. . .Kindling a Playful‘Prairie Spirit’ with Prairie Prose . . .

Ansel Adams once said, “The wilderness does not end at the frontier. It is the wildness that we cherish as Americans.” For some that wildness can be found in the prairie landscape that Jens Jensen and Carl Sandburg loved so much and fought hard to conserve together with their art and poetry.  Feeling freedom arise from the strength of the wind blowing through the tall prairie grasses that are sprinkled with milkweed in June to welcome the butterflies by day and fireflies by night is truly a magical experience to behold.   The same feeling of freedom can also be felt when playing games with others, where the ultimate goal is not to score, but to be playful together, such as those developed during the New Games Movement in the 1960s that influenced the cooperative nature of the Prairie Prose game series.

In attempt to rekindle the spirit of the prairie for younger generations, Prairie Prose was designed as an independently produced cooperative green game, locally made with natural materials to evoke a feeling of poetry growing between the players.  Words from Prairie School history, including native plants Jensen and others worked with, such as hawthorn, goldenrod, sumac, and juneberry are among many choices inscribed on hand-cut paper rose petals. The concept of the game evolved from an earlier poetry game called A dozen roses for Rainer–inspired by the Austrian poet and novelist, Rainer Maria Rilke. Players movingly created a group poem together from scattered rose petals made of silk and hand crafted Japanese paper, capturing an artistic mood of artists and poets sharing their work.


  Prairie Prose  is a unique cooperative poetry game for 2-6 players to dramatically exchange their poems made in the game.

Prairie Prose is a unique cooperative poetry game for 2-6 players to dramatically exchange their poems made in the game.


Those who have played Prairie Prose from ages seven to 90 are always able to make something unique that everyone admires and brings them joy, even those who surprisingly think they cannot write a poem. One player appreciated the beauty of the words in the game that she ordinarily does not use in her daily life, which enriched her imagination.  This can be attributed to the way the game invokes the ‘Prairie Spirit’ of Jensen’s oeuvre.  Another player reflected how in the game, the poetic phrases everyone shares creates a harmonious feeling of togetherness.  For children, moments of wonder often come about as an image builds up in their imagination from their rhythmical arrangement of words drawn from nature.  They often like to clap while they count syllables, or adults tap while they compose their poems, bringing a musical quality to the game that is authentic for each player.  The engagement with poetry and the social interactions between players provides a dynamic experience that often lives in the imagination well beyond the played game. 

As part of the ‘Eco Pedagogy Paper Jam’ Dr. William Stroup, Keene State College moderated at ASLE in June 2011, one round of Prairie Prose was played by attendees after a brief introduction to Jensen’s interwoven history with the social movements of his time that complemented his writings, which are an integral part of the gameplay. The classroom reserved for the morning session at the Indiana University-Bloomington campus was nearly filled to also hear presentations made by Stroup, Allison Cummings, Yoshiko Kayano, Cortney Holles, and John Currie.  Topics ranged from the ‘Last Child into the Wild’ to ‘Ecocriticsm and Global Romaticism’ along with hands-on experiences that included ‘Teaching Ainu Culture and History,’ ‘Teaching Environmental Ethics Through Writing’ and ‘Excerpts from a Peer Model Course Text,’ in which Currie dramatically read examples of student work that everyone enjoyed.

In lieu of formally presenting written material, a handful of game petals were drawn by each attendee from a drawstring bag passed down the aisles.  Once everyone had their petals, they chose which words they wanted to work with. The poems quickly came, one after another from different voices all over the room, until it seemed like our whole space was filled with the sound of poetry. Some people remained seated as they read their poem to the group, while a few stood up to read theirs more vocally.  It was exciting, inspiring and beautiful.  Stroup kept us moving on to a light moderated discussion about the game experience–how it could be used in the classroom as a teaching tool and as a model for bringing games in general into a classroom setting.  Could students design a game as a class project instead of a writing assignment?  Could a teacher construct a meaningful lesson through a game’s design?  What is the value of teaching with games?  What can we learn from Jensen’s work and how are his efforts relevant to us today?  Several attendees were interested in using the game as a tool for teaching poetry and related research.


 From left to right: “Few words, endless meanings,” a player ponders his poem at the Westchester Township History Museum. Photo by Heather Eidson, courtesy of the  Times of Northwest Indiana . College Prep students create unique poems drawn from nature with  Prairie Prose  in celebration of Earth Day in Chicago’s Wicker Park, organized by Doug Wood. Courtesy of Elaine A. Coorens,  Our Urban Times . Used with permission.

From left to right: “Few words, endless meanings,” a player ponders his poem at the Westchester Township History Museum. Photo by Heather Eidson, courtesy of the Times of Northwest Indiana. College Prep students create unique poems drawn from nature with Prairie Prose in celebration of Earth Day in Chicago’s Wicker Park, organized by Doug Wood. Courtesy of Elaine A. Coorens, Our Urban Times. Used with permission.


Prairie Prose was thoughtfully designed to provide teaching moments that complement Language Arts Learning Standards.  The School Edition of the game has been play-tested in elementary and middle schools in the Midwest and California, and has been used by college professors. It has been played at public events sponsored by the Chicago Park District’s Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Garfield Park Conservatory, and other venues including the Morton Arboretum and Westchester Township History Museum in celebration of Jens Jensen, Earth Day, Harvest Day, Valentine’s Day, and National Poetry Month.   Prairie Prose is a lively, social experience that gives players voice through poetry.  The gameplay enlivens rhythmical abilities, storytelling and imaginative thinking that can build up listening skills and vocabulary.  Players are putting concepts together from a ‘parts to whole’ process, with inspiration drawn from nature, Japanese poetry, ecology, and the Midwestern prairie landscape. Playing a quick round of the game may also be a helpful warm-up exercise before a challenging lesson, such as math, to harmonize the social dynamics of a class.  


 “Urbs in Horto-City in a Garden: Jens Jensen Reconsidered” concluded at the Indiana Dunes National Park with Professor Bob Grese, University of Michigan, reading Jensen’s moving testimony to conserve the Indiana Dunes. The three-day symposium was co-hosted by the Chicago Park District, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, University of Illinois at Chicago, Kenilworth Historical Society, Highland Park Historical Society, and the Westchester Township History Museum.

“Urbs in Horto-City in a Garden: Jens Jensen Reconsidered” concluded at the Indiana Dunes National Park with Professor Bob Grese, University of Michigan, reading Jensen’s moving testimony to conserve the Indiana Dunes. The three-day symposium was co-hosted by the Chicago Park District, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, University of Illinois at Chicago, Kenilworth Historical Society, Highland Park Historical Society, and the Westchester Township History Museum.


One high school college prep student proudly remarked how playing the game made him feel good and wanted to write his poem down to bring home, while a younger boy wanted to play again to pen a poetic phrase he made to share with his mother in her native language. These moments revealed a playfulness that can be traced back to earlier times from Jensen’s era, when oral storytelling, writing nature poems, and playing finger games were often part of a child’s activities that were popularized by social movements to encourage play through the establishment of playgrounds and kindergarten classrooms. It is during this historical period that a struggle for green play begins that continues to resonate with eco-minded educators today. JF

*Excerpt from A Sense of Play: Greening Games From Nature, presented during ASLE 2011 hosted by Indiana University-Bloomington. The paper highlights the early beginnings of the Playground Movement and annual play festivals held in Chicago inaugurated by Jane Addams, Jens Jensen, Dwight Perkins, and others. With gratitude to Michael Stieber, Rita Hassert, and Maureen Murphy, Sterling Morton Library, The Morton Arboretum. With special appreciation to Robert Grese, University of Michigan; Julia Bachrach, Michel Ségard, Doug Wood, Jane Walsh Brown, Dina Petrakis, Kimberly Ruffin, and Joan Maloof. Prairie Prose was reviewed by Elizabeth Birmingham in Feminist Media Studies.