'Junk' Playgrounds Fight to Stay Afloat in Age of Austerity

CC BY 2.0. Teddy Cross

But what about regular old outdoor play? That doesn't require a budget, just parents who are willing to let their kids go.

“Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” These words were spoken by Lady Marjory Allen, a children’s rights activist who visited Denmark in the post-World War II period and was impressed by the unusual ‘junk playgrounds’ she saw – public spaces containing loose parts for children to play. Lady Allen brought the concept back to England, advocating “that children be given space to take risks, unlike in static playgrounds.”

Junk playgrounds, or adventure playgrounds, as they’re more commonly called these days, popped up all over the United Kingdom in the following decades, and are just beginning to appear in the United States (long overdue!). Unfortunately, just as parents and educators are starting to understand the importance of free outdoor play not only as a much-needed break for themselves, but also as crucial for child development, these playgrounds are being hit by austerity.

Town councils across the UK are cutting funds for many of these playgrounds, which have always been free for children to access. Some have been sold to play companies that now charge a fortune to play (upwards of £60 for two kids and an adult to enter). This is a serious problem, particularly when you consider that for many inner-city kids, these adventure playgrounds are their only exposure to a wilder, freer, more natural world beyond a concrete urban jungle.

Says Jim Clancey, chair of the Triangle Adventure Playground in south London, which currently needs £5,000 a month to stay open and is trying to crowd-source the funds:

“This is where these children learn to be people.” The centre is open for children aged between six and 16, some “who have no gardens, who live in tower blocks [and] who have nowhere to go after school.”

Playworkers such as Kevin Sheriff at Leicester’s Highfields Adventure Playground say they’ve also seen an influx of older teens coming to hang out. This is a result of budgetary cuts to youth programs and clubs. Without an adventure playground nearby, these kids’ social options would be restricted to the street or staying indoors, playing video games or watching TV.

A key difference between adventure playgrounds and regular playgrounds or wild natural spaces lies in the presence of a trained, paid ‘playworker’, who supervises the children’s play from afar and ensures that activities remain safe. While kids play freely, it offers peace of mind to parents.

This peace of mind is very important for parents with young children or who live in inner-city settings. But there is another important parallel discussion to be had – and that is the reluctance of modern parents to let their kids go. These adventure playgrounds fill an important void when parents are too terrified (or unable) to allow their children independence, but they remain controlled environments with adult supervision. They do a great job of replicating freedom – but they’re still not the real thing.

If parents were willing to release their kids, trust their kids, allow them to go further afield with friends into surrounding wilderness, then the loss of these adventure playgrounds wouldn’t be such an enormous tragedy. Outdoor play is free, after all, and requires no budget.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for maintaining adventure playgrounds, since they’re wonderful for little kids and many others, but they should not be a substitute for the freedom that every child deserves, particularly in these modern times that are the safest in history. Parents and educators must cease violating kids’ rights to spend time outdoors every day and using ‘safety’ as a weak justification for keeping kids indoors. This is an issue that, I believe, is on par with giving kids good health care and education. It’s time to stop keeping kids prisoners because we’re inadvertently raising a generation of broken-spirited youth who no longer know how to climb a tree. Lady Allen would be appalled.