This blog reflects on Woodland Tribe's participation in a recent study tour to Hamburg, Germany. The tour was part of Meynell Games Erasmus sponsored play study tours to different European countries. The specific question attributed to the Hamburg mobility was 'How do adventure playgrounds benefit children?' While I will attempt to answer this question my main point of discussion will be whether; children's construction is the true spirit of adventure play? And whether UK adventure playgrounds, unlike their counterparts in Germany, have somehow lost this spirit?
Adventure playgrounds (APGs) were the creation of Danish architect T.H. Sorensen. The first attributed junk playground, as they were then known, was started in Emdrup on the outskirts of Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Lady Allen of Hurtwood saw the success and potential of Emdrup and tirelessly campaigned for the creation of APGs in the UK after the war. With their emphasis on child lead construction and generational community participation they represented a metaphor for post-war rebuilding from the rubble of the bomb sites and that the imagination and work of children could be harnessed to fashion a better world. During the 1950's and 1960's APGs were tried across the UK and became established in many British cities. By the 1980's there were over a 100 APGs in London and approximately 300 in the UK.
However the aesthetic look of UK APGs had changed dramatically from the original Emdrup concept. While that put the emphasis on children building with wood, hammers and nails, manipulating and changing the playspace as they saw fit, UK APGs in the 1970’s and 1980’s became dominated by a larger scale and adult lead construction technique. This involved the use of telegraph poles to build large swings, forts, castles and towers. These were built by (mainly male) playworkers and the ability to use and operate hand tools became a specification in the playworker job description. These were the APGs I grew up playing on in South London in the1970's, and have built, worked and managed for the next 40 years in Cardiff, London and Bristol.
‘The philosophical drive [or the spirit of adventure play} that inspired the play movement of the 1960s, that made it a movement, and made play an issue is no longer there. The philosophy remains, buried in the fading constitution of play organisations everywhere, but the hope is gone.’ (Hughes and Williams, 1984:8)
While Hughes and Williams refer to the state of play 30 years ago, the socio-political conditions needed for the ideas and ethos behind the APG movement have become progressively more difficult. Across the UK established APGs that have long been community assets are being systematically closed. In Denmark and Germany APGs more protected status is threatened by a lengthening of the school day. But has the hope, philosophy and spirit of UK adventure play really gone?
My own perception of APGs was changed by a study tour to Copenhagen in 2013, a Hurtwood Foundation sponsored study of APGs in Berlin in 2014 and this mobility to Hamburg and Berlin. What I saw on my travels was a model of adventure play more akin to their original concept of Emdrup in the 1940’s, and the model that Lady Allen initiated in the UK. The APGs in Copenhagen, Hamburg and Berlin still firmly placed their primary purpose on children's construction. While in Copenhagen children's construction of dens and small huts had become more historically symbolic and was largely adult lead, on German APGs opportunities for children to build on a large and ambitious scale were still very much in evidence.
This is in stark contrast to what I have seen over the 30 years I have worked on and managed UK adventure playgrounds. When I started on APGs in Cardiff in 1986, as a trainee employed by the Man Power Service Commission, children’s construction had virtually died out. In fact the playgrounds and the children seemed to be locked in a cycle of destruction, old and new structures would regularly go up in flames. At one playground this celebration of fire was combined with bonfire night and politics, large papier mache effigies of Thatcher and Reagan would be carried through the streets and ritually burnt. When I became a London Adventure Playground Association (LAPA) trainee in 1988 most of the structure building and construction was done by staff, ambitious projects involving BT telegraph poles and large reclaimed joists. As a trainee I was given the basics in hand and power tools. I became obsessed with putting up telegraph poles for big swings, towers and bridges. Learning the best way to dig an 8ft hole for a 30ft telegraph pole (a long narrow trench with a good straight edge at one end), the mechanics of lifting telegraph poles by hand with pulleys, guide ropes and A frames. One of my most vivid memories is the moment when the pole is finally upright in the hole and Paul Bonel racing in and giving it a bear hug while we packed earth and stones into the hole.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s I built with Mick Conway big swings with radically sloping platforms to swing from great heights or play games of border, we were always looking for the unorthodox, putting our adult view of the world into our structures. Mick was always thinking of ways to encourage children’s build but by that point the culture had become almost non-existent, so Mick (ever the innovator) was designing large flat pack dens that children could slot together and easily take down and adapt. By the time I became Manager of Play in Bristol in 2000 the culture of building by both children and adults was virtually non-existent. The APGs in Bristol were managed by the Parks department and playworkers were encouraged to buy fixed pieces of equipment from the annual exhibitions. I tried to reverse this tide and managed to train and inspire a few playworkers in the philosophy of self-build. In hindsight that was all about protecting a UK APG aesthetic of large telegraph pole structures, we didn’t consider a child lead, child level, organic and evolving alternative. It didn’t seem possible. My own memories of adventure playgrounds I saw in Denmark (Holsobro and Emdrup) in 1990 while me and Helen were pavement drawing our way round Europe, was of neat rows of huts with fenced gardens, like a Hans Christien Anderson fairy tale, and a million miles from the macho anarchy of UK adventure play being over regulated by the Tories Children Act (1989)!.
As the funding for UK APG became tighter and tighter in the early and mid noughties the structure building budget became the first to be cut. Playgrounds with large rotting structures were in crises without the money or the skills to replace the forts, towers, swings and bridges that had become the symbols of UK adventure play. With nowhere to go some playgrounds turned to the equipment companies who replaced and sanitised those APGs. When the much needed injection of cash finally arrived through Pathfinder and the Big Lottery (2007-2010) some APGs stocked up their wood piles for large scale building again while some, put under pressure by short timescales, further embraced playful landscaping and fixed equipment.
But enough of rose coloured reminiscing and re-writing of history. What did I see in Hamburg and how can APGs benefit children? In summary what I saw in Hamburg was children’s structure building on a large scale. At practically all of the playgrounds in Hamburg there was evidence of children building regularly throughout the year, constructing large and ambitious dens and structures. All of the processes were in place to do this: kits of hammers and nails, well organised and well stocked tool cupboards, an unlimited supply of wood, large vices and saw horses, a process to de-nail and recycle used timber, fires and stoves to cook, keep warm and burn rotten wood, certificates to determine how experienced and qualified a child was in building (a truly positive and worthwhile recorded outcome and measurement of distance travelled!)
We visited five APGs in Hamburg:
We talked to German pedagogues (they don’t have or recognise the term playworker) who were passionate about children’s construction, that didn’t see it as a throw-back or a health and safety problem but saw opportunities to build as an important part of childhood, along with other hand crafts like metalwork, pottery and gardening. There was a relaxed approach to children’s health and safety, with sticking out nails everywhere, although children were encouraged to collect and recycle (3 old nails got you 1 new), many platforms and dens were joined by walkways without handrails, at Stad de Kinder in Berlin this aspect was enhanced by large crash mats dotted around and very young children encouraged to leap off high structures in their fantasy play and games of chase.
As a group we debated the adults involvement in the building process, some of the group felt that it was impossible for children to build on this scale without adult direction or an adulteration of the child’s play. German adventurists (as that is what they also liked to be called when they weren’t being pedagogues) openly admitted that their involvement was also ‘their way of playing’, building with and alongside the children, co-creating a space that was unique and unorthodox but at the same time recognised, understood and valued by the rest of society.
I found this adult/child emphasis on co-production refreshing, it was sensitively managed with equal amounts of child autonomy (they were allowed to build what they wanted) and adult structure (checking children’s structures for safety and knitting the whole space together with interconnecting adult build structures). It made me wonder whether the UK playwork mantra of all children’s play being child lead and intrinsically motivated was still valid in this context, and maybe just a (necessary) reaction to UK playworkers obsessed by safety and control.
On the adventure playgrounds in Hamburg and Berlin I saw a far more nuanced understanding of children’s rights that allowed for generational cooperation not just on the playgrounds but across society as a whole.
I had visited adventure playgrounds or bau-spiel-platze (build-play-space) in Berlin and Copenhagen before but this was my first time in Hamburg. The evidence of children building on a large scale was more evident in Hamburg than any other city I have visited. Mummelmannsberg for instance was a very large fenced site (the size of two football pitches) almost entirely covered with old and new dens and constructions built by children and adults. The scale was phenomenal, the detail inside the cabins was also revealing, children had built furniture, brought in objects, made locks and latches for the doors. The wood piles (one for clean wood, one for wood that needed de-nailing) were enormous, the large vice used for de-nailing wood was surrounded by a sea of rusting nails.
At Ottesser there was also evidence of lots of building but here the structures had been squeezed into a smaller site (about one football pitch), this meant all of the dens, walkways, viewing platforms were connected by an off ground maze of narrow planks 8ft of the ground. Again the systems for processing new and old wood were clearly thought through, lots of saw horses, well organised wood piles, good de-nailing system. All of the APGs had several effective and productive ways to burn old wood; open communal fires, cosy covered outdoor woodburners, pizza and pottery ovens, covered fire pits.
In other words these bauspielplatze are set up for German young adventurers to build, manipulate and change the shape of their playgrounds. The children have a competency in building that has been nurtured over several generations. It is seen as a valuable part of the German childhood. They cleverly combine a very ordered approach to children’s building with a slightly anarchic and bohemian embrace of permissive freedom. For instance at Kolle 37 they had red and green cards to warn and reward children’s behaviour, quite controlling, but they also used these cards on adults and had shown a red card to a teacher who they felt was talking inappropriately to children. They also said (partly tongue in cheek) that because they had a blacksmith facility on site they could make weapons to defend the site if threatened with closure!
The benefits (of adventure play) that those children and adults gain from having the freedom and spaces to build are evident and unquestionable. Construction and building are recognised as an intrinsic and ontological need in all of us. A time and space to take control of our environments and our lives. It is both empowering and life affirming. And sadly it is an experience that is no longer available to children and adults in the UK. As Bob Hughes said the philosophy and the hope is gone……..or has it?
Woodland Tribe promotes the child lead building and construction side of adventure play at UK festivals. It gives children (and adults) hammers, nails, saws, wood and rope to build whatever they want. The results are short term but spectacular. The feedback from children and adults is conclusive, time and time again they say ‘this is what we want to do!’
So the message here is…..UK it is time to learn from our German adventure play colleagues and re-embrace the ‘spirit of adventure play’, a child and adult shared culture with multiple outcomes for individuals and society, that has building and construction as its primary play principle.