This article, by Museum Executive Director Janice O'Donnell, was also posted on Kidoinfo.
I describe the adventure playgrounds I explored in England and Wales to
Americans, they might be delighted or appalled, but they’re always
surprised. Adventure playgrounds are places absolutely committed to
kids’ free self-directed play. Children build (and destroy) their own
play structures, often using hammers and nails; loose parts – old tires,
mud, boards, buckets, rope – abound; and taking risks is encouraged as
part of healthy development. These playgrounds have a long history in
northern Europe, but are rare in the US (there’s one on the UK model in Berkeley, CA) and can look chaotic and dangerous to American eyes.
the kind of play adventure playgrounds provide isn’t actually unusual
here. In fact, it happens all the time and is completely acceptable – at
As at an adventure playground, kids (and grown-ups,
too) are free to alter the beach space to the limits of their abilities –
dig a hole, engineer a canal system, build a castle. Open-ended play
objects are everywhere – sand and water are the endlessly malleable
ultimate in loose parts, plus there are shells, seaweed, sticks and
stones to decorate your mud pies or sand sculptures, turn into drawing
and digging tools, and wear as costumes. And appropriate risk is ever
present. Small children, not yet ready to tackle deep water, challenge
their own fear by running toward the receding waves and back to shore as
the water rushes at them. More competent swimmers make decisions about
which waves to ride and how deep to venture. And, for the most part, we
let them use their own judgment to assess risk and their own abilities.
think one reason we adults are so comfortable with open-ended,
child-directed and somewhat risky adventure play at the beach is because
we’re familiar with these activities. We indulge in riding waves and
sculpting sand ourselves. Likewise, a lot of the adults I met at
adventure playgrounds in the UK had grown up playing in just such
places. They’re used to that kind of play in that kind of environment.
Also, adventure playgrounds have playworkers, people well trained and
experienced at supporting children’s play without directing it. Having
knowledgeable adults on hand, paying close attention to what the kids
are up to – but letting them – certainly mitigates any danger. Even if a
child does fall off the zip line, there’s a grown-up who’ll help him
out. The lifeguards at the beach play a somewhat similar role. They’ll
warn us of real danger, such as a rip current, and they’ll help us if we
get in trouble, but they don’t tell us how to play. They keep an eye on
things without interfering.
We can learn a lot about our own
attitudes toward free play and risk if we observe and reflect on our
children’s and our own enjoyment of a day at the beach. Maybe we’re not
as risk averse as we sometimes feel. Maybe our kids are a lot more
competent and inventive than we realized.