When I first heard of Adventure Playgrounds, I was reading books from the 1960s and 70s in a library and was astounded at what I saw. There were pictures of children hammering and sawing, swinging upside down from giant towers they’d made. They were baking potatoes in open fires, and sometimes those fires were in tree houses.
I thought – can these places still exist? Would they be allowed?
Then secondly – this is a job?
I visited some sites shortly after that, and have been finding my answers ever since: Sort of. Maybe. Absolutely.
It’s a truth of deep embarrassment to British playworkers that so many Adventure Playgrounds are no longer adventurous at all. Many have lost their way, becoming fixed equipment sites where the equipment happens to be made of wood. Few playworkers have the construction skills or confidence to support children’s building, and then its an easy downward slope towards fewer loose parts, more expensive and dull ‘craft activities’, and a playground that’s greatest recommendation is that it’s better than nothing at all.
Grant Lambie of Free Play Designs spoke at the IPA Conference of this phenomenon – renaming them “misadventure” playgrounds. Some that he mentioned were long-standing Adventure Playgrounds that had lost their way, and some were newly built and stocked with expensive equipment that was Adventure Playground-inspired, and corporate-built. He argued that the end result of this was nothing short of colonization, repackaging the ingenuity of generations of children and selling a sterilized version back to them.
These places, and the people who make these decisions even with the best of intentions, miss the point spectacularly. If children aren’t building places themselves, tearing them down and rebuilding them again, they’ll quickly exhaust the possibilities of even the most carefully-designed place and become bored. They’ll know its not really theirs, and the staff will spend their time defending the expensive gear, rather than supporting children’s play.
I picked up a copy of Jack Lambert’s Adventure Playgrounds – a Personal Account of a Play-Leader’s Work at Meynell’s in-house second-hand bookstore at the Conference, and am now starting to re-read it, for the first time since becoming a Playworker myself.
There are three quotes so far that I want to pull here:
“In every Adventure Playground I have run, building has been the central point of communication and my own practical knowledge of basic building techniques my greatest asset.” (p.16)
There are many things that happen on an Adventure Playground other than building, but supporting this requires vital skills that many playworkers lack. If we’re not of use to the children as they meet their own play needs, what are we doing on site?
“Our shoestring budget worked in a positive way to mould the character of the place and, incidentally, to shape my own thinking on the subject of creating playgrounds. If we wanted something badly we had to make it. But because the children themselves were involved in creating their own playground they seemed to feel it belonged to them in a very special way. They identified with it.” (p.37)
I don’t know when these words have been more timely – with funding cuts and true nightmares of playgrounds closing, playworkers unemployed, it’s good to be reminded that lots of money isn’t always the solution it seems. How many expensive playgrounds have been built that don’t ‘belong’ to the children, that don’t offer them the chance to make it grow with them? How can we best respond to the funding cuts now, and help children to create play worlds that are full of ‘character’, and that they identify with?
“One has to accept that enthusiasms appear and grow, then work themselves out, because a playground is a living thing. It’s no use getting nostalgic. Something new is going to happen. The interesting thing is that you never know what it will be.” (p.40)
Well – that’s just good advice for life.
It’s worth mentioning, amidst this rather gloomy post, that there are remarkable projects that buck this trend. One worth highlighting is the Islington Play Association’s Treehouse Project, led by the remarkable Wendy Jeeves. I used to work there and can attest that they’re entirely dedicated to children’s play, and utterly worthy of their recognition by the International Play Association. Congratulations!