In a famous speech on the campaign trail for the US Presidential nomination in 1968 Bobby Kennedy said, ‘too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things…yet the gross domestic product [the official measure of such things] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality if their education or the joy of their play.’
There is nothing quite like seeing an adventure playground in full flow. Children building dens, climbing trees, cooking on an open fire, making gardens, playing music, or simply chatting with friends, or the sound – the general hubbub if children playing, the shouts, the screams of joy, the excitement, the feeling that anything could happen.
There has been much recent media attention on ‘the land’ at Plas Madoc in North Wales, but much of this has focussed on the level of risk rather than the sense of community created in that space. For most children risk is only part of what makes the place so exciting, the main thing is the presence of other children who are also playing – to share challenges and adventures – with children of different ages, temperaments and backgrounds in that same space. Everyday there are a thousand small and large interactions, children making friends, tolerating others, learning what it takes to be part of a community. Not one forced on them by parents or by school, but one created by themselves, where children make the rules – such as they are – to enable them to continue playing.
Adventure playgrounds where first introduced into the UK in the 1940’s and offered as a solution to juvenile delinquency, providing something for so-called ‘rough and marginalised’ children by occupying them in constructive play. But it soon became apparent they defied stereotypes and appealed to all sorts of children. One playworker at Tiverton Adventure Playground in Devon in the 1970’s commented, ‘much has been made of noisy and unruly children and their behaviour but…a new and totally different child has come the the forefront – the shy and quiet child with no streets or playfields nearby.. the inward turning child.. they have gained biggest asset of all – confidence.’
Most adventure playgrounds have been set up by parents and local volunteers, with a strong belief in creating somewhere stimulating for their children to play. The presence of supportive adults is a key to their success, not to instruct or organise but to provide advice, tools and equipment, to resolve disputes and facilitate children in their play. They idea is to create a children’s space, where children can choose what to do, who to do it with and for how long.
Rather than segregation based on age, gender, ethnicity, ability or disability or even behaviour, the philosophy and practice of adventure playgrounds is to support children whatever there difference, however difficult or challenging their behaviour may be, to enable them to participate in a community, a place that is safe and comfortable to be, on their own terms. Where children can make new friends, try new things, or take on a persona but always to find out what makes them unique.
The Indigos Go Wild adventure playground in Brixham was created by a group of parents on a piece of waste ground next to the local school. The parents wanted somewhere children could express their creativity, where they weren’t judged, where they could respect themselves and others, where everyone had a chance to play and active role in the development of the space and the activities that took place there. The parents where aware of the challenges that could come from opening up a space where children’s views and personal experiences came to the fore. They knew much of their time would be spent on conflict resolution, mediation and relationship building and raising an awareness of the impact of the children’s behaviour on themselves and others.
Indigos has been particularly successful in supporting the emotional well-being of children. This is not about shirking the challenges of children’s behaviour, but recognising that children’s safety depends not just on their physical safety but also their sense of social and emotional security; being in a place where they want to be, with other children, supported and not criticised by adults in that space.
The mainstream education system, including specialist provision for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, has much to learn from playwork practice on adventure playgrounds. In an action research study on adventure playgrounds in Nottingham, Wendy Russell shows how an understanding of children’s play can help playworkers reframe challenging behaviour. The study looked at how children with Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (SEBD) play and built on the reflective practice of playworkers working to support their play, rather than focusing solely on the challenging behaviour. This change of approach led to less stress for the playworkers, more relaxed play sessions and a reduction in the extremes of behaviour that require corrective intervention.
Colin Ward describes adventure playgrounds as the highest form of voluntary association, ever changing, with the same tensions, harmonies, diversity of a free society in miniature; with the same unforced growth of co-operation and release of individual qualities and communal sense, which lie dormant in a society devoted to competition and acquisitiveness.
Adventure playgrounds can seem out-of-step in modern times because they are not driven by the market or focus on any particular outcome for children, but motivated by a more general concern of parents and local people about the welfare of children that is often overlooked in statutory or mainstream provision. They offer a place where all children can feel part of the wider community. That is something we all could learn from.
Steven Chown, Programme Development Manager, Play England