BY: LUC RINALDI
At the end of your street, imagine there’s an old, vacant lot, wrapped by a rickety wooden fence. A pile of tires sits on the shore of the murky stream that cuts through the space, littered with discarded toys and scrap metal. Wooden skids stand stacked and covered in blue tarps and copper wiring. A semicircle of mismatched chairs and torn couches surrounds an open fire pit, sheltered by a row of graffiti-covered freight containers. Saws, screws, and nails lie around; a rope dangles from a tree; “junk” blankets ground. It’s a wasteland of sharp edges to cut yourself on, uneven terrain to trip over, and great heights to fall from. It looks like an abandoned construction zone.
This is your kid’s new favourite playground.
It may not be on your block, but it’s not Neverland, either. A thousand of these “adventure playgrounds” exist across northern Europe, dotting the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, and beyond. Unlike the North American standard—cookie-cutter tubes, swings, monkey bars, and slides in splashes of primary colours—these playgrounds avoid a safety-first mentality in favour of fostering experimental recreation. You need a shovel? Build one. A fort? Skip the pillows and grab a hammer. It’s not just a different form to play; it’s a way to create more courageous and autonomous adults.
The first adventure playground opened in 1943, roughly a decade after the Danish landscape architect C. Th. Sørenson noticed children would play with everything but the playground built for them. That discovery led him to envision a different sort of space, where city kids could have the same laissez-faire recreation as rural children.
The concept spread to the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, but its philosophy clashed with a gradual safety-centric shift in childrearing: A child dies on a certain type of slide and, after a lawsuit, that slide is banned forever; repeat until playgrounds are regulated down to the wood chip. Now the jungle gym at your local park is the same one you’ll find in any city suburb across North America.
But standardization hasn’t made playgrounds safer. Emergency-room visits and deaths related to playground equipment have stayed the same over the past 30 years, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Instead, these new sorts of playgrounds have only decreased physical activity among kids. A study published in Pediatrics showed that children mastered and thus became bored of “safer,” standardized equipment at quick pace.
Kids don’t get bored at The Land, a two-year-old adventure playground in North Wales that’s become an internationally observed model. In addition to being the focus of “The Overprotected Kid,” a March 2014 cover story in The Atlantic, The Land is the subject of an upcoming documentary. And last year, two American child workers visited the site—established after the Waste Recycling Environmental Network secured funds and donated materials—to study it and take their findings back to the U.S.
Adventure playgrounds are not unheard of in North America. Berkeley, California, is home to a sprawling landscape of painted wooden structures and derelict doodads. Winnipeg’s The Forks also calls its new playground an adventure park, though it looks more like Disney World than The Land. It’s not hard to imagine why adventure playgrounds haven’t caught on here as they have in Europe. Their core ethos conflicts with the North American, curfew-enforcing, stay-within-sight style of parenting.
And that’s precisely why these playgrounds are important. They provide an escape from the bubble-wrapped experience that is modern-day childhood. They are an opportunity to learn, in practice, lessons that can’t be taught by command. Tell kids not to do something, and they’ll inevitably do just that. But let a youngster play with fire and they’ll discover—through a series of harmless burns, likely—its uses and dangers.
Experts and advocates argue that adventure playgrounds both instil independence (kids learn on their own) and encourage interaction (they’ll have to work together to build what they see in their minds). Adventure Playgrounds grant children the freedom to try, to fail and to try again—so that they’ll be able to assess risk, and not be afraid of fire, water, heights or most importantly, failure.
This is how big-thinkers are created. By comparison, the local jungle gym might just start to seem like a bite-sized primer for an office cubicle.