making your play


Close your eyes and imagine the most nourishing play you can conjure up from your childhood, either alone or in a social setting.  What were you doing?  Where were you? How did it feel?


What do you think these things have in common?


These towers of awesomeness in Berlin, Germany.


This little fort world in Berkeley, CA.


This woodsy play space in Mercer Island, WA

Aside from the clear commonality of being super cool-looking, what they all have in common, is…..drumroll please………they all were built by kids. Welcome, friend, to the world of the ADVENTURE PLAYGROUND.


(Welcome, also, to the frantic, impassioned inside of my brain.  Welcome to the places I have feverishly thought and schemed and planned about for the last whole lot of months, with a few sidetracks into more ‘realistic’ directions, brought on entirely by myself.  Luckily, I came to my senses.)

The ramifications, contexts, methodologies and my future plans relating to ADVENTURE PLAYGROUNDS will have to come out slowly; they are not a simple story and they are still being uncovered. I will be looking more closely at many of these things in future posts, however, here is a brief history as I understand it.

Since I am a little bit Danish, I am proud to say it all began in Denmark  (though by the fuss my beloved grandmother made of it, you would think I was a whole lot Danish.)  Ahem.  But anyway.

It started in the 1930’s in Copenhagen, when architect C.T. Sorensen “noticed that children preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds that he built.”  In fact, and in stead, they chose to play in the war rubble, where they could build, create and be their own architects.  Where they could create forts and dens and places of their very own.  Who, really, would rather play on a static system of somebody else’s imagining than create their own world with their own hands?

I wonder how many of you, in your happiest play memories ,  MADE  those playscapes which you still remember so brightly?  Were you constructing a blanket fort in your living room or making mud soup in your woods kitchen complete with bark and berry vegetables? What were the images that came to your mind, I really do want to know.  Those of you who grew up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are likely to have memories that are zinging with freedom, building forts in the woods down by the creek and running through the neighborhood in packs, expected home at dark.  No hours inside playing on computers.  Nobody too freaked out about what might happen to you out there.   How far we have come; I would say for the worse.

But back to the adventure playgrounds.  An evolving process titled them firstly  “junk playgrounds” , “creative playgrounds” or “building playgrounds”, with the term “adventure playgrounds” coming later.  It is worth noting that the very first such play space, opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1941, was called “Skrammellegepladsen” and the Danish word “skrammel” had quite a positive connotation, and had the added meaning of ‘reusable rubbish’, unlike our relatively negative relationship to the word “junk”.   John Bertelsen was the first ‘playleader’ or ‘playworker’ in Emdrup.  Lady Allen of Hurtwood visited in 1946, and brought the idea back to London.  And the adventure playground was off and running.

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Emdup Adventure Playground, Denmark

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Lollard Adventure Playground, England

What is one, exactly?  Of course like all things that are ‘living’, they look different in every place, adapting to the people and place with ease.  In adventure playgrounds, kids build things, they create their own space, the engage in play as free from adult direction as possible.  The have great ideas and implement them, they build forts and swings and teeter totters out of widely available and exceedingly diverse ‘loose parts’ that are to be had everywhere.  They use tools that parents in the U.S. might consider dangerous. They create worlds, negotiating and processing together the whole way through.

You might have seen some crazy clips from them if you ever saw the Up series of documentaries – they are a feature in the first film, SevenUp.  You also might enjoy this really classic, old school 13 minute short documentary that gives a great early adventure playground history.

In Europe and elsewhere there are now more than 1,000 of these beautiful, wild places, most of them in Scandinavia, the UK, Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Germany.  In the U.S. there are three.  Yup, I typed that right.  Three.  Though hopefully that is changing.  Others have come before but are gone due to loss of land or funding.  The ones that still exist are pretty amazing, and as as I mentioned before, they are alive in a very real sense, and so are quite different in every place.

This one in Berkeley, is the oldest remaining in the U.S. and here is a great blog post with lots of pics.


This one  is built in the woods of Mercer Island, just outside of Seattle, and comes down at the end of every season.  Huntington Beach, CA is the home of the third U.S. adventure playground – they have  a cool shallow pond where kids build and captain rafts and cross the water on rope bridges.


Does all of this seem dangerous?

The kids aren’t just in there with saws and hammers and climbing on things by themselves.  A very important part of the playground are the ‘playworkers’ whose job it is to join with the kids to provide a great place to play.  And to ensure a relatively safe play space.  And then to get out of the way.   I say relatively safe because clearly there is a very different understanding and relationship to risk in these environments.  Taking calculated, reasonable risks are how children build all manner of skills. The reality is that accidents are pretty rare in adventure playgrounds….. why?  Kids in these spaces are ‘on point’, they are on their ‘edge’, and when you are on your edge you are PAYING ATTENTION.  And when kids are paying attention, they are pretty darn competent.  They aren’t on the same boring, static playground  they have been on for years, now using it in ways it was not designed because they are trying to make it more interesting, challenging, alive.

I am currently taking the ‘Playworker Development Course’ through Pop Up Adventure Play,  a wonderful organization dedicated to play that works with a mobile, Pop-Up model.  Be on the lookout for my own mobile, pop up play event coming this spring under the name The Play Workshop!

So there you have it, a glimpse into the inside of my brain these days.

I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on all this!  I would also love to hear your play stories, either from your own childhood or from that of some child or children you know.  What do you like about these playgrounds?  What do you not like?

As for me, I like.

And it’s ON.


3 thoughts on “making your play

  1. this sounds wonderful. i remember making little worlds on the ground by arranging the sticks and leaves and pretending that small plants were trees. it was so absorbing! also making lean-to’s in the woods out of fallen branches. those were definitely the coolest places to hang out in. lilacs make a great place to play in that feels like a fort.

    • Matt and I were just commenting how completely happy the kids are when they are let loose on a pile of… whatever- the more “random’ the better. I thrill to watch them build a world and a story, and I know they are having that jammin’ feelin’ inside. 🙂

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