“All those hours exploring the great outdoors made me more resilient, and confident.” ~ David Suzuki
2018 has provided numerous opportunities for me to learn about Adventure Playgrounds and risky play. I attended an OPAL symposium with a keynote presentation by Michael Follett, from the UK. Soon after that I participated in a full-day workshop delivered by Rusty Keeler, an American architect who designs natural playscapes for children. (I have visited one of his earlier playgrounds at Cornell University which incorporates musical instruments and sounds). I missed a workshop with Juliet Robertson by two days because I was travelling in Bruges, and in Copenhagen, where I was determined to visit and learn about the Adventure Playgrounds there that I had heard were among the best in the world. Follet, Keeler and Robertson share in common the idea that children’s play needs to include a certain amount of risk, that playgrounds should inspire and empower children, and that exploring nature and getting dirty are part of the big experience of outdoor play. In this post I will try to summarize what I have been learning so far this year, and share some images of the playground I visited in Copenhagen, which I hope will inspire creative thoughts about outdoor play and learning.
A lot of information is available about Adventure Playgrounds, and the risks and benefits for children playing in them. Some of the key ideas emerging from my research on this subject are as follows. Children have the right to play. Play takes different forms which are in evidence during outdoor play (see Alex’s Playwork Notebook). Play that involves some level of risk is necessary for a child’s healthy development; children develop confidence and independence when they can take some chances and solve some problems with minimal adult intervention. Over time, children’s play has become less free and self-directed as educators and parents have observed more reasons to be increasingly protective of children. A shift in thinking about safety has resulted in the construction of playgrounds that are so safe that risk has been virtually removed from children’s play, along with creativity. In recent years, thinking has shifted again towards bringing some risk back into children’s play, and more research is supporting this, more newspapers and news broadcasts, podcasts, and more models of Adventure Playgrounds are appearing in the the United States, Canada, and Japan. While children’s safety should always be a high priority, the idea of bringing some risk back into play seems to be gaining momentum.
“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves.” ~ Andre Gide
It was really exciting for me to be in Denmark this summer, to have an opportunity to visit an Adventure Playground and see the research in action as I watched children play. There were swings attached to enormous, eye-catching frames. The climber included a “rock climbing” wall. There were trampolines to jump on, stumps of different heights for balancing, hammocks to sway in, and a huge tilted disk that turned when walked on. The sand area was expansive, with all kinds of digging materials and loose parts available. There was an area with a water faucet and numerous buckets and toys for sensory play. Some children raced around on assorted wheeled vehicles and others played games with skipping ropes. There was a pirate ship with a mast and ropes for climbing. I watched a little girl scramble up a steep dirt incline covered in exposed tree roots, and then hop over a fence when she got to the top. I have never seen anything quite like this in all of my years of teaching, and I found myself holding my breath a few times, wondering if I should “do something.”
But everything the children did, they did freely, and while there were several adults around, I seldom saw them interrupt the children’s play, except to help with one conflict situation or to provide the occasional safety reminder. It was amazing to watch children be so free and fearless, in the presence of grown-ups who supported that. Adults seemed so free of the constant worrying that has long been a part of my mindset. Seeing another approach has given me the gift of learning to relax a little bit and let go. As I was photographing the pirate ship, I am certain I heard a boy call out, “Go away, teacher!” Perhaps this was a sign that it is time for the teacher in me to make way for the inner child who very much wants to remember how to play.
“A child who does not play is not a child.” ~ Pablo Neruda