I don’t really know why it has taken me several months to post these photos of The Venture adventure playground in Wrexham, Wales. I’ve been sidetracked and distracted with the demands of work and my PhD…so without further ado, please enjoy some photographs of this fabulous space; particularly get a good look at the immense Spanish galleon that was under construction when I visited. It is a massive ship, absolutely huge, right in the middle of the playground. Here you go…The Venture:
I drove to Wrexham, Wales on the morning of July 14 to meet Suzanna Law and her friend Andy. The plan was for us to visit three adventure playgrounds: The Land, The Venture, and The Valley. It turned out to be an amazing afternoon. In this post I will attempt to describe what I found at The Land Adventure Playground, which is one of the most child-empowering playgrounds I have ever seen. The Land might be more accurately referred to as a ‘junk playground’ (where I use the word ‘junk’ to refer to the materials present, not in a pejorative, or derogatory sense), and it is the only adventure playground I visited that truly seems to be a living embodiment of the original junk playgrounds that were created in Denmark and England shortly after World War II. The playground is entirely based on the idea of children creating their play out of loose parts, or ‘junk’- pieces of wood, tires, rope, hammers, nails, saws, fabric, netting, or plastic pipes.
In order to fully grasp the beauty of The Land you need to put aside all of your pre-conceptions of what a playground is and what a playground should be. The Land is a living playground, a constantly evolving space that depends completely on the interests, enthusiasms, whims, ideas, inspirations and creative longings of the children who spend time there. There are no fixed play structures such as slides, climbers, etc.- any extant play structures, such as dens, forts, or bridges, have been built by the children themselves with some assistance from the playworkers on site. I saw two amazing dens that had been built by children over varying periods of time, using hammers, nails, saws, boards, planks, bricks, and tires.
It was incredibly inspiring to see a playground that both implicitly and explicitly says to children, “This is your space, make of it what you will- use these tools, use these materials, and create your own world.” As an adult, I couldn’t help but feel a longing to spend more time in such a space of possibility, where what could happen is truly limited only by one’s imagination and access to sufficient materials and tools.
In The Land I saw echoes of what I witnessed during my visits with Kirsty at Scrapstore Playpods, and with Marianne at Play Wales, to elementary schools that provided opportunities for loose parts play during recess periods. At The Land I witnessed a living example of the truth of Simon Nichols’ brilliant thesis, that “in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”
Before I let you see the photos of The Land, I’ll leave off with a bit more from Simon Nichols, quoted from his article “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts”, written way back in 1971, originally published in Landscape Architecture:
“Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few’s music, use the gifted few’s inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few.
This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.
Building upon this lie, the dominant cultural elite tell us that the planning, design, and building of any part of the environment is so difficult and so special that only the gifted few- those with degrees and certificates in planning, engineering, architecture, art, education, behavioural psychology and so on- can properly solve environmental problems.
The result is that the vast majority of people are not allowed (and worse- feel that they are incompetent) to experiment with the components of building and construction, whether in environmental studies, the abstract arts, literature, or science: the creativity- the playing around with the components and variables of the world in order to make experiments and discover new things and form new concepts- has been explicitly stated as the domain of the creative few, and the rest of the community has been deprived of a crucial part of their lives and life-styles. This is particularly true of young children who find the world incredibly restricted- a world where they cannot play with building and making things, or play with fluids, water, fire, or living objects, and all the things that satisfy one’s curiosity and give us the pleasure that results from discovery and invention.
The simple facts are these: 1) There is no evidence, except in special cases of mental disability, that some young babies are born creative and inventive, and others are not. 2) There is evidence that all children love to interact with variables, such as materials and shapes; smells and other physical phenomena, such as electricity, magnetism, and gravity; media such as gases and fluids; sounds, music, and motion; chemical interactions, cooking and fire; and other people, and animals, plants, words, concepts and ideas. With all these things all children love to play, experiment, discover, invent and have fun.
It does not require much imagination to realise that most environments that do not work (ie., do not work in terms of human interaction and involvement in the sense described) such as schools, playgrounds, hospitals, daycare centers, international airports, art galleries, and museums, do not do so because they do not meet the ‘loose parts’ requirements: instead they are clean, static, and impossible to play around with. What has happened is adults in the form of professional artists, architects, landscape architects and planners have had all the fun playing with their own materials, concepts and planning-alternatives, and then builders have had all the fun building the environments out of real materials; and thus has all the fun and creativity been stolen; children and adults and the community have been grossly cheated and the educational-cultural system makes sure that they hold the belief that this is right.”
Here, without further ado, is The Land. One caveat- the only child you will see in these photographs is my son Daniel, as Claire, who runs the playground, requested that I not photograph any of the other children present.
Today I went up to Kilburn Grange Adventure Playground with my son. I was inspired to visit the playground after seeing a photograph of it in this article in the Guardian newspaper:
The playground took a bit of tracking down, but it was lovely to see when we finally found it. One thing that I very much liked about the playground was the significant use of natural materials and landscaping of natural features, which you will see in the photographs below. Several key parts of the immense climbing structure were built either into, around, or from previously existing trees, and there was some nice opportunity to climb on rocks and explore a long rise and valley covered in grass. Additionally there was a brilliant balance beam made from….a big, long, thick tree trunk. Much more challenging than a regular, flat, metal or plastic balance beam, and quite difficult to walk on in the rain, as my son found out!
Please enjoy the photographs below.
I had a great time this afternoon visiting Battersea Adventure Playground. I met Paul, one of the playworkers, at the entrance when he stopped me upon seeing my camera and mentioned that I could not take photographs of the playground. I explained to him that I was visiting from the States to research playwork and adventure playgrounds, and after assuring him that I would not take photographs of any children, as well as telling him that I was accompanied by my own son, he gave me the go-ahead to take photos. This turned out to be a trickier proposition than I at first considered, as the playground was full of children running back and forth, and I found myself having to wait, and wait, and sometimes wait some more to get a clear photo with no children in the frame. But it was time well spent, as you can see from the pictures below.
I had the opportunity to have a few nice chats with Paul during the time I spent at Battersea, he was very happy to tell me about the playground, a bit about its history, and he mentioned the very unfortunate fact that Battersea Adventure Playground will cease to exist in its current form in September of this year. As is the case in many areas, the local government of Wandsworth, where Battersea is located, is pressed for money, and has decided that one way to save money is to get rid of the playworkers, make Battersea an unstaffed playground, and eliminate many of the risky and challenging opportunities for play that make the playground such a phenomenal place for children.
I asked Paul about a sign that I saw posted on a couple structures on the playground, reading “Warning- Children must not be lifted onto this equipment”. He confirmed my initial assumption that the idea behind the sign was to prevent parents from offering too much assistance and interfering with children trying to negotiate some of the more challenging climbs and play opportunities on their own. Paul echoed a theme that I have heard consistently in my conversations with playworkers over the past several days- the absolute importance of children having opportunities to experience risk and challenge, and to meet these situations on their own, without undue interference from adults.
Paul spent some time lamenting the impending demise of Battersea Adventure Playground, largely because he was concerned that with the end of Battersea there would be one less place where children in the community could experience types of play that are often inaccessible to children in urban, socio-economically challenged environments. He mentioned that there is a mixed demographic of children who use the playground, as the surrounding community consists of very wealthy families almost directly next to families who are much lower on the economic scale.
If I were to summarize some of the big themes that I have been hearing in all of my visits to playgrounds and with playworkers over the past few days, I would highlight the following as being of key significance and importance:
1) providing children with opportunities to play in ways that they would otherwise be very unlikely to experience
2) viewing children as strong, capable, autonomous individuals
3) allowing children the responsibility to sort things out for themselves
4) play as an experience that is vital for its own sake
5) the necessity for children to experience risk and challenge in their play
Anyways, enough chit-chat, let’s take a look at Battersea Adventure Playground, shall we? Enjoy the photographs below.
I spent an hour and a half yesterday at one of the most extraordinary playgrounds I have ever had the pleasure to visit: Glamis Adventure Playground. It was wonderful to meet Mark, playworker at Glamis, and to have the chance to talk with him both about his work and some of his philosophies behind what happens at Glamis. You’ll see that there are many photographs below, and while it seems like a lot of pictures, these are the ones that I trimmed down from the several hundred I took while on site. Before arriving at Glamis I spoke with Mark about taking photographs that included the children on the playground, and he gave me the go-ahead to include children in some of the shots, as long as I remembered to “just don’t stick the camera in anybody’s face.” He made the point that photographs of a playground with no children in the frame can seem a bit lifeless, which I certainly agree with.
Mark described to me how important he considered it to provide the children of the surrounding community with opportunities for play in a setting that contained grass, plants and trees, and different forms of challenge and risk. A central focal point of the playground, as you will see below, is the fire, which was just getting going as I arrived, and which shortly was fully ablaze. You’ll see how Mark and some of the children gathered around the fire, and also how it was put to practical use to cook a pot of soup.
One significant point that Mark emphasized to me is his belief that children need to be given the opportunity to sort things out on their own, both on the playground and in life, more generally. This in no way meant a lack of concern for children’s safety or well-being, but instead signified a sense of respect for children as autonomous beings who are capable, intelligent, and resourceful enough, if given the chance, to negotiate both physical challenges such as some of the riskier play equipment present, but also to resolve inter-personal conflicts.
This was a philosophy that I had heard echoes of from Amanda at Apples and Pears Adventure Playground, when she described how important it was for her to maintain a watchful eye on the children, but to avoid jumping in and trying to resolve conflicts over sharing, etc. immediately when they occurred. She paralleled Mark’s belief that it is absolutely vital that children be allowed the opportunity to sort things out for themselves, as they learn critical coping skills and they develop conflict resolution techniques that will serve them later in life. Similarly for the importance of risk and challenge in play. Without having the opportunity to experience risk as a child, later in life when the child grows he or she will be less equipped to navigate and negotiate risky, challenging situations, having not had the experience early on.
At any rate, enough talk for now….here, enjoy the beauty that is Glamis Adventure Playground.
I spent a bit more than an hour chatting with Penny Wilson this afternoon. She took me on a short tour of one of the neighborhoods in which she works, and then we had a lovely conversation over coffee in a nearby cafe.
I met Penny at the Mile End underground stop, and we walked down the road where she showed me a project she was involved in which transformed a previously vacant lot into a lovely green space with a small climbing structure, beautiful flowers and landscaping, several small grassy hills for children to climb up and roll down, along with benches, tables, and a life-size wooden cow! The cow was apparently connected to the Irish Dairy Farmers group which had supported the project. It is interesting to note that this space is surrounded on four sides by apartment housing, with windows from the apartments facing onto the green space. Take a look at the photos below.
Here’s Penny giving a smile from inside the wooden play structure on the green space. Notice how the structure is constructed of various size branches, unpolished, with bark still on the limbs, and quite beautiful in its own way.
Isn’t this a brilliant idea…a play priority area. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we had more play priority areas?
A long view of the green space, the transformed lot. Apparently it had been a dog-defecation zone before it was landscaped and made to look as it does now, below.
This lot is next in line to be transformed…you can see that it is currently completely empty except for grass and some scrub, and surrounded by apartment blocks, below.
One of the major things that I took away from my conversation with Penny is the importance of working with the community, and really bringing the members of the community on board and building up community ownership of projects like the one above. Another thing that I took away from my talk with Penny is how important it is to develop a network of connections and partnerships between different people and different groups and organizations within the community and within local government, in order to be successful in this sort of work. That, and a whole lot of persistence, commitment, and energy. Penny made it clear to me how crucial it is to really know the people, the social, economic, ethnic, and cultural dimensions of the families living in the neighborhoods where a project such as the above, or an adventure playground setting, or any sort of playwork-inspired play provision is attempted. I was quite amazed with the level of dedication that she has put into her work to improve and benefit opportunities for not just the children in Tower Hamlets, but also for their parents, their families, and the community as a whole.
It was interesting to talk with Penny about play memory exercises, and the power of these sorts of exercises as a way of getting adults to think back to their own childhoods in order to remember their own joys and other emotions they experienced when they played. I expressed to Penny that one of my frustrations, or challenges, is that I often have difficulty conveying to colleagues or other adults the importance of play for its own sake, as opposed to looking at play as the means to some other end, such as improved academics or other measurable, easily quantifiable outcomes. I am interested in exploring further the play memory idea, as it seems like a very positive way of opening the door to meaningful conversations amongst other adults about the true value and potential impact of play.
I did visit Glamis Adventure Playground this afternoon after meeting with Penny, but I’m going to post my photos and reflections from Glamis tomorrow, as I am far too (pleasantly) exhausted at the moment from a day of great play and play conversation to post any more this evening. If you haven’t ever seen photos of Glamis, trust me, you are in for one amazing treat! Stay tuned…tomorrow evening.