Kids Love Building Their Own Worlds From Junk

adventure playground

(Image: NPR)

By Julia Steiny

“Play is children’s work.” – Friedrich Froebel

The cacophony of banging hammers rings out even from the parking lot of Berkeley’s Adventure Playground.

And sure enough, right by the goofily-painted entrance to the one-acre kid-scape are two boys, say 8 years old, both wielding adult-sized hammers. One boy concentrates on constructing a box-like object. The other, a little wild-eyed, swings athletically in pursuit of the sheer pleasure of wailing at that nail with a big ole hammer.

Hey, whatever turns kids on. Within the confines of surprisingly few rules, this is a world imagined, built and re-built by children roughly between the ages of 7 and 14. The zany, a-symmetrical structures look like architecture out of Mad Magazine. Some buildings have minimal framing and solid platforms serving as second floors, to lend sturdiness to the kids’ palaces, forts, smugglers’ dens, and head offices.

Pictures are here: ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=8656.

To earn access to tools and paint, kids must find and turn in 10 nails, for example, or big splinters, wood, or one “Mr. Dangerous,” which might be a board with a nail sticking out. This economic system acquaints kids with the junkyard landscape whose loose parts can poke if they’re not careful.

Contractors donate clean scrap lumber. Bins hold all sorts of random stuff, vetted by the staff. Here and there are small wooden boats, player pianos, and plastic pool slides.

Painted with wild abandon – kids’ names everywhere – the color scheme is oddly coherent thanks to the use of the tempra paints we all remember from elementary school art projects. Tempra doesn’t wash out of all clothes, so kids wear whatever clothes Mom considers already wrecked. They need closed-toed shoes too, no flip flops.

“Adventure” merely refers to the addition of the unknown, a throwback to times when kids amused themselves by exploring and building worlds of their own, literally, without electronics or even electricity. “Adventure” includes the minor risks of climbing trees, inventing games with one another, or making treasures out of junk. An adventure playground is the opposite of those antiseptic climbing structures huddled on rubber pads, where fears of liability have sucked all the fun out of them.

To manage risk, however, the Berkeley playground employs “playworkers” trained to guide projects, but never do the work themselves. They also adjudicate quarrels that have escalated beyond what kids can sort themselves.

“I’ve got one,” hollers a boy. He’s secured a young playworker to help him and four other boys figure out how to use a huge, heavy panel of wood as a roof to complete a second-story room. “Well,” says the worker, “what’s going to support it?” You can almost hear the boys’ brains churning away as they stare at the empty space where they’d hoped to see a roof. Hmmmm. After posing a few more engineering questions, the worker suggests they describe their project to her so they could “think it through together.”

Over at the zip line, the girls dominate the wriggling, excited line of kids waiting for a turn to fly along the steel cable. The short set of rules – no one under 6 – did not mention that the kid who’s just zipped has to drag the trolley back up the cable for the next kid. Sounding like a Greek chorus, the kids in line cheer on their friends and enforce fairness and safety. Parents are encouraged to play with their kids, but not to do for them or interfere when kids might solve problems for themselves.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, American children spend 7 hours and 38 minutes a day, on average, in front of a screen of some kind. In my experience, kids come away from a long session on a video game looking more zonked out than flushed with red-blooded triumph or exercise. Still, many parents, and certainly all schools, consider screens to be safer for play than those high swings that made your stomach drop on the top of the arc, or the teeter-totters and merry-go-rounds that can, when used carelessly, cause an injury.

But who cares how deadly boring play equipment is to the kids, as long as no one can sue?

Ironically, American children often get injured by misusing the boring playground equipment in a futile effort to get a little thrill out of it.

Europe has about 1,000 of these adventure playgrounds. Japan has 400. America has a whopping 2, both in California. A few other U.S. adventure playgrounds have opened and closed for lack of funding, but not for liability reasons. Actually the safety records at adventure playgrounds is excellent, precisely because the kids must take responsibility for keeping each other safe. Skinned knees and banged thumbs do happen.

At the Berkeley space, parents sign a liability waiver. Fear-ridden parents need not bother.

“Adventure” experiences send kids back to classrooms with hands-on knowledge of building, cooperating with friends and young strangers, and the joy of re-arranging other people’s cast-off scraps. Kids dream big, but build within the confines of physical reality. The kids in Berkeley were having a blast.

As a senior project, a Hampshire college student has put together an excellent resource guide for building such adventure playgrounds, complete with a little history and a list of materials to get started. It’s available at: http://adventureplaygrounds.hampshire.edu

Let’s create many more of these play opportunities.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny