April 27, 2015 by
Photography by Hudson Gardner

It’s easy to think back to our own childhoods and compare them to the world our children currently live in. Perhaps you feel that your children aren’t as safe or don’t have as much freedom in their creativity. Maybe you’re wishing a fresh summer activity would pop up providing area parents those opportunities

Enter Play Lab, a concept dreamed up by Omahan Teal Gardner. It’s a mobile, free, and open play workshop for kids. Gardner herself provides materials that she feels could stimulate a child’s imaginative play. Fabric, ribbon, cardboard, safety vests, and bike tubes are just a few of the items she has amassed.

In addition, parents and supporters can donate materials that they feel children might enjoy. “The idea is that giving kids a lot of loose parts and the impetus to go out and make or do what they like will provide a scenario for their play that provokes problem solving and creative thinking,” Gardner says.

The concept, she admits, is not a new one. Nonetheless, it does seem like she is on to something quite special. Gardner’s first Play Lab was held in an art gallery. It’s an environment that Gardner admits is usually pretty hands-off, especially for kids. After a three-day Play Lab, however, it became evident, she says, that the project was special enough to try again.

Without a brick-and-mortar building or staff, Gardner relies on the help of volunteer collaborators and various Omaha venues to keep Play Lab in operation. She says that while they appear most consistently at the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market, Play Lab has also appeared at such places as ARTsarben and The Union for Contemporary Art. In July and August, they will be at the W. Dale Clark Library downtown.

Better still, Gardner says that children don’t need a specific environment to trigger their imagination. In fact, it’s easy to create Play Lab in your own home if there isn’t one being provided in your area. Simply supply your children with a “junk” box and allow them to create new worlds. “The attitude that makes Play Lab the most fun is just the willingness to follow an idea through the many transformations that happen within play,” Gardner shares.

In fact, it seems that children are able to make just about anything fun—laundry, for instance. One particular memory that Gardner reveals took place on a hot summer day. She filled up a kiddie pool with ice and, as the ice melted, a few children decided to begin washing fabric—one of the many loose parts available that day. An assembly line began and soon every item of fabric had been washed, wrung out and hung to dry. “I just love that story because it illustrates a group of kids choosing to do something together, something that they made up, the success of which was measured by the kids themselves,” Gardner says.

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