Little Lands of Youth Liberation
By Bria Bloom
Most of us know about the typical playground. Filled with plastic or metal climbing structures, slides, and platforms, generally created to pre-prescribe children’s play. At these playgrounds, nervous parents will often hover around their children, making sure they don’t climb up the slides, get in another child’s way, or jump from too high a platform.
These playgrounds are all over most cities. In fact, my step-son and I can access two playgrounds within short walking distance of where we live. I’ve spent too many hours watching parents yell at their children from the other end of the playground, telling them they cannot climb up on top of the tube slide. I’ve watched parents micromanage their child’s every move, ensuring they never get in another’s way, hurry through their turn on the slide, and be careful while running. As if running into a conflict or challenge with another kid, thus having an opportunity to practice communication and come up with their own creative solutions, is the worst fate that we must not allow to befall them.
Many people are unaware that a very different type of playground exists: adventure playgrounds. Adventure playgrounds, also known as junk playgrounds, are spaces that are filled with “loose parts,” such as wood, old tires, cardboard, paper, and other items that are considered “junk” by adults. They often also have tools such as hammers, nails, and saws, and dress up clothes, fabrics, and other materials for imaginative play. Young people know that the items in these playgrounds are cast aside by the adult world and therefore do not feel restricted in how they use them. Done right, these spaces literally allow children to construct their own playgrounds, in whatever way they wish, while using their own tools and ample resources.
Another important aspect of adventure playgrounds are playworkers. The job of a playworker is to set up the space, keep the playground updated with usable junk, be available to help when asked, and to consistently assess risks vs. hazards. Risks are things that a person undertakes while knowing the danger involved, such as climbing a tree. Hazards are dangers that you are not aware of, such as stepping on a nail you didn’t know was there. Before young people arrive to the junk playgrounds each day, the playworkers’ job is to make sure the area is free of hazards, so that the young people are free to take calculated risks in this liberating space.
Junk Playgrounds and Autonomy
“I do not believe that junk playgrounds specifically "promote" autonomy but rather, provide space where autonomy for children has a chance of survival. This is a nuanced difference, but an important one...” -Alexander Khost, co-founder of play:groundNYC
Not taking away children’s autonomy can seem complicated. What exactly does it mean? What does it entail? How do I do it? Often, as Alexander illustrates above, it simply means stepping aside and allowing young people to play freely, and take risks. The goal of adventure playgrounds is to do just that, to create spaces in which autonomy for children “has a chance of survival,” and is, essentially, protected from adults’ judgement and control.
There are so many reasons an adult could cite for asking a young person to stop doing something, one being that they may break whatever they are playing with. While it is valid that certain materials need to be protected and treated with care in order to not break, this reasoning is often overused by adults. Young people become used to hearing this, and can internalize it in a way that inhibits their free play when they are constantly worried about harming materials that they know adults care about. One of the reasons that the word “junk” was specifically chosen in the naming of these playgrounds is to make clear to children that the contents are things that adults don’t care about and can be used in any way they want without the fear of breaking or harming it in a way that would upset someone. This isn’t to say the junk isn’t valuable in their play, and that we should only give children junk to play with because they can’t be trusted to take care of materials, rather it’s to say that they deserve an opportunity to play with something uninhibited by adults or societal rules about how they “should” treat it.
Since junk playgrounds are spaces that are protected from adults’ judgement and control, children are free to use the materials and tools in whatever way they wish. This could be constructing a fort from boards and nails, creating a fire with small pieces of wood, building obstacle courses with boards and tires, or the many other countless things children have come up with. In junk playgrounds, children are free to make their own choices, play in whatever way they wish, and construct their own worlds.
“As I soon learned, the concept of adventure playgrounds is to create a space where children and especially children’s play is respected. In many ways, adventure playgrounds are refuges where youth rights are protected and children are given space and time to make their own decisions without adult judgement.” - Alexander Khost
For more on adventure and junk playgrounds, check out these resources:
Starting on page 22 is a list of “play types,’ which is useful to read as an adult as it reminds you that there are SO many ways in which children (and adults if they’ll let themselves) play when uninhibited.