The Playground of the Future

As a child I played in our neighborhood. While there was a playground at our local school, we used it infrequently. The popular areas of the playground were the swings and the metal climbing structures that were made of pipe and had a fall zone of hard clay soil. As children, we did not realize bark chips and soft surfaces made from old tennis shoes existed. The city was our playground.

Our city was made of concrete and asphalt with our school, parks and our front yards the only natural play spaces available to us. When I visit the place I grew up it still looks the same. The play structures in the school have changed to meet the current standards, but the number of parks is still the same and the opportunities for play in the parks is similar except that the structures have been upgraded for greater access and safety code requirements.

There are neighborhoods like the one of my childhood scattered all over the country and they feature similar types of parks and playgrounds with the identical type of equipment. Are there new experiences that city parks could provide for children? Could the adventure playground be a new movement for more challenging play in public spaces? Play spaces for children as described by Carl Theodor Sørensen the founder of the movement, "A junk playground in which children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality".

According to the Play and Playground Encyclopedia, there are thousands of adventure playgrounds in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Japan. Performing further investigation I uncovered eight known adventure playgrounds in the United States, but they are rapidly disappearing because of concerns over safety and liability. At least one of the playgrounds that was a true adventure playground in Irvine California, has been converted from the free building mud filled junk yard looking play space into a modern natural playground that only retains adventure in it’s name.

In 2014 NPR published an article about a standout adventure playground in Berkley California. In 2015 the Atlantic published an article about pop-up adventure playgrounds in New York City. Both articles share the positive aspects of free open play and the benefits for children and families. What is stopping the movement from growing and cities choosing to transform selected traditional playgrounds into more challenging and engaging spaces for children?

Adventure playgrounds can be a natural extension of the growing movement away from consumerism to minimalism and the conscious use of resources. The use of recycled materials and loose parts combined with the maker movement is growing and adventure playgrounds are the ultimate venue for making things with loose parts. Large pieces of recycled wood, nails, tools, construction materials, furniture cardboard and recycled tires are just a small sampling of materials that can be saved from landfills and used by children to create, take risks and seek adventure.

As presented in Europe an adventure playground does not need that much space. Many of the adventure playgrounds depicted in articles and videos are in urban and suburban neighborhoods with tall buildings just beyond their walls. This is the reason I believe adventure playgrounds are a natural for cities. No buildings are required for a new playground. An open lot, some fencing and the gathering of materials can start a playground. A small building for the play workers to store tools and extra supplies and poof! The adventure begins.

I realize it is not that simple because of the legal and safety concerns, but we have to decide at some point what we value over what might happen. Accidents happen in traditional playgrounds and they are still being built. Large cities often self-insure so they have the opportunity to create adventure playgrounds if the community values having this type of experience for children. Having experienced a true adventure playground and having worked in a city with a true adventure playground I have seen the benefits and these spaces offer children. Give children fun, exciting, challenging spaces and watch their creativity and spirit soar.

Are there any adventure playgrounds in your area?

Would you be in favor of an adventure playground in your city?