Your favorite memories of playtime as a child likely recall experiences of adventure and exploration. Discovering the world around you by climbing trees, building forts, chasing lizards, making mud pies, and creating forts from the household furnishings is part of being a child; it’s also the premise for a type of play environment known as… Read more »
Your favorite memories of playtime as a child likely recall experiences of adventure and exploration. Discovering the world around you by climbing trees, building forts, chasing lizards, making mud pies, and creating forts from the household furnishings is part of being a child; it’s also the premise for a type of play environment known as adventure playgrounds.
Prevalent in Europe and Japan since the early 1940s, these so-called “junk playgrounds” were places where children could build, explore, and experiment with their own recreational environment. The process did not often result in a traditionally beautiful space and, in fact, critics labeled them community eyesores. Nonetheless, the concept became popular in those countries (the U.S. has yet to catch on in any significant way), and while each adventure playground is different, they all have a few things in common: Adults from the community (known as play workers or leaders) are present, and they assist and supervise the children. The physical elements vary depending on available resources and the imagination of the children and staff but often include tree houses or playhouses (typically built by the kids), logs, rope, recycled tires, campfires, and ponds. Sometimes even farm animals are looked after by the children and staff. In these places, young people can realize their own ideas by originating activities, games, and structures.
As children use their imaginations to create play environments under supervision, they also develop physically and intellectually. Making decisions about how to play strengthens their problem-solving skills and social development as they learn how to negotiate relationships. Children also feel invested, and learn to care for the things they create. These kinds of spaces encourage growth because the focus is on the process, not the result. A good adventure playground constantly changes and evolves according to the new ideas and uses the children design and implement.
Some view the environments as dangerous because they do not conform to the building requirements of a conventional playground. In the U.S. especially, liability and safety are concerns and it’s true that there is potential for danger. In reality, though, the accident rates at adventure playgrounds tend to be lower than conventional ones. They all have trained staff, set hours of operation, and age requirements (most do not allow kids younger than five or six), and some even require that the parents be present. It’s hard to compare them to conventional stand-alone playgrounds because they operate so differently, perhaps more like a staffed community center. Despite the liability concerns, adventure playgrounds can often be covered under the same insurance as any other part of a city park, so this is a hurdle that can be overcome. Larger concerns are funding and land availability, which are often the causes for their closure.
It’s widely accepted that play is important to a child’s development. Adventure playgrounds can be a valuable addition to any community and I hope to see more places create their own unique play environments as the word spreads.
Image of adventure playground in Berkeley, California, courtesy of Hitchster via Flickr Creative Commons.