the OMA student interns who was heading over to his economic development course, with his breakfast in hand (that is, in the cornstarch-based biodegradable take-out container)– a healthy combination of yogurt, honeydew melon, and seven pancakes.  He asked me why I was on the bus; I explained that I was going to talk with a number of Bryn Mawr colleagues who were planning to teach a cluster of courses centered on the theme of “play in the city,” which led Conor and me into a conversation that touched upon the cities known for practitioners of parkour, the ingenuity of Philly skateboarders, and “build it yourself” playgrounds where kids can create their own structures from the materials on hand –thus reminding me of the most fabulous Adventure Playground in Berkeley.

When I made it to the breakfast room at Wyndham Alumni House, Cities professor Carola Hein introduced me to Hanley Bodek who has been teaching a course called “Entrepreneurial Inner City Housing Markets” at the University of Pennsylvania for 28 years.  Students who take the course — ranging from future city planners to Wharton MBAs-to-be — are drawn by the opportunity to have a hands-on experience redeveloping an abandoned Philadelphia rowhouse in which learning opportunities range from figuring out how to secure a zoning permit in Philadelphia — surely the subject of a graduate level seminar in and of itself — to finding out what to do when you have followed your blueprint only to discover that you have left yourself about eight inches in which to build a closet.

In reflecting on his pedagogical practices, Hanley said that “what I became good at was watching students make mistakes and not getting upset.” As someone who is a bit of a control freak, this kind of wisdom is revelatory — the understanding that some of our most transformative moments are precisely those points at which things do not go according to plan. At those moments we have to rethink our assumptions, reconsider the information at hand, recalibrate our approaches, and reboot our imaginations…and sometimes we even have to ask for help, and thus can draw from someone else’s organizing intelligence and animating experience.

As a professor located in the Growth and Structures of Cities, Carola was spinning out ideas about the ways in which students could engage in projects that would have them working with three dimensional structures – maybe a garden, a treehouse, or a playground — that would have the potential to reconstruct the dynamics of the communities in which they would reside.  Carola is working in collaboration with Jody Cohen from the Bi-College Education program and Darlyne Bailey, the Dean of the School of Social Work who is also the Special Assistant to the President for Community Partnerships, and the conversation around the table ranged from possibilites of college students partnering with a fourth grade classroom to design a playhouse to the creation of a “city house” that would extend the reach of the Bi-Co community into Philadelphia, that could be used for courses open to the community or as a home base for students spending extended time at an internship or visiting galleries.

We also talked a lot about what play makes possible – how just messing around can lead to new insights, unexpected discoveries, and radically different ways of moving through the world, all of which can help us get closer to our animating passions. As a group of Haverford students, faculty, and staff gather this weekend at Pendle Hill to share our understandings of and experiences with community engagement, thanks to a “Bringing Theory to Practice” grant from the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ I’m going to be thinking a lot about the place for play in all this.