These Unconventional Playgrounds Could Make Your Kids More Creative
Courtesy of play:groundNYC/Philipp Klaus.
In this age of overprotective parenting in the United States, children are hardly allowed to sit still—let alone play freely—without the hawkeyed supervision of an adult. So it may be surprising to learn that there’s been renewed enthusiasm for an unusual type of outdoor playground where kids, aged six and up, can escape from their parents, pick up a hammer and nails, and build a fort.
One such adventure playground, as they are known, opened on New York City’s Governor’s Island in 2016. The 50,000-square-foot outdoor site, called The Yard, bears little resemblance to the colorful jungle gyms that the word “playground” typically conjures. Instead, it’s an expansive patch of dirt and grass piled with junkyard detritus such as tires, crates, traffic cones, and an old kayak. On sunny days, from spring through fall, it’s rife with children donning capes and splashing in puddles, and posting up at workbenches to use saws, hammers, and other small hand tools.
“There seems to be more of an interest now than there was even when we launched,” said Rebecca Faulkner, executive director of play:groundNYC, the nonprofit that runs The Yard. “But the main difference we noticed is there’s less media panic and hysteria and more acceptance.” That acceptance has to do with broader recognition that children have become less creative than previous generations, and more in need of the the risky, unsupervised play that adventure playgrounds allow.
Photo by Marj Kleinman. Courtesy of play:groundNYC.
Adventure playgrounds are nothing new. They initially grew out of a post-war movement in Europe that sought to give children more autonomy and opportunities for creativity. The idea was popularized in London in the 1940s thanks to landscape architect Lady Allen of Hurtwood, who sought to develop spaces with moving parts that children could use to create their own structures. She’d been inspired by seeing the 1943 “junk playground” in Emdrup, Denmark—considered the first adventure playground—which was designed by Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen, who had observed that children enjoyed playing with sticks, boxes, and other objects more than the playgrounds he’d been designing.
The concept spread to Japan, where adventure playgrounds are also still well-attended (as Alexandra Lange relayed in her recent book The Design of Childhood), and to the United States, where they caught on in the 1970s and ’80s. But their demise in the U.S. followed shortly after, in the ’90s, as playground design became more risk-averse. An exception is the beloved adventure playground of Berkeley, California, which was established in the 1970s and still thrives today.
Places like The Yard have earned a new wave of interest in the U.S. lately, as psychologists warn that children are more likely to develop anxiety and depression in their teens (or even earlier) due to a lack of free, unstructured play. Adventure playgrounds not only allow children to play without the distractions of overbearing parents and tech devices, they also allow for scenarios that foster critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and imagination.
In the U.S., this decline in free play is due in part to overprotective parenting styles (e.g. “helicopter parenting”), and an ever-increasing focus on academics and test scores for young children in schools and at home. “Unstructured free play promotes not only physical health, but also social, emotional, and cognitive development,” explained Dr. Kyung Hee Kim, a psychologist who studies creativity among children. Specifically, she added, through exploring the world around them, engaging with peers, and exercising imagination, children can become more open-minded, inquisitive, communicative, and resilient. Importantly, unstructured play also promotes a child’s imagination, which, in turn, leads to greater creativity and critical thinking.
Psychologist Peter Gray, who researches childhood learning and play, noted that whereas older Americans today might reminisce over a childhood of playing outdoors sans adults, in the past few decades, health and safety concerns have largely made that a thing of the past. Importantly, adventure playgrounds offer children a space away from their parents. “Children are much less inhibited with their parents gone,” Gray explained. “Parents will say, ‘Hey, don’t climb that tree,’ or ‘You’re using the saw wrong,’” he explained, and by doing so, “they take all the fun and creativity out of it.”
Courtesy of play:groundNYC/Philipp Klaus.
Currently, among the most admired adventure playgrounds (in addition to Kolle 37 in Berlin and Hanegi Playpark in Tokyo) is The Land in Plas Madoc, Wales, which was the subject of a 2015 documentary, as well as the point of departure for Hanna Rosin’s highly cited article in The Atlantic in 2014. In the latter, Rosin presented the unusual playscape as a strong case against the widespread overprotective parenting strategies among American families. Around the same time, a group of New York City parents, creatives, and educators joined forces to usher in The Yard, the city’s sole adventure playground.
During weekends when The Yard is open free of charge to kids aged six and up (there’s also a day camp in the summers), parents sign a waiver and wait outside, removed from the action. Similar to how adventure playgrounds have functioned historically, The Yard allows children to claim their own space and use things like reclaimed wood, recycled goods, fabrics, and paints to engaged in imagination-fueled, self-directed games and activities. Building forts is one of the most-loved activities, Faulkner explained, but children also tend to do things like fashion superhero costumes or refine their hammering skills.
A number of adults, known as playworkers, oversee the space, looking to eliminate any hazards (like a stray rusty nail or a rotting piece of wood that could collapse). If children ask for help, playworkers give it, but generally speaking, they don’t intervene. Children can always ask playworkers for help, but often, Faulkner explained, they try to teach themselves or learn from peers.
But couldn’t this be unsafe? Faulkner notes that The Yard is no more dangerous than a traditional playground. Safety is prioritized, and playworkers identify and eliminate hazards to maintain the safety of children. There was even a small study, released earlier this year, which found that adventure playgrounds may be safer than typical playgrounds. Risky behavior, however, is crucial to the adventure playground environment, and more broadly, as a 2015 study found, it can lead to better health, creativity, resilience, and social skills among children.
“We advocate that risk is not a bad thing,” Faulkner explained. “It helps children learn to play and solve problems together.” Dr. Kim, who has studied creativity among children extensively (her 2010 study “The Creativity Crisis” found that creativity has been on the decline among children since the 1990s), notes that risk-taking is integral to creativity, particularly as kids grow up and take on careers that require creative innovation. “This risk-taking attitude must be nurtured earlier in life by taking many new risks and not being dissuaded by errors, mistakes, and failures; instead, learning from them,” she explained.
Courtesy of play:groundNYC/Philipp Klaus.
Importantly, adventure playgrounds allow children to interact with peers, which, Gray said, is the most important ingredient for play. “Children want to play with other children; they’re biologically driven to do that, and learn so much in that way,” he explained. And unlike typical playgrounds that might cater solely to preschool- or elementary school-aged children, adventure playgrounds tend to draw a wider spectrum of adolescents, from 5-year-olds to 12- and 13-year-olds, which can be advantageous for all parties involved. “Older kids might, in some sense, be models for the younger kids, but the younger ones might be doing creative things [that] inspire older ones,” Gray explained.
This doesn’t mean that adventure playgrounds are a simple fix for the declining creativity and lack of free play among children today. As is evidenced by the minimal number of them in the U.S., they are not easy to build and maintain—space is a premium, and great resources are needed to pay a staff of playworkers and to keep the space safe and stocked with materials. Additionally, a given city’s health and safety laws could prohibit the needs of an adventure playground. (For example, Faulkner noted that The Yard is able to operate on Governor’s Island because it is not governed by the New York City Parks Department.) Plus, depending on where a family lives, adventure playgrounds might not be accessible. But they do present a philosophy that could help to move the needle.
Faulkner explained that at The Yard, it all really comes down to giving kids freedom to choose what they want to do—which could mean venturing out on a field trip to feed goats, or destroying the fort they spent all summer building. “As long as they’re able to come up with a plan and execute it together, kids can destroy the structures that they make,” she explained. “It’s pretty unique—there are not many other places where kids can do that.”