It's only natural that we should want to protect our kids; they seem so small and helpless, so vulnerable to the dangers of the world. But actually being a kid means constantly negotiating danger and, usually, coming through just fine.
A recent article at The Atlantic takes a look at a type of playground that's making a comeback — the "Adventure Playground," a playspace that is carefully designed to seem like it hasn't been designed at all. The space the article focuses on is the Plas Madoc Adventure Playground, known as "The Land," a roughly one-acre playground next to a housing development in North Wales.
The Land sounds… well, it sounds pretty great. From the article:
It's still morning, but someone has already started a fire in the tin drum in the corner, perhaps because it's late fall and wet-cold, or more likely because the kids here love to start fires. Three boys lounge in the only unbroken chairs around it; they are the oldest ones here, so no one complains. One of them turns on the radio — Shaggy is playing (Honey came in and she caught me red-handed, creeping with the girl next door) — as the others feel in their pockets to make sure the candy bars and soda cans are still there. Nearby, a couple of boys are doing mad flips on a stack of filthy mattresses, which makes a fine trampoline. At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the younger kids dart in and out of large structures made up of wooden pallets stacked on top of one another. Occasionally a group knocks down a few pallets — just for the fun of it, or to build some new kind of slide or fort or unnamed structure. Come tomorrow and the Land might have a whole new topography.
Other than some walls lit up with graffiti, there are no bright colours, or anything else that belongs to the usual playground landscape: no shiny metal slide topped by a red steering wheel or a tic-tac-toe board; no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off; no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise it deposits you in the creek). The actual children's toys (a tiny stuffed elephant, a soiled Winnie the Pooh) are ignored, one facedown in the mud, the other sitting behind a green plastic chair. On this day, the kids seem excited by a walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbours and is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar.
Adventure playgrounds like The Land were popular in the 1940s, in tune with the World War II-driven cultural expectation that children should not grow up shielded from danger, given that they might wind up fighting in a war. They were strongly advocated for by Lady Allen of Hurtwood, one of the first advocates for adventure play. The whole "give them a bunch of junk and let them go nuts" mentality has certainly shifted over the 70 years since then, though lately, places like The Land are cropping up again.
The Land will also be the subject of an upcoming documentary, after a successful Kickstarter drive last year by filmmaker Erin Davis. You can watch the pitch video here, which gives a good sense of The Land in all its dirty glory.
I get it - I think back to some of the stuff I did as a kid, and adult me is appalled by how dangerous it was. Starting fires unsupervised, climbing massive trees, going into the ceiling of my high school and climbing to perilous heights… and yet I was ok in the end, and I grew a lot and gained a lot of self confidence in the process.
The Land does employ supervisors, but as described in the article by manager Claire Griffiths, their main job is to "loiter with intent" — they keep a close eye but don't intervene unless things look like they're really going to get out of hand.
There's a lot of game design in playground-design. It's all about the idea of engineering a space that will allow people to have fun, and how that pursuit requires that the designer first identify what "fun" is to them. In this case, a child's fun is defined as having the freedom to explore, manipulate, and master an environment, rather than simply climb through a tightly designed jungle gym. Sounds like something that more than a few game designers could learn a thing or two from...
The rest of the story at The Atlantic is great; go check it out.
Images via Back to The Land