Tag Archives: adventure playgrounds

Adventure playgrounds are too important to consign to history

8 Feb

Eran at Glamis

A variety of recent projects in the arts, heritage and academic sectors have taken adventure playgrounds as their theme, bringing welcome attention to this important part of the UK play scene. However, cautions Adrian Voce, it would be a mistake, and a missed opportunity, if the surge of interest were to be predominantly nostalgic or historical.

Over the last year or so, adventure playgrounds in the UK seem to have become the subject of wider than usual attention far beyond the usual play and playwork sectors. In truth, this swell of interest is around an accumulation of separate projects and initiatives, which have each either come to fruition or been launched, with attendant publicity, around the same time.

Perhaps the most high profile of these, certainly in terms of popular culture, is no less than a brand new stage musical. The Lockleaze adventure playground in Bristol, known locally simply as ‘The Vench’, is both the subject and the setting for an original new comedy-musical, described by the Bristol Post as ‘a wildly funny and vivid new production about a miscreant group of Bristolian misfit teenagers who come together to build an adventure playground’. Junkyard will open on 24 February at Bristol’s Old Vic theatre.

Sharing memories

The Vench was also one of a number of adventure playgrounds in the West of England cities of Bristol and Gloucester, recently mined by researchers for the memories that they have inspired and bequeathed to their local communities. Sharing Memories of Adventure Playgrounds (SMAP) was a research project of the University of Gloucestershire that beautifully conveyed, through an exhibition, a film and a short report, the unique role that places like the Vench can play in the lives of successive generations of communities, and the value they hold for neighbourhoods where there may not otherwise be much that children can call their own.

Elsewhere in England, researchers and curators at the Queen Mary, University of London and the V&A’s Museum of Childhood respectively are also collaborating on an exciting new initiative on the social history of London’s adventure playgrounds. Adventures in the City: the politics and practice of children’s adventure play in urban Britain, 1955–97 is a funded PhD project that began last year and will culminate in a new, interactive, permanent exhibition (an adventure playground, one presumes – as much as such a thing is possible within this context) at the museum’s popular Bethnal Green site in East London.

One hears of other doctorates that have identified adventure playgrounds and their history as a subject ripe for researching (e.g. Shelly Newstead’s paper at Child in the City 2014). There are other artistic ventures too. Mark Neville’s recently opened exhibition of photographs on the theme of ‘Child’s Play’ chooses adventure playgrounds as the setting for what it describes as ‘play in free space’. Neville juxtaposes his commanding images of children very much taking their space in some of London’s adventure playgrounds with those of children in less sympathetic contexts: the ‘structured space’ of school, and the ‘oppressed space’ of war and poverty.

‘Fulfilling childhood’

2015 saw the release of a short documentary film by Erin Davis ‘about the nature of play, risk and hazard’ set in The Land, an adventure playground in North Wales. ‘The Land’, as the documentary is also called, was described by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic as a film that ‘will change everything you think you believe … In scene after natural scene the truth becomes obvious: With a little bit of creativity, empathy and guidance, children can be freed to experience a much more fun, adventurous and fulfilling childhood.’

This kind of exposure and recognition for a form of provision that perennially struggles on meagre budgets and – with some rare exceptions – little support from their local authorities, can only be welcome. It is important too, that both academia and the heritage sector are taking adventure playgrounds seriously as the subject of research and cultural archive.

Nevertheless, play advocates may also feel a little uneasy that so much of this attention is from an historical perspective. It is more than implied in this approach that adventure playgrounds today, if not quite anachronistic, are certainly an ‘endangered species’, as Dr. Wendy Russell acknowledged at the launch of the SMAP project last month. She estimates that there are no more than 150 remaining in the UK – and that not all of these are necessarily adventure playgrounds in the original sense of the term – compared to more than 500 in their 70s heyday.

Sense of community

Exploring the reason for this decline needs an article (or a PhD!) all to itself, but as Mark Neville’s exhibition and its accompanying book assert, Erin Davis’ film so eloquently conveys and the children past and present of Bristol and Gloucester’s adventure playgrounds say for themselves, the supported space to play – with materials large and small, with the elements, and with the full spectrum of human curiosity, invention, and interaction, protected from the future focused, outcomes-obsessed world of adult-laid plans and rules for them – and the unique experience of community that is given to children in a proper adventure playground, is too vital to be merely a museum piece.

We must hope, rather, that exhibiting adventure playgrounds, researching their history, and celebrating them through the arts will alert a new generation of advocates, policymakers and funders to their unique value to children and communities now.

Adrian Voce

Photo: Eran at Glamis Adventure Playground by Adrian Voce

Bring back play

21 Jun

by Maisie Rowe

In this guest blog, originally published in this summer’s edition of the Landscape Journal, Maisie Rowe explains how a recent exhibition highlights how much our attitudes to play have changed – and largely not for the better.

Hardly any other modern concept had a more far-reaching and enduring influence than the Skrammellegeplads’, says Gabriela Burkhalter. She is talking about the ‘junk playgrounds’, which were conceived in Denmark by the landscape architect Theodor Sorensen in the 1940s.

Burkhalter is curator of an excellent recent exhibition, The Playground Project, held at the Kunsthalle, Zurich, which reviews a hundred years of playground design through pictures, books and full-size play installations. Her exhibition contained much to inspire the landscape architect, not least by reminding us what design looked like when it was rooted in theories of human development and the belief that play is a right of the child.

The Playground Project in Zurich. Photo: Annik Wetter

The Playground Project in Zurich. Photo: Annik Wetter

Freidrich Froebel, inventor of the kindergarten, wrote: ‘Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.’ Froebel, Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori were just some of the key figures in a discourse that, by recognising childhood as central to human experience, would put children at the heart of the twentieth-century social project. The design of playgrounds took on artistic and social importance: ‘If childhood is a journey, let us see to it the child does not travel by night’, said Aldo van Eyck, who designed around 730 play- grounds for the city of Amsterdam.

‘the twentieth century was not kind to children’

But despite being described as ‘The Century of the Child’, the twentieth century was not kind to children. Conflict and upheaval devastated childhoods and, while the enlightened pedagogues sought to nurture the innate creativity and spirit of each child, cities blindly privileged the motorcar over the child and sacrificed open space to bricks and concrete.

So playground design was always going to be contentious. From early on, it was beset by a tension between mass delivery of practical municipal play facilities and provision that emphasised deep play and contact with nature. Some of the earliest playgrounds were severe, gymnasium- like spaces provided by reformers and philanthropists to engage slum urchins in purposeful activity, once they were liberated by reform from factory labour. By contrast, the progressive designer C. Th. Sørensen spent time watching how children, left to their own devices, played on waste ground, building dens and damming streams.

‘Sørensen said: ‘They (the children) can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality’

Sørensen’s collaborator was Hans Dragehjelm, ‘the father of the sand-box’. They drew inspiration from the German idea of sand play; in Berlin, in the 1850s, huge piles of sand, called sand bergs, had been provided for children to play with. Dragehjelm set up Copenhagen’s first sand playground but Sørensen took the idea further, says Burkhalter: ‘Sørensen made even more room for the creative moment: the children were given materials and tools to build their own worlds.’ Of his ‘junk playground’, established at Emdrup in Copenhagen in 1943, Sørensen said: ‘They (the children) can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality… It is so obvious that the children thrive here and feel well, they unfold and they live.’

An English landscape architect, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, chanced on Sørensen’s project while on a British Council lecture tour through occupied Europe. Lady Allen came from the class of eccentric, posh-but-penniless bohemians. Enamoured of nature, she spotted that these gloriously chaotic environments – with their dens, ropes, bonfires, gardens and animals – offered urban children freedom, self-expression and an outdoor life.

She wrote: ‘In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities… There was a wealth of waste material… and no man-made fixtures. The children could dig, build houses, experiment with sand, water or fire, and play games of adventure and make-believe.’ Adopting a rallying-cry of ‘Better a broken arm than a broken spirit!’ she reinvented Sørensen’s Skrammellegeplads as ‘adventure playgrounds’.

‘playwork practice evolved into a highly-skilled (but under-valued) profession’

Continental adventure playgrounds are relatively orderly affairs. Small groups of children work assigned plots of land; at Kolle 37 playground in Berlin, children to this day are given 20 nails per session to work with, which they use, re-use or barter. Britain’s adventure playgrounds developed a more anarchic and squalid character – photographs of Clydesdale Road Adventure Playground in the 1950s show children revelling in daubed paint and old sofas – while our playwork practice evolved into a highly-skilled (but under-valued) profession. Sørensen was aware of this contradiction: ‘Of all the things I have helped to realise, the Junk Playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works’. It is curious that this most significant of contributions to landscape architecture should be a sort of anti-design; produced by child-builders with the minimum of involvement by the professionalised adult designer, without aesthetic consideration.

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An adventure playground in 1966. Photo: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

While it is difficult to escape the sense that playground design today has become formulaic, the Playground Project exhibition reminds us that it need be anything but that by describing a wealth of innovative sculptural forms, derived from an array of design practices. The play sculptures of Josef Schagerl and Egon Møller-Nielsen ‘combined the autonomy-based language of modern sculpture with the goals of play and functionality’, according to Burkhalter. Their underlying anti-elitism aimed to encourage public acceptance of abstract art.

In America, Joseph Brown, who was a boxer, sculptor and teacher of architecture, experimented with kinetic works like Jiggle Rail and Swing Ring, while Paul Friedberg and Richard Dattner made the playground itself into an abstract sculptural composition. Their landforms invited children to hide, clamber and interact, but designed out parental hovering. In Italy and France, the radical spirit of ’68 informed the experimental practices of Riccardo Dalisi, Palle Nielsen and Group Ludic, whose spaces were tools of political engagement and subversion. And the architect Aldo van Eyck earned himself a special place in playground design heaven by inserting more than 700 playgrounds into the fabric of the city of Amsterdam between 1947 and 1978, combining playground design with a form of place-making.

And so to the present day, where we face growing evidence that children are spending less and less time playing outdoors. The phenomenon is variously ascribed to parental fears, stranger danger, perilous roads, over-structured leisure time and electronic games; the costs are commonly named as childhood obesity, poor mental health, disconnection from nature and the breakdown of community.

While the true nature and effects of this crisis – if indeed such a crisis exists – are up for debate, negativity surrounding the question of children’s play is leading to a reconsideration of what constitutes a playground.

‘(a)…proliferation of adult-controlled monetised play experiences’.

One expression of this is the proliferation of adult-controlled monetised play experiences. At Westfield, London, Kidzania brings children indoors to try out an array of professions, at a cost of £29.50 per child. The experience is claimed to ‘teach kids essential life skills including financial literacy, team work and independence.’ With 28 UK sites, Go Ape, (£18 per child), enables harnessed visitors to navigate a fixed circuit of high ropes, zip-wires and walkways, suspended from trees. These are terrifically fun days out, but what they offer is not true play, defined in the British playwork tradition as ‘freely chosen, self-directed and intrinsically motivated’. At Go Ape, the activity is neither freely chosen nor self-directed. You cannot choose the sequence in which you use the equipment, nor are you free to go back and do something again (and again). At Kidzania, which conceives childhood merely as preparation for adulthood and rewards the acquisition of specific skills, the activity is not intrinsically motivated.

How do you provide the maximum of space for imaginative play in a constricted space? Architect Asif Khan has tackled this problem at Chisenhale Primary School in east London (his children’s school) by designing an elevated structure which effectively creates more space. Access via a rope or a rope trellis, the space not only offers access to exciting slides, but areas designed for quiet and contem-plation. The structure is clad in heat-treated tulipwood, an abundant American hardwood that combines the sensuality of timber with a smooth surface devoid of splinters and great durability.

Of greater interest to the landscape architect is the fact that practitioners from the fields of playwork and design are questioning the logical basis of the playground itself. Adrian Voce is author of the excellent Policy for Play, which describes the twenty-year campaign to enshrine the right of the child to play in government and planning policy. He told me: ‘Adventure playgrounds responded to the loss of spaces where children could play. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need playgrounds because spaces where children grow up and go about their day would be spaces which they – and their parents – could perceive as safe. Playgrounds condescend to children’s need to play. They make it separate: but is this to keep children safe – or is it to keep society orderly and safe from children? Sadly, however, we don’t live in a perfect world so if it wasn’t for playgrounds, where else would children play?’

‘radical thinking about children in the built environment is coming close to eliminating the playground all together’

Some of the most radical thinking about children in the built environment is coming close to eliminating the playground all together. A cross-disciplinary team, led by Dinah Bornat of ZCD Architects, is using people-counting methodologies developed by Jan Gehl to gather evidence of the extent to which housing design fosters or discourages free outdoor play.

Bornat describes this as a new way of looking at external spaces: ‘In housing schemes that work well, play happens spontaneously. What’s needed is for children to have access to car-free, communal space from their doorsteps. We’re looking at ways in which housing design can enable this to happen.’

The origins of these ways of thinking can be found in the work of the anarchist, urbanist and educator, Colin Ward. In 1979, he looked outside the playground and said: ‘I don’t want a Childhood City. I want a city where children live in the same world as I do… If the claim of children to share the city is admitted, the whole environment has to be designed and shaped with their needs in mind… Every step the city takes to reduce the dominance of motor traffic makes the city more accessible to the child. It also makes life more tolerable for every other citizen.’

We should question our practice. We should make cities playable. But let’s not give up entirely on that playful, sculptural, experimental landscape that is experienced with both body and imagination known as the playground. The design of playgrounds still has plenty to say about the design and experience of all landscape.

Maisie Rowe

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