Risky Playground Design, Erin Davis
Illustration by NatalieAnn Rich.

Look Ma, no hands! Many believe that The safety-first design of most U.S. playgrounds tends to stifle children’s independence rather than foster it. Now a movement to create spaces that actively encourage kids to tromp through creeks, climb trees and play with fire is gaining ground.

A girl with ripples of red hair crouches over a fire in the dark, a smile drifting across her face as she scoots a pair of blazing objects about with a long, thin stick. A small figure in a hooded sweatshirt races atop a wall of green dumpsters. A boy cuts a piece of cardboard in half with a sharp-toothed saw. Last, a girl dressed in pink and blue runs alongside a creek, weaving past another fire clouding the air with smoke and through a landscape strewn with tires and crumpled tarp.

This might sound more like a set piece in the latest dystopian novel for teens than a modern-day playground. But kids scaling potentially perilous heights and playing with tools that would land on any U.S. schoolyard’s verboten list is the stuff of the everyday at The Land, an adventure playground in North Wales. It’s the subject of a new documentary by director Erin Davis, also titled “The Land,” which introduces American audiences to a theory of play that’s low on rules and heavy on junk.

Teaching kids to embrace risk—not to mention garbage—might seem at odds with the original purpose of playgrounds. Children’s recreational spaces took root in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century as a means of getting kids who lived in the slums out of the dirty, dangerous streets and into more wholesome spaces.

Progressive reformer and nurse Lillian Wald opened one of New York City’s first municipal playgrounds in 1902 in the backyard of the Henry Street Settlement, which provided health care, vocational training and other services to immigrants living on the Lower East Side. The playground’s off-street ambiance included “a big sandpile, swings, gymnastic equipment, and ‘baby hammocks,’” University of Virginia urban planning professor Daphne Spain writes in her 2002 book How Women Saved the City. “The only greenery consisted of a border of flowers, a wisteria-covered trellis, and two ailanthus trees.”

Standard playgrounds throughout the U.S. have only become safer and more structured in the decades since—complete with rubber matting to soften tumbles from the jungle gym. (Hanna Rosin diagnosed middle-class American parents with a case of “safety paranoia” in a 2014 article for The Atlantic about The Land, warning that overprotective attitudes toward play come at a cost to children’s confidence and capability.)

While traditional playgrounds are designed to show children how to play, adventure playgrounds ask kids to figure it out on their own. Playing with “loose parts” like sticks and metal scraps in a vacant lot is more likely to encourage self-reliance and creativity, the theory goes—and far more engaging for children than a plain old plastic slide. Minimal adult supervision is another key tenet. Staffers known as playworkers are on hand to support children’s activities and intervene when necessary, but otherwise keep a low profile. And parents are meant to stay on the sidelines.

Thanks to Davis’s documentary and surrounding publicity as well as spaces like the Imagination Playground in New York City, the U.S. is now experiencing a fresh surge of interest in expanding the boundaries of play. Just days before “The Land” premiered at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, NC, Davis spoke with A Women’s Thing about her film and the push to make play wild again.

Girl from The Land documentary by Erin Davis
Risky Playground Design, Photo courtesy of Erin Davis.
Risky playground design The Land documentary by Erin Davis
Photo courtesy of Erin Davis.

What got you interested in playgrounds?

I was living in New York at the time, so I was in therapy of course. And I was learning about how important childhood is to who you become and how it casts this long shadow of impact on your life. Then I read a New Yorker article by Rebecca Mead about the Imagination Playground in the South Street Seaport. When I read about the playground and how children’s lives have changed as urbanization happens over time, it was really interesting to me. I was also working as a nanny while I was in grad school and I took the kids down to the Imagination Playground. It stuck with me.

Since that playground had caught my interest, I went to a lecture on it at the Center for Architecture in New York. Afterward I asked a question that fell really flat and I was embarrassed. But as I left, a woman came up to me and said, “Hey, I think we should be friends.” That was Morgan Leichter-Saxby, an English playworker and one of the co-founders of Pop-Up Adventure Play. So I sort of weaseled my way into that world and heard about The Land. Once I did there was no turning back.

How would you describe The Land?

It looks like a junkyard—a big mess. There’s an eight-foot-high privacy fence and inside there are kids crawling everywhere, climbing and scrambling and doing their thing.

What do they play with?

All kinds of things: tires, a rope swing, boards, pallets. There was a piano while I was there, a baby carriage, a bin full of mismatched puzzle pieces. It’s a mixture of stuff you would expect to see in a children’s environment and then stuff like a saw or a huge pile of sticks that the kids will do something cool with. It’s all dumpster diver stuff—if you’re walking down the street and see a salad spinner or a mannequin, you can just pick it up.

This is a real departure from the structured aesthetic we often see in playgrounds. What’s the advantage of playing in a place that looks so chaotic?

It signals permission to the children—it tells them there’s nothing precious here. It’s like when you walk into your grandmother’s house, if everything is perfectly arranged and tidy, you feel like you have to behave a certain way. But in a bachelor pad, you can relax and take off your shoes.

As an adventure playground, The Land also allows for more risk-taking. What does that look like?

Playworkers always have lighters in their pockets and kids can come up to them and ask for them—the answer is always yes. There’s also a little stream that runs through the area and its level goes up and down with rain, and there are trees kids can climb.

In the U.S., the physical risk-taking part gets a lot of attention. But there are other kinds of risks as well. When you go up to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself, that’s a risk and that takes some guts. There are also things kids do that feel risky to them but that don’t make us uncomfortable. A kid balancing on an object may graduate up to climbing a tree, because the kid’s developed competency and now she can go as far as she believes she can.

I think our sense of over-protectiveness comes from this disassociation between what we can do and what kids can do.

Why do kids need risk in their play?

There’s no shortage of research that shows that freely chosen play builds independence and self-reliance and nurtures resilience and self-confidence. It relieves stress and it’s good for social skills.

But also, what I hope the film does is show that play matters. Part of what’s so radical about The Land is it’s saying, This is a space for leisure. It’s not about creating a product or a future businessman or woman or getting into college. This is just about this present moment.

How would you describe American adults’ attitudes toward work and leisure?

We love to brag about how hard we’re working and how much we’re working and to say who does and doesn’t deserve things based on work. But I believe in a 30-hour workweek and socialized resources. It’s not radical to say that we shouldn’t have to work until we die. I think that’s reasonable. We should value leisure as much as we value hard work.

There’s a tiny number of adventure playgrounds in the U.S., including the Anarchy Zone in Ithaca, NY, two in California and a few in New York City. Are there other ways people can create a space like The Land for their communities?

Pop-up adventure playgrounds are the perfect way to start. You just drag a bunch of crap out of the garage, get cardboard boxes from a dumpster, and the parents stand back with coffee or beer and let kids do their thing—they don’t get involved unless they’re invited. It’s also a way to meet people who might be willing to take the next step and go about putting up fences and getting fire permits.

What do adventure playgrounds reveal about the evolution of our understanding of play?

Playgrounds were originally meant to corral kids. Now we feel like we should be releasing them back into the unknown. But it makes sense to have a safe place for children—cities are not safe, since they have cars, roads, traffic and industry. The problem is what we give kids is totally dumb and boring and limiting.

I think about adventure playgrounds and junk playgrounds as an urban design solution, creating a place that is wild and can be child developed—that’s not some adult’s design project. They can provide a lot of the stimulation that roaming once provided.