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.”