Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Adventure Playgrounds: A History

Part 2 in a 3 part series

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London, Maeryta Medrano, AIA LEED AP, President of Gyroscope, Inc; Chuck Howarth, VP, Gyroscope, Inc.

What is an Adventure Playground?

The broadest definition of an Adventure Playground is a public open space where children can play and climb on structures usually made of wood, ropes and old tires (Cambridge Dictionaries Online). Early Adventure Playgrounds contained building materials and discarded industrial parts that were used by children to build with, hide in, climb on, or use in any way that they themselves directed.

Some Adventure Playgrounds continue to follow the model of building while others focus on safe but exhilarating play such as zip-wires, ropes courses and tree climbing. The level of “danger” is frequently in proportion to the level of supervision, with some Adventure Playgrounds offering no adult supervision and, therefore a lower risk of injury, and some that are closely supervised.

Overall, Adventure Playgrounds have some key attributes:

• The child acts as leader. As early childhood educator Jean Marzollo explains,“A common mistake parents make is ignoring the special ability of children to teach themselves.”

• Real stuff. Children have access to real environments and real materials. Pound the nail. Catch the frog. Build the tree house of your dreams.

• Adult support-there to help, there to encourage, but not to direct.

Adventure Playgrounds in Europe

There are some 1,000 such playgrounds in Europe, offering children the chance to build their own huts and forts from scrap materials, care for animals, or help out in the community garden. In the USA, there are still only a few such public places although many schools and pre-schools have been including elements of Adventure Playgrounds in their outdoor spaces.

The first Adventure Playground opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1943. It was conceived by the Danish landscape architect C. Th. Sørensen, who noticed that children were more interested in playing in junk or construction areas than in official playgrounds. In 1946, Lady Allen from England visited Emdrup and was impressed enough to bring the idea of this type of playground to London.

Early pioneers in the European Adventure Playground movement also observed that children were naturally drawn to the destruction left in the wake of World War II. Rather than explore purpose-built playgrounds, children were attracted to the bomb sites of their cities and towns and could frequently be found creating their own imaginative play from materials found in these places of construction and de-construction.

The movement grew from there to include Adventure Playgrounds for children with different abilities and the concept of Adventure Playgrounds spread throughout Europe, most particularly to Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Germany. The first playgrounds in Switzerland opened in 1955 and in Germany in 1967. Currently in Germany, there are some 400 adventure playgrounds, Japan has a significant number, and there are 80 in the city of London alone.

While London does contain many Adventure Playgrounds, most of them describe their play areas as within the “adventure” framework, but do not have dedicated staff and therefore follow the model of lower risk and fewer opportunities for children to design their own spaces. Many of these playgrounds and parks are extremely popular and over the years I have been making the rounds with my children to see how successful they are in person.

One approach that Adventure Playgrounds have adopted is to provide a dramatic theme that children can use to organize their play and create stories around. Three of this type that are very popular in western London are the Peter Pan (Princess Diana Memorial Park) Park in Kensington Gardens, the exhibits for children at Kew Gardens, and the children’s exhibits at the London Wetlands Centre.

The Peter Pan Park includes a large boat, tepees, climbing structures, treasure chests and a water feature (only open in summer).

Children of all ages and families can be found in the park climbing and creating/acting out their own stories in these spaces. A sign at the entry mentions a staff member being present to enhance play, but I have never seen anyone there. When we first moved to London the ship included a net that kids could climb up to get to the watch tower, but this was removed by my next visit. The strength of this park is the strong narrative build around a familiar story that children can use to base as a framework for their play.

Kew Gardens has several areas for full body play for children. The two main outdoor areas are the Badger Sett and the Treehouse Towers outdoor play area.

The Badger Sett offers children the opportunity to crawl around an oversized badger nest and explore underground. Throughout the tunnels are speaking tubes, small interpretive elements about how badgers live, and light shafts to above ground. My children usually spend at least an hour here making friends with other children, inventing some group story and running through the tunnels.

The Treehouse Towers exhibit is a more traditional type of playground with the use of natural materials so that children are climbing and using real wood on their adventures.

This area is extremely popular and has a few elements that are novel, such as a zip line and large basket-like swings made of recycled materials that multiple children can use at once.

The London Wetlands Centre also contains several areas for kids to play and does a wonderful job of including beautiful landscaping with outdoor elements that children can play on. Their outdoor play area includes traversing walls, two outdoor water features, large swings and a zip wire with a launcher, which allows kids to go faster than on many zip lines.

General Playgrounds:

London is a city with a large amount of public green space and most parks contain playground areas for children. Many of them do not differ from those in the United States, but some elements are more unique.

Many playgrounds in Europe contain play equipment that spins (these have been removed from most in America) and climbing features that allow kids to get quite high. The style of play equipment in Europe has a more modernistic style, but is also being widely adopted here in the United States.

Some parks are attempting to create a hybrid and create some narrative as well as try to adapt the play equipment to be place-based and reflect the park’s unique surroundings. One such park is the new Northola Park in Ealing, which includes several small play spaces (one like a ship) and a larger play area. Surround the play areas are climbing mounds build above industrial waste sites and the large play area has small mounds that reflect the larger mounds for small children and adults who may not be able to climb the large mounds.

There continues to be great interest in providing exceptional nature and outdoor play environments for children and families. In current events, a free Nature and Play Symposium will be taking place in Austin Texas on September 1st for those interested in pursuing outdoor play further.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Adventure Playgrounds: An Introduction

Part 1 in a 3 part series

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London; Maeryta Medrano, AIA LEED AP, President of Gyroscope, Inc; Chuck Howarth, VP, Gyroscope, Inc.

Museums, zoos, botanic gardens, playgrounds and parks within the United States have been observing and learning from our neighbors abroad about how to maximize the benefits of outdoor play environments for children and families. It is always a challenge to balance safety, maintenance, and general staffing while also providing child-led learning and creativity that natural environments can provide.

As human beings, we intuitively seek connection to the natural world and some have described this connection as “biophilia.” The term was originally used by Erich Fromm to describe being attracted to all that is alive and vital. Naturalist Edward O. Wilson suggested that biophilia is the connection that all human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life and he proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. Howard Gardner recognized the important of this connection and added “naturalistic” intelligence (having to do with nurturing and relating to one’s natural surroundings) to the now nine types of intelligence modalities included in his Frames of Mind framework.

When thinking about designing outdoor play environments for children, many American organizations have been inspired by the Adventure Playground movement that began in Europe in the 1940s. Inspired by the realization that children are currently growing up in over-scheduled, highly supervised and sanitized world that frequently keeps the natural world at a distance, a growing number of organizations (including schools and parks) are moving toward free play, natural environments.

Where it was once commonplace that kids got muddy at the edge of a pond, or skinned a knee on an old oak tree, children today have extremely limited access to wild, natural environments. In fact, in many neighborhoods, children are not allowed to explore, build forts, follow a creek, or even climb a tree due to development, covenants, zoning, liability issues, and fears of lurking danger. This lack of free exploration in the natural world cuts them off from their own adventures, narratives and discoveries. It also prevents them from learning their own boundaries, managing risk, navigating with their peer group, and utilization of their inherent creativity.

How has the movement away from unsupervised outdoor play affected children? A number of studies point to the rise in obesity, the increased use of medication for children’s behavioral problems, high blood pressure and other physical and emotional health issues that have grown over the same period of time that outdoor play has decreased. But what researchers are finding is that there is growing evidence that access to the outdoors provides important and significant benefits for children (and adults).

In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, there are a number of compelling statistics and studies that support this theory. When children interact with the natural world, they build their problem-solving and creative skills, learn to work with others, and gain confidence in their own abilities. What’s more, they gain a sense of ownership and mastery of their space, a sense of belonging-this is MY space. Children are natural explorers. All they need is opportunity.