Arts feature

The new adventures of the adventure playground

Health and safety laws and New Labour targets put paid to the visionary original adventure playgrounds, but they seem to be making a comeback, says Maisie Rowe

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

Mud, timber, junk, fires, splinters, rust, daubed paint… Suddenly people are talking about adventure playgrounds again. With the Turner Prize-nominated collective Assemble constructing a new adventure playground in Glasgow, and their exhibition The Brutalist Playground at Riba, we’re being asked to think again about these ugly but lovable spaces.

It was the landscape architect Lady Allen of Hurtwood who saw that in these gloriously chaotic environments — with their dens, walkways, animals, zip wires and cargo nets — children could find a freedom, self-expression and self-determination that is denied to them elsewhere.

In 1946, on the way to Norway for a lecture tour, Lady Allen’s plane stopped to refuel in Copenhagen. Here, she encountered the junk play gardens set up by Danish landscape architect Carl Sorensen in a newly built housing estate in Emdrup.

‘I was completely swept off my feet,’ 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.’

Sorensen admitted it looked pretty squalid: ‘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.’ The playground resonated with Lady Allen’s memories of her bohemian country childhood and her conviction that children needed ‘the chance to work out their own kinds of play’.

Back in England, she threw her weight behind the creation of the Clydesdale Road adventure playground in Kensington, which opened in 1952. Over the next two decades, the model was replicated in inner-cities in Liverpool, Hull, Coventry, Leeds and Bristol, and hard-wired into new towns such as Welwyn. By the 1970s there were nearly 500 adventure playgrounds in the UK. Today, there are fewer than 150.

In a period that saw the construction of untold numbers of municipal playgrounds — swing, slide and see-saw planted in a dead sea of Tarmac — adventure playgrounds stand out as a distinct typology. While the conventional playground promoted kinetic play, the adventure playground allowed the child the pleasures of testing, inventing, making and destroying. Filled with junk and waste materials, these are environments made and remade by the children themselves.

A key feature was the presence of the playworker, who being neither teacher, parent nor policeman, was described as ‘a grown-up who can help but won’t “boss”’.

The adventure playground’s roots lie in Nazi-occupied Denmark where, in the words of Lady Allen, ‘in the moral confusion of German occupation the difference between sabotage and delinquency was not obvious, and many of the children had become unruly and antisocial’. The success of Emdrup lay in its negotiation of this line between ‘sabotage and delinquency’. It fought fascism, on the one hand (the first Danish playworker was a member of the resistance), and helped enforce social order, on the other. ‘The permissive atmosphere in the playground provided a safe and creative simulation of lawlessness, where children could regain the trust in society through their engagement with a play leader who acted as their advocate and took their side,’ wrote Roy Kozlovsky, author of The Architectures of Childhood.

The war awoke fears of the chaos within the child — indeed, of the wasteland within us all. But when the bombing was over, the sight of children emerging from shelters to play amid the rubble became a powerful metaphor for reconstruction and renewal. Art therapist Marie Paneth proposed a play centre on a bomb site, arguing: ‘It could have a very healing effect if one were allowed to build upon the very spot where damage has been done.’

Come the 1960s, the focus of adventure playgrounds became the improvement of inner-city living conditions. ‘It was part of a political effort to go into poor communities to help organise and build,’ says the architectural historian Ken Worpole.

Children At Play 1960's - Children Playing At The New Adventure Playground In Notting Hill.
Child’s play: Notting Hill’s gloriously risky New Adventure Playground in the 1960s

From the outset, an acceptance and exploration of risk had been at the heart of the adventure play experience, as expressed by Lady Allen’s rallying cry: ‘Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.’ Then, in 1974, came the Health and Safety at Work Act. Although adventure playgrounds had a remarkably good record for safety — the designer Ken Garland, another veteran of the adventure playground, recalls ‘nothing worse than a sprained wrist or a stubbed toe’ — the legislation eroded its legal and psychological basis. ‘It was not because of what the act actually said but because of the way people sought to misapply or misinterpret it,’ explains Tony Chilton, a pioneer playworker. ‘A number of local authorities used the act as an excuse for withdrawing support for adventure playgrounds, because of so-called safety issues.’

At the same time, adventure playgrounds were slowly subsumed within an expanding state-sponsored childcare system. Camden council demolished its adventure playgrounds and replaced them with subscription-only after-school clubs with fixed equipment. From 1998, there was the advent of Sure Start, with its children’s centres that sought outcomes like reducing obesity. Joyless targets had supplanted fun.

But a further twist of fate awaited adventure playgrounds. In recent years, already squeezed to the margins, their spirit has been stolen by playground designers and equipment manufacturers turning out designed versions of adventure play equipment, exploiting the junkyard aesthetic but stripping it of its child-led creative process.

Which brings us back to the renewed interest in adventure playgrounds. Where is this coming from? For architects and activists it’s a tactical means of reclaiming cities from property developers and repurposing land for social good. For competitive middle-class parents, it’s about a crisis of confidence. Was it so clever of us to eradicate all risk from our children’s lives so that now the only place for them to go truly wild is on the internet? The irony is that, while parents strain every sinew to keep their children safe from damage, that safety itself is stifling the development of children.

Is the answer simply to build more adventure playgrounds? The short answer, of course, is yes: for deep play, communal exuberance and pure recalcitrant joy, the enduring appeal of the adventure playground is hard to beat.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Maisie Rowe is a landscape architect. The Brutalist Playground is on at Riba until 16 August.

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Show comments
  • trace9

    Maisie, Maisie, build me a playground, do
    I’m half-crazy for somewhere to play with you
    We may be a load of nancies
    But I’d like a peep at your panties
    For you’d look sweet
    Hung from your feet
    On a crossbar just build for a view..

    – Of course the main difference between those old pics – of slum kids – & an a’ la mode modern Designer Playground would be – Massive Insurance, having to sign Liability Disclaimers before play, CCTV on the spy for Paedos looking to snap those grrreat up-the-skirt shots, etc., etc. Pity. In summer the little boys here in Portree used to dive & swim naked from a rocky outcrop into the Loch. Real ‘adventures’ now no-longer. Guess why.. (Kloo – nothing to do with the rotten weather – something else that’s rotting..)

  • Dinah Bornat

    Just look what we’re missing! A place where kids can play freely without their parents worrying that they are mixing with the wrong type/getting dirty/not doing their homework/forming their own friendships/learning to swear/playing with dangerous things. Lets have more, and lets employ more people that love working with kids when its not all about education, targets and getting your children into the best schools. You can wind yourself up all you like about paedos trace9, that’s not the point at all.

  • As a boy I used to dream about such places when I saw them on telly or in the papers but there were none where I grew up and when I was at that age. This meant the level of hazard that I tackled to mimic what would have been available in such a place was many times greater and more deadly. Abandoned buildings, Manchester Ship Canal bridges, railway tracks, isolated ponds, rivers and culverts, *shudders*. I made it through, luckily. It’s sad that the retail alcohol industry really understood the point and installed nasty but fun, lookey-likey, foam-covered, primary-coloured, structures inside large pubs where parents could selfishly eat and drink and still pretend to themselves they were being ‘active’. As a Dutch friend always says to me at the end of his visits, “I see you British are still making life as hard for each other as you can.”

  • Joanne Morgan

    I reckon it’s time to put the play back into playground and playtime. I think we’ve all been health and safetied to death. In my opinion, it’s dangerous not to give your child the freedom and space to find their own way. My son has converted the freedom and trust I’ve given him into physical and social confidence, poise and awareness. I let him read Gone Girl with me as a bedtime story. And Grim Scottish Folktales where children disappear into soups…Still alive. He drinks water from the tap…. Still alive. Accidental cocktail at an art opening… Still alive. Picking up hitch hikers in the Sahara…etc.

    Recently, I sat discussing what sort of safe and happy community activities our local committee might provide to bring the community together. There’s no better way to dull something down than to make it so it pleases and includes everybody. Nobody gets hurt or trips on themselves. It’s not possible. 1. BBQ with dish to pass potluck? No because what if someone chokes on your potato salad?!?! 2. Ok. Face painting? No no no. What if someone gets their eye poked out by a paintbrush or has an allergic skin reaction? 3. Music? Oh but what kind of music will make everyone happy? 4. We must hire professional chefs because normal people may not know how to BBQ. 5. Why not just stay home?

    I played in a junk yard as a child. It was great fun; a magical treasure of a place with broken mirrors, rusting beds, bathtubs, tires, odd car parts …. so much to explore…real objects– not some pre-meditated, medicated, watered-down, primary blue coloured thing that won’t hurt you. We used to walk under the road through a giant viaduct to get there…. Without hand gel or water bottles or mobiles to phone home. And the hand gel… Please. What did we do before hand gel and organic coconut water? People are so fluffy. Poof… Made of paper.

    • smallismorg

      A BBQ oh lord no think of all those left wing vegans who would be mortified to death. Actually, wait…. Yes, we need more BBQ’s.

  • Stefany Tomalin

    This is very good, so hopefully a new direction for planning for kids play is evolving- and of course the actual activity is mostly up to the kids not the benevolent protective grownups… who assume they have all the answers-

    maybe a combination of “unplanning” and trust? opening questions more than finding solutions? the energy of discovery?

  • JanCosgrove1945

    well, if they’re coming back, no thanks to the tories or the coup-by-coalition

  • JanCosgrove1945

    cuts killed them off not H&S, where did that pile of unsubstantiated poo come from
    – usually tory and lib dem administrations along with youth clubs by the score

    • smallismorg

      How much did the sanitized tarmac play area’s cost? A damn sight more than the bit of wasteland we used to play on I’ll guess.

      When did they disappear? when they were still around when I was a child of Thatcher and disappeared after 1997.

      When did Scouts stop being explorers in the mold of Scouting for Boys? Likewise, it wasn’t under thatcher.

      When did the rise of HSE begin? Not just in the playground but in the workplace as well. When did the scare stories of children playing outside begin? When did adult supervision of every moment and thought of childhood begin?

      When did all the cutbacks in the Air/Navy/Army Cadet forces create the combined cadet forces, again sanitized ghosts of their previous incarnations, yes, it was 1997 onwards.

      So if they’re coming back, it’s because of a party that hasn’t been in power for 5 years right?

      • JanCosgrove1945

        What a CONvenient memory you have. For YEARS many unstaffed playgrounds were DEATH traps with REALLY dangerous equipment which DID cause death and serious injury. It wasn’t governments that raised hue and cry it was parents and bodies like Fair Play for Children and they fought a mixture of denial, cover-up, shifting blame to kids. So change WAS necessary. HSE hardly gets involved, what we have is an arse-covering culture (except in children’s homes, at least the kids arses where some MPs may have been involved). That leads to what we see now, and it doesn’t even protect kids, it simply denies them experiences.

        Let’s get a bit of perspective (good for any Spectator). In the golden days of yore, kids climbed trees and fell out of them – did parents simply say “OK it’s just them doing what they do, never mind if they fall”? No they didn’t, if they thought it risky – which is why kids always played somewhere else out of sight if they thought parents would go spare or a neighbour tell mum.

        What you don’t do when making a playground: 1) build in obvious and unacceptable risk 2) remove all challenge. It’s a fine balance.

        As I observed once when acting as expert witness in a case where a child had sustained a fall from an item of equipment, context is everything. In this particular case, it was said the child was using the equipment inappropriately, but nor rules of use were posted on the item. 50 children had been taken into the public playground by 2 teachers on the way back to school for an treat, and they sat on a bench chatting not supervising (50 excited schoolkids in a short unexpected break-treat is not the same issue as say 10 at one time out of school taking their time, relaxed). The child, aged 6, had accessed easily a ridge outside the fort area which looked a good thing to do, but was not thought of by the designers as something that might happen. (Why I wondered was it there if it had no use for the kids?) The child fell because of the incorrect installation of an item which caused the child to make a quite risky action which was not intended for the item.

        Adventure playgrounds are staffed ventures which are often self-build (or used to be until the equipment manufacturers poked their noses is). The looked unsightly, and there was risk/challenge galore. One cannot claim it was all justified or acceptable, and no doubt it was a bit of a headache for councils etc to have to cope with something so ‘unregulated’. Did HSE ever close one? Someone cvan tell us no doubt, I hadn’t heard this.

        I don’t think they’re coming back in any great way, a huge shame, kids loved them. They do require land (and isn’t that an issue as people in one South London area found out when the LEA wanted the vennie for school parking). They can be focal points for play development and innovation (often ignored as a role, alas) and I always felt they’d best contribute if they were the hub also for 2/3 Fun Buses (converted buses changed to play centres on wheels) which would then operate in the area on a rotating site basis. Ran one for 28 years, marvellous stuff.

        • JanCosgrove1945

          Oh the Buses can also fit wonderfully into Play Streets.

        • smallismorg

          I don’t disagree with much of what you say. Except that in the 70’s yes a lot of these places were deathtraps and some people died. My friends and I were left unattended from morning to dusk, we did dangerous things and none of us died. As a teacher I am horrified when kids do anything that might cause them to break skin. Then I go home and remember the time I nailed my hand to walkway 20 feet up in the air between two trees. Ho Hum. The kids I teach today don’t even know what a hammer is for, less so how to use it, and I see this bred in uselessness and think…. it’s a question of balance.

          • Neil Coleman, OPAL

            You don’t seem very well informed. There’s nothing stopping a teacher from promoting ‘risky play’ so why not do it at your school? OPAL has helped over 200 primary schools transform their outside environment.
            A lot of what holds schools back is ignorance of what is actually allowed. The rest is up to your imagination.

          • smallismorg

            Clearly, you’ve not been in a union dominated school. There is everything against you a) trying risky things and b) learning.

            I’ve given up on the UK state system having investigated both the UK and China systems. (Both have good and bad points) I’m off to live a life of comfort pretending to be a left wing academic for the next 15 years.

          • smallismorg

            To clarify: I worked in a school where the headmaster said “if you think they can cope with it, do it”, another school not 4 miles away the headmistress said “don’t make it too hard for them they’re only little”.

            It seems the schools you work with are probably in the former camp. The former also being the school where year 6 are doing Maths and English GCSE’s in preperation for the local grammers. (It’s also smack bang in a tatty council estate, the latter, in Mid Vic Terraces).

  • Engaging piece – thanks Maisie. There’s undeniably been a recent growth in interest in adventure playgrounds (I’m surprised you didn’t mention The Land in Wrexham, which is all over the internet). As well as the ‘pure’ AP model, I’m also interested in how some of its key ingredients – loose or junk materials, a balanced approach to risk, and a hands-off style of adult oversight – have been taken up by other initiatives. Here are two: play streets, as promoted by the Playing Out campaign group, and Scrapstore PlayPods, as supported by Children’s Scrapstore. How do such schemes overcome health and safety concerns? In a phrase: Risk Benefit Assessment. Google it.

  • Fascinating article, but for me it has ended where it really needs to begin. We desperately need dialogue about the current state of play with media exposure.

    In my view there are two major inhibitors of interesting play provision and probably the most important is professionals (and I’m talking about parks and schools providers, not the playwork fraternity) fear of risk taking, losing their professional reputations Risk taking using mud, fire, water, straw, as well as self build and even some edge conventional designs. All the tools are there for them to do this, with the full support of the HSE!

    The second is the reluctance of Insurers to give sensible rates for play spaces. Currently they cannot be looking at reality and basing their premiums on that, if they were no one would be able to insure a car.

    Finally, the HSE can no longer be blamed (if it ever could!) for inhibiting the opportunity for children to take reasonable risks and reasonable can stretch a long way in the right conditions using Risk Benefit Assessment.

  • Mark Gladwin

    Jan Cosgrove is of course right that the main killer of adventure playgrounds has been government spending cuts, not elf’n’safety. (And definitely not the HSE). But to the extent that elf’n’safety is to blame, maybe the next step is to name and shame insurance companies, followed by some consumer boycott action. Share Action shows what can be done to embarrass big business.

  • Shelly Newstead

    Great to see adventure playgrounds covered in The Spectator, and congratulations to Ms. Rowe for getting the issue covered in the mainstream press. I would be interested to know more about the author’s sources (particularly primary sources) as some of the historical details in the article are inconsistent with my own research, and I would also question the interpretation of the motivation behind the early adventure playgrounds. Anybody interested in finding out more about modern adventure playgrounds around the world might enjoy the second issue of Journal of Playwork Practice, and our research seminar in November, on the theme of research and adventure playgrounds.

  • donne buck

    As one of the pioneers of the original Adventure Playgrounds in London and a friend and collaborator of Lady Allen of Hurtwood I am very keen that her message is not forgotten. In order to preserve the history in accessible forms I have given my whole London and International Children’s Play and Playgrounds archive to the V&A Museum of Childhood where anyone interested can see my photographs and texts on application to the curator, Alice Sage. If you use it, please let me have some feedback. Thanks

  • jameswoudhuysen

    Retrieving The Child’s Sense of Adventure, aka ‘Better a broken bone than a broken spirit’: terrific piece on adventure playgrounds by Maisie Rowe @accordiongirl40

  • The Wild Network

    We have undertaken research into the reasons for the decline of outdoor time and these are complex and many. At The Wild Network we have identified 11 barriers to Wild Time – time spent outdoors. Some of these include: the increase in screen time, parental fears, a risk-averse society, perceived stranger danger, the commercialisation of play – several of which have already been discussed in
    the fascinating comments here. Not one issue is to blame; they are all interconnected and vary across the country depending on socio-demographics and by location, too. It’s always good to read articles like this, which create debate and conversation, as increased awareness is so important to effect change. Without debate, we risk heading down a pathway into a new social order (much without realising) where children are never allowed outside and cannot develop many skills required for life. This includes well-being and cognitive development etc. Sadly, those in poorer areas are likely to be most affected and lose out. Hopefully increased publicity, like this article, plus others – including the recent coverage of the reversing of the No Ball Games rules in Hackney will continue to create conversations for change. Thank you for creating this one today!

    • Maisie Rowe

      well said! thank you.