Adventure playgrounds are in bold contrast to the modern playgrounds you’ll see around Ireland today which are planned and built according to minimum safety standards. Images of adventure playgrounds show ram shackled dens, old tyres and pipes upon a barren waste ground. They are certainly set apart from traditional playgrounds with tall swings, merry-go-rounds and slides, and neither built on asphalt nor rubberized tiles. The playgrounds are built on the bare earth which lies beneath them. The children direct their own play and games. They play with loose materials and old equipment rather than fixed apparatus. They climb trees, build their own constructions with hammers, nails and saws, and build wooden bridges over streams.
The importance of play and risk
The idea behind this environment is that children will become empowered by learning how to take calculated risks. They are challenged and test their physical limits. By helping them to overcome fears, (such as heights) by walking over a bridge they have built, they will become better equipped to tackle other obstacles within their lives. Their imaginations are given free reign as the materials they use are not for a specific purpose, and their activities and games are not structured or pre-determined by adults, however a small number of adults are usually at hand for low-key supervision. When children are given the opportunity to assess risk by themselves, they learn to appreciate the consequences of risk-taking and develop a sense of responsibility. If they don’t have access to play where there is an acceptable level of risk, there is a fear that they will actively search for a more dangerous area to play. Many psychologists and childcare professionals can identify the benefits associated with taking acceptable risks and deem it essential for their healthy psychological development. It is feared if they overprotected and not given the opportunity to explore safe and acceptable forms of risk, they may turn to more reckless behaviour.
The original concept and movement
The original junk playground was conceived by the Danish landscape architect Carl Sorenson in 1943, and was built beside a housing estate in Copenhagen. Sorenson had witnessed children’s imaginative play in junk yards and building sites. He thought that playgrounds should be set up with waste materials, such as old boxes, cars and timber, and that the focus should be on children using their imaginations. Sorenson thought the aesthetics of the objects and location were unimportant, as he believed this would drive and challenge the children’s imaginations as opposed to that of the architect. He said ‘Of all the things I have helped to realise, the junk playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works’.
The movement spread throughout Europe and in 1946 Lady Allen of Hurtwood, a children’s advocate and landscape architect brought the idea to England where it became equally popular. She had been to Denmark and became greatly impassioned when she visited a junk playground at Emdrup in Copenhagen. Allen believed that traditional and conventional playgrounds weren’t good enough, that the children were not being challenged and she sought to create a ‘free and permissive atmosphere’. The idea of adventure playgrounds (as renamed by Lady Allen) spread throughout England and bombed sites after the Second World War were chosen as ideal locations and as a temporary solution in response to the question of how to rebuild London.
The Land, located in Plas Madoc, North Wales is the closest example of a real adventure playground to Ireland and was created in the spirit of the original junk playground. Opened two years ago by project manager Claire Griffiths and run by a group of voluntary organisations (A.V.O.W), the Land has gained much attention for going against current attitudes to play. Claire studied play and play work at Glyndwr University and her practice has been heavily influenced by the work of play professional and theorist Bob Hughes. I spoke to Claire and asked her about her work at the Land, the benefits of this environment, and for some advice for apprehensive parents.
‘Why do you feel it is important that children are exposed to risk?’
‘Risk is an integral part of childhood. Children are intuitively drawn to risk and any risk is subjective. What is risky for one child may be mediocre for the next. Children need to encounter and overcome risk to learn how to manage it and as theories tell us, risk is something children should know they’re entering into, and it shouldn’t be confused with hazard. I would never put a child in danger and of course I would intervene if I thought a child was at harm, I have a duty of care!’
Children are capable of managing their own risks. As a play worker I am constantly dynamically risk assessing. I consider the child, the environment, the weather, other children and if at any point I feel a child was at harm I would intervene.
There are times when I’m not completely comfortable with what a child is doing but this doesn’t mean I would intervene. If I was asked how often I would intervene, my answer would be as little as possible!!’
‘Have you any suggestions for parents who may be apprehensive about allowing their children to visit an adventure playground?’
‘I think the most important suggestion is to trust your child. The majority of children will not try to deliberately harm themselves. Most kids are aware of their capabilities and rarely will they choose to overstep them’.
In general, the support for adventure or dangerous playgrounds has lost momentum, possibly as a result of our increasingly litigious society. There are now fewer adventure playgrounds in the world than before, with most in Europe and only a handful in America. As countries have passed legislation for minimum standards, children have watched playgrounds become less intriguing and exciting. The fear of possible injury and litigation means that the level of risk has been minimized to the detriment of children’s enjoyment and development. As our values have changed, so have what we may deem to be acceptable recreational activities and what constitutes ‘play’. The idea of what play is, is evolving and rather than trying to enhance play, we are now battling for the right for our children to simply play outdoors in their own neighbourhood, knowing that they are safe. Now, in our technologically advanced world, the ideal we seek is that children have the opportunity to play at all.
(Originally published in Mums & Tots Autumn issue 2014.)
Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/dave-rogers/395999863/”>Dave ®</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>