Katherine Martinelli is a New York-based journalist. She has contributed to AFAR, Fodor’s, and Time Out New York, among other publications.
An urban adventure playground is about to open up in the U.S., and the rough-and-tumble, unstructured play could benefit both parents and children.
Eve Mosher was getting frustrated. Her children, ages 4 and 6, encountered rules everywhere they went to play in New York City. Even at parks and playgrounds, expressly built for the purpose of play, they were chastised for digging in the dirt or climbing trees. Mosher, a native of the Houston suburbs, says that her city kids had “no sense of ownership over a space; there’s no sense of independence and self-confidence that comes from playing on their own.”
She and fellow parent Alexander Khost were talking about this issue one Saturday in August 2014 when the topic of adventure playgrounds came up. By Sunday they had a plan to bring an adventure playground to New York; by December, play:groundNYC hosted its first event.
Adventure playgrounds aren’t a new concept. Also known as waste-material playgrounds, they were popularized in Europe and the U.K. after World War II, when people realized that kids were playing in bombed-out lots. “It was a very urban, rough play experience,” explains Robin Meyer, a playground design project manager and one of eight board members of play:groundNYC. Hanna Rosin gave a great overview in her 2014 Atlantic article on the subject, and Erin Davis’s 2015 film The Land documents a modern Welsh adventure playground in all its tree-climbing, fire-starting, free-range glory.
The primary components of an adventure playground are moveable parts (which can include items like boxes, pipes, paint, hammers, and even saws) and trained, paid grown-up “playworkers,” who oversee and facilitate the play without interfering. Children are free to build their own structures, tear them down, climb, graffiti, create. They are encouraged to take calculated risks in order to learn resilience, grit, and problem-solving skills. The concept of vandalism is moot at an adventure playground—it is child-led play in its freest, most anarchic form. It is organized chaos.
Though adventure playgrounds never reached the popularity in the U.S. that they have in the U.K. and Europe, the environmental psychology Ph.D. student Reilly Wilson notes that there were 20 across America in the 1970s, according to a survey of the American Adventure Play Association (an organization that has recently been revived). There were several in New York alone. But without funding to maintain them, the adventure playgrounds fell into disrepair and looked, quite frankly, like the bombed-out remains they were originally based on.
Shifts in parenting trends are reviving interest in waste-material playgrounds. So-called helicopter parenting, in which parents hover and rush in at the first sign of distress, is increasingly being called out by authors and researchers writing books and articles about the importance of letting children fail, working out their own problems, and developing independence. New studies show that we should be letting children engage in riskier play.
Adventure parks benefit parents as well as kids. Wilson, who is also on the board of play:ground NYC and became interested in playgrounds after working as a nanny, posits that adventure playgrounds might help assuage hovering moms and dads. “There’s a lot of social pressure among caregivers to intervene when their kid is making another parent nervous,” she says. “Other adults will step in very quickly so people will preemptively step in so as not to deal with the social pressure.” That pressure is off in a monitored, safe space like an adventure playground, where the culture is to let kids do their own thing.
Marisa Karplus took her sons, ages 3 and 6, to the play:groundNYC pop-up on Governors Island last summer, thinking they’d just stop by then continue on their way. They were all having such a great time that they stayed for three hours. “My husband said that it looked like Burning Man for kids,” she says. “They were happy on their own...It gives [parents] permission to sit back without feeling neglectful.”
Sometimes, though, it takes a bit of reprogramming before parents can loosen the reins. It’s not uncommon to find the occasional sign that says, “Parents! Sit down and relax!”
Using an organization called Pop Up Adventure Play as a model and source for playworker training, Mosher, Khost, and their six fellow board members started hosting pop-up adventure playgrounds around the city, including on Governors Island, where they’ve just signed a one-year lease. Their seasonal adventure playground for kids ages 6-13 will open there in May. play:groundNYC also had a residency at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum this past winter, and they’ve exceeded their $25,000 goal on Kickstarter to help fund their efforts. “We’re at a really exciting moment right now, where there’s growing interest...and I think parents are ready,” says Meyer.
Kids need free-range play
“There’s all kinds of powerful research that shows that play is a natural vehicle for children to learn about themselves and the world,” explains Roger Hart, a professor in the Environmental Psychology Ph.D. Program of the CUNY Graduate Center, the co-director of the Children’s Environments Research Group, and a member of the play:groundNYC board of advisors.
“One of the things that’s wonderful about public space, and the reason we have to preserve it for children, is that it is a democratic space,” Hart tells CityLab. “It’s a space that should involve all kids and should be safe and it’s a place where they can be next to one another and inventing culture and transforming it. They’re making a new world.”
Having the first semi-permanent play:groundNYC project on Governors Island—a ferry ride away from Brooklyn and Manhattan—means that it will be a destination. As Meyers explains, that status has its pluses and minuses. “The plus is that lots of people will come and it will get attention with the sort of cachet of it being Governors Island,” she says. “But in lots of parts of Europe...adventure playgrounds are more integrated into lower-income neighborhoods, and they become a place where young people can go and have a space that’s safe and has adult supervision. The playworkers become almost like a big brother or big sister or social worker-type role. So we recognize that our playground will be different in that respect.”
However, the goal is that the destination location will draw lots of people—and, in turn, attention—to the power of adventure playgrounds. “My hope,” says Hart, “is that it will spark initiatives at the community level where children can have a more sustained relationship to a rich environment like that…There need to be more places where we can see children healthily inventing activities by themselves, with each other, rather than a society that is preparing everything for them.”