Learning by playing in Parkes, NSW, Australia
We're a small rural library system that serves a community of 15000 people in New South Wales, Australia. At library conferences, we hear a lot of buzzwords like ‘gamification’ or ‘makerspaces’. For a little country service it can seem intimidating – like you MUST have a 3D printer or you’re not “21st century” enough. Parkes just won a national award for innovation, but what we do here – play, and letting people learn on their own terms – is what community libraries have done all along.
In Parkes, we believe that play is key to children’s learning, and that the best play happens on the child’s own terms. Libraries have always been about exploration and self-directed learning. All we do is remind people that doesn’t just happen on bookshelves. We’ve invited kids to walk through swamps of chocolate and paint upside-down like Michelangelo. Teens and primary schoolers have travelled in time and tussled as rival teams of robots versus monsters in a cardboard city. We even took kids out into the country to battle zombies alongside cops and firefighters. We've always celebrated the unpredictability of these games. We love the way kids surprise us when playing them. This year, we decided to let young library users make their own games for the whole community.
When playwright Stella Duffy announced that she was launching Fun Palaces in 2014, we were quick to sign up. Her plan was to turn theatres, libraries, and museums worldwide into places where people of all ages could try their hand at art and science.
In previous years, we've made immersive games and role-plays for kids to enjoy. Our consultant Dr Matt Finch, who has worked with us before on play-based events like our zombie sieges, helped us take our programming to a new level in 2014. Matt guided us through a design process in which library staff created their own activities to inspire the children. We based them on movies, video games, and sideshows. This meant we were confident to let the kids loose, working in teams to design and build their own games.
We like to include a storyline with activities, so Matt connected us with Louie Stowell, author of The School for Supervillains. This book had been written as part of an interactive fiction project, so we knew Louie understood our play-based philosophy. Our kids’ games became supervillainous traps designed to defeat potential superheroes. They included a Mutant Maze, Giant Robot Room, and a Nightmare Chamber. Louie provided video recordings of herself in character as chief supervillain, with Matt onsite as her evil henchman.
After three days of school holiday sessions in which the kids played our games and then built their own challenges, the Fun Palace Weekend arrived. Thanks to time zone differences, we were the first Fun Palace to open anywhere in the world. We were proud to kick off this international event in country Australia, and welcome more than 320 people to try out the games made by local kids!
When we run special events like the zombies, robot battles, or Fun Palace, we always have one eye on sustainability. One of our Fun Palace Games, a tabletop roleplay adventure based on the work of Cory Doctorow, is available for free download. People can play it at home…or in our library, where they’ll be made very welcome!
Exploration, play, self-directed learning – that's what community libraries have been all along.
This is all part of reaching out to young library users who like to play and make their own content, as well as read and watch other people's. And that – exploration, play, self-directed learning – is what community libraries have been about all along.
Tracie Mauro, Librarian
Parkes Branch Librarian, NSW, Australia