The Original Jungle Gym was a Tree, and Mitch Ryerson Knows How to Use Them
Creating a Playground Tree | The Esplanade Association via YouTube.com
When explored by the hands of a skilled artist, playfulness itself becomes an expressive language. At its best, the work of a well-seasoned woodworker, designer, and artist such as Mitch Ryerson communicates the power and freedom of an active imagination, and encourages young and old alike to explore their own potential, and reach beyond assumed limitations. The wooden play structures designed and built by Mr. Ryerson retain the natural character of the trees from which they came, imbuing them with an immediate and welcoming familiarity. While simultaneously capturing the imagination and inviting it to explore every possibility.
Much like other playground designers, Mr. Ryerson came to the work rather indirectly. His youth was spent outdoors in the Cambridge, MA area. He fondly recalls spending hours at play in the woods near his home. Even at his earliest age, he was manipulating his environment to suit his imagination – digging caves and hanging hammocks from trees. This early love of natural wood led him to Maine, where Mr. Ryerson trained as a boat builder and helped build wooden vessels before returning to the Cambridge area to pursue other avenues of woodworking. His abilities have increased significantly since then, and now his efforts can be found throughout parks in the Cambridge and Boston area, inviting children to climb, jump, and crawl, much like he did at a young age.
Original Design + An Eye Towards Safety
Mr. Ryerson’s approach and work can be viewed as a response to the intense focus on safety and the cost-effective prefabricated plastic and metal play units that dominated playground design and construction in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This is a time-period when safety regulations and playground building codes were becoming standardized. Though the structures were affordable, and safety did improve significantly, some of the fun and benefits of free-play, where children are given the opportunity to explore and play at their own direction, became somewhat lost as standardization replaced imagination as a design’s starting point.
It is a productive tension that continues to this day. When creating playgrounds and playscapes that will be used most prominently by children, it is natural to want to err on the side of safety. At the same time, many of the playground safety guidelines that inform design and construction are just that, general guidelines, and not strict safety regulations that must always be adhered to and followed. It is the grey area inbetween that best serves the developmental needs of a child at play, while maintaining a safe environment for the play activities to take place. This is why collaborations between artist like Mr. Ryerson and firms such as Goric are so important. Whereas Goric possess the institutional understanding of safety standards and trends, along with the liability insurance often needed for a new playground, Mr. Ryerson brings the spirit and freedom of play, and ensures the final structure will excite the curiosity of young minds.
A Process That Creates Potential
In addition to play structures found throughout playgrounds and schools in the Massachusetts area, Mr. Ryerson’s work has been extensively exhibited and can be seen at the Fuller Craft Museum, the Mint Museum, the Boston Public Library, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Mr. Ryerson is also a teacher, having instructed students a the Haystack Mountain School along with the Penland School of Crafts. He is currently a professor of furniture design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. No matter where his work may take him, he always seeks to explore the potential embedded within natural wood and excite the imaginations of students and end users alike. As emphasized during an interview with Boston’s WBUR radio:
“I like the natural shapes of the wood. I like these forks a lot, the bends, the twists. The really unusual idiosyncratic pieces of wood are really interesting. And I think it gets people to notice wood and trees more and see what they can become.”
Mr. Ryerson prefers working with black locust wood sourced from western Massachusetts and often uses wood culled from sick trees that must be cut down. Using chainsaws, power planes, electric grinders, chisels, mallets, drawknives, adzes, and even axes and hatchets, Mr. Ryerson and his workshop crew transform these pieces of common wood into structures that are inviting to the touch and inspiring to the mind. As Mr. Ryerson’s reputation increases, along with the popularity of the playgrounds he has helped to design, interest in his approach is growing as well. Helping to fuel a trend towards natural playscapes that seek to seamlessly incorporate the play areas environment while making use of natural construction materials. It is a trend that meshes perfectly with Goric’s own approach to creating exciting playscapes that invite interaction from individuals of all ages and abilities.