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.
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.