I wrote out a story recently set in an adventure playground that, for various reasons, I wanted to keep anonymous. It was an interesting process of writing while wondering who might spot the little flags of particularity – but what caught me were the similarities among the ‘good’ adventure playgrounds I had known, and their rarity.
This fictionalized AP sits in a neighborhood of London peopled by rich and poor alike, living in uneasy proximity. “Excellent,” I thought. “That doesn’t narrow it down at all”. This place has a high fence of scarred brown wood and a hand-painted sign with opening hours that are, frankly, more like guidelines. So far, so good. But when it came to what could be found inside, I began to struggle more. I wanted to set my true story in a site with bonfires and sledgehammers, child-built tree houses and giant mud pits, but sadly even in APs these are not as common as they should be. This is the dark shame of UK playwork, how much of the adventure in our fixed playgrounds has been eroded. So many of the places I could think of had some of these things but not all, and some of the best practice I’d seen was in the ‘worst’ sites of all, sparking magic on the tarmac.
Like my unnamed site there are still thriving AP of truly glorious mess and noise and risk. Each good AP is different, both from its fellows and from itself moment-to-moment, but somewhere in that constant shift of madness and glory is a sense of equilibrium, of a line like heat haze between what is real and what might yet be. The documentarian Erin Davis, in her visits to The Land, has been exploring one amazing AP. She’s got a cracking trailer, and a glorious radio piece that really everyone ought to listen to right now. She’s also a friend, but that’s more good fortune than bias.