How to start an adventure playground

There are some questions about adventure playgrounds that we at Pop-Up Adventure Play get asked a lot.

“What about liability insurance?”

“Who pays for these places?”

“Are they really safe?”

And, our favorite:

“How do I open one??”

When people ask this, flushed with new excitement, it’s worth taking a moment to step back and rethink the question.  On the one hand, we want to see as many adventure playgrounds as possible.  We’re thrilled to be part of this new wave of interest in adventure playgrounds, and to be helping those new sites with their staff training.  But more importantly, we want all adventure playgrounds to be great adventure playgrounds.

And that comes down to staffing.

Great playworkers can make the most of a site that is frankly crap, while uptight or apathetic playworkers can ruin the richest of environments.  We all share a burden of anti-child, anti-play education to dismantle before we can support children’s play in specific, nuanced ways.  We all need a community of professionals to show us options of response, to encourage us when things get hard, and to celebrate the successes that only people in this weird and glorious field would understand.  The revolution starts within.

For anyone genuinely interested in starting a new adventure playground, there’s nothing like spending time on a good site and talking to people who have been doing this work for years.  That’s one of the reasons why we’re hosting the upcoming Playwork Campference in partnership with Santa Clarita Valley Adventure Play – and on their new adventure playground.

Days of learning and practicing the concrete skills and philosophical underpinnings of true playwork practice.  Afternoons listening to people who have done it themselves – Prof. Fraser Brown (veteran playworker and author of Playwork: Theory and Practice and other landmark texts), Jill Wood (Founder and Head of Adventure Playground at the Parish School).  Evenings watching The Land and asking Director Erin Davis all about it, or sitting around the bonfire while the conversations go deep.

We couldn’t be more pleased about all this, but we’re not doing it for us!  So, why should you be there?

1.  You get to be a part of a new adventure playground’s opening, asking its organizers and others about the common barriers these sites face, and how they have overcome them

2.  We have a tight focus on adventurous play, undistracted from lots of nonsense about learning outcomes.  For a few days, you can take a break from needing to justify this approach and instead immerse yourself in its richness, challenges and rewards

3.  We’ve chosen to highlight great playwork practitioners rather than professional speakers, so get ready for some amazing and inspirational people who you haven’t even heard of yet – people who remain available throughout the Campference for follow-up questions (and probably a beer as well)

4.  This event is truly international, with four countries represented so far and several people coming from the UK.  Talk with colleagues across generations of practice, and in all sorts of communities.  This diversity of voices gives you more ideas to draw upon, as on-site mentors help you build your own foundation of theory and style of playwork practice

5.  This is the first Playwork Campference, and it may be the last!  We can’t promise we’ll do this again.

If you love these sites, this work, these ideas – register now.  


“I can’t even think about play right now”

It is easy to feel totally overwhelmed in the day to day – or at least, it’s easy for me!  This summer, I was lucky enough to spend the summer at Play:Ground, the spectacular new adventure playground in New York City.  The days were long and hot and I came home every day to sit on the couch for about fifteen minutes before slumping sideways.  It was beautiful, exhausting, and full of daily marvels.

Like everyone else on site, I left sweat and blood in that dirt.  I took home scraps of paper with moments caught in a few tiny words, hoping I’d be able to write them up before their magic faded.  That is where things fell apart, because much as I love to write I was simply too tired each day to make use of them.  Playwork and writing both require a sort of wrestling, whether with one’s own discomfort or children or words.  I find both absorbing, rewarding and transformational – which means that it’s too easy for me to forget to actually play, and do things that are fun purely for their own sake.

Suzanna helps me, and a lot of people, by posting daily reminders to play on our Facebook page.  Even so, in our society valuing play is still nothing short of revolutionary.  It might make a public statement by claiming space, or signify a more private shift in priorities.  For lots of us who advocate for children’s right to play, it can be hard to remember our own.

So, how do you play?  What helps you to remember its importance, to return when you’ve been away too long?



Not enough time and nowhere to spend it

There have been a few articles lately, comparing the amount of time spent outside each day by schoolchildren and prison inmates.  The results are…  depressing.  It’s a travesty that children are spending their days locked inside, with their faces held to the grinding stone of endless stupid worksheets.  I usually try to be more gentle in my tone when writing online, but honestly.  This is insane, and if we were hanging out in person you’d be treated to my full routine of militant soapbox ranting.

Instead, here’s another question with an equally depressing answer:  When children are allowed outside during the school day, what sort of places can they go?  I’ve been asking this in workshops for awhile now, to designers and teachers and everyone else who would rather be looking at adorable pictures of adventure playgrounds (they get those too, but the contrast is important).

I show this slide.


These are pictures of school playgrounds that I found on google.  One is helpfully vintage, black and white and reminding us that our ‘modern’ formal educational model is still deeply rooted in the factory system.  Two are contemporary playgrounds in different countries, showing how little this notion has changed across hundreds of years and thousands of miles.  The fourth is Alcatraz.

The playgrounds that we think of as conventional (or, heaven help us, ‘normal’) in schools are highly standardized.  They are large tarmac squares, fenced in.  Sometimes there is equipment, all of it focusing on the gross motor release of ‘excess’ energy.  Any stones are removed.  Any loose parts prohibited.  And so, not only do our children spend less time outside than prisoners – they spend that time in a space almost indistinguishable from a prison yard.  No wonder so many recess supervisors stand at the edges with their arms crossed, making up new rules every day.  Their most obvious role, in a place like this, is security guard.

A prison yard is what you get, when you design for maintenance and surveillance.  These big, empty squares with a few places to lift your body around – these are spaces built to contain a population that authorities do not trust.  Every corner speaks of fear: adults fear children, which in turn breeds children’s fear of one another.  No wonder educators are so worried about conflict at recess.  They have accepted as conventional a space which fosters hierarchies and gangs, which privileges the strong over the weak, which both requires sneakiness to survive and punishes brutally any subversion.

But then, people might say, if school playgrounds looked like this for so long then why is the problem suddenly so urgent?

Here’s why.  Because crappy as the school yard is, it’s also most children’s best chance of playing outside at all that day.  It’s almost certainly their best chance to meet peers, in a time that is comparatively self-structured.  Recess time is vital, and the fact we give them so little opportunity is the real crime.