Adventure Playground: A Parable of Anarchy

We who demand freedom in education, autonomy in the school and self-government in industry are not inspired by any vague ideal of liberation. What we preach is really a discipline and morality as formal and fixed as any preached by Church or State. But our law is given in nature, is discoverable by scientific method, and, as Aristotle points out, human beings are adapted by nature to receive this law. Because we are so adapted, freedom, which is a vague concept to so many people, becomes a perfectly real and vivid principle, because it is a habit to which we are preconditioned by biological elements in our physical frame and nervous constitution.

–HERBERT READ: "The Education of Free Men".

WHEN WE CALL OURSELVES ANARCHISTS, that is, people who advocate the principle of autonomy as opposed to authority in every field of personal and social life, we are constantly reminded of the apparent failure of anarchism to exercise any perceptible influence on the course of political events, and as a result we tend to overlook the unconscious adoption of anarchist ideas in a variety of other spheres of life. Some of these minor anarchies of everyday life provide analogies, some provide examples, and some, when you describe their operation, sound like veritable parables of anarchy.
All the problems of social life present a choice between libertarian and authoritarian solutions, and the ultimate claim we may make for the libertarian approach is that it is more efficient – it fulfils its function better. The adventure playground is an arresting example of this living anarchy, one which is valuable both in itself and as an experimental verification of a whole social approach. The need to provide children's playgrounds as such is a result of high-density urban living and fast- moving traffic. The authoritarian solution to this need is to provide an area of tarmac and some pieces of expensive ironmongery in the form of swings, see-saws and roundabouts, which provide a certain amount of fun (though because of their inflexibility children soon tire of them), but which call for no imaginative or constructive effort on the child's part and cannot be incorporated in any self-chosen activity. Swings and roundabouts can only be used in one way, they cater for no fantasies,
for no developing skills, for no emulation of adult activities, they call for no mental effort and very little physical effort, and are giving way to simpler and freer apparatus like climbing frames, log piles, 'jungle gyms', commando nets, or to play sculptures – abstract shapes to clamber through and over, or large constructions in the form of boats, traction engines, lorries or trains. But even these provide for a limited age-group and a limited range of activities, and it is not surprising that children find more continual interest in the street, the derelict building, the bombed site or the scrap heap.
For older boys, team-games are the officially approved activity, and as Patrick Geddes wrote before the first world war, "they are at most granted a cricket pitch, or lent a space between football goals, but otherwise are jealously watched, as potential savages, who on the least symptom of their natural activities of wigwam-building, cave-digging, stream-damming, and so on – must be instantly chivvied away, and are lucky if not handed over to the police."
That there should be anything novel in simply providing facilities for the spontaneous, unorganised activities of childhood is an indication of how deeply rooted in our social behaviour is the urge to control, direct and limit the flow of life. But when they get the chance, in the country, or where there are large gardens, woods or bits of waste land, what are children doing? Enclosing space, making caves, tents, dens, from old bricks, bits of wood and corrugated iron. Finding some corner which the adult world has passed over and making it their own. But

What is so puzzling about our juvenile crime figures? These overwhelmingly concern boys, and most boys are brought up in adventure-frustrating suburban deserts, in slums or in matchbox council flats on keep-off-the grass estates. Millions of them, emerging semi-literate from our education factories, are instantly converted, at fifteen, into industrial cogs. They find themselves in a rat-racing society, the successful section of which depends on their labour for its sacred capital gains, but rejects them as people and savagely resents their clams to a decent wage.
Because of deadly home conditions, these boys naturally take to the streets after work, and because of the monotony of that work are naturally ravenous for drama and excitement. Their pay-packets can't buy this for them, but crime – particularly breaking and entering – can. It can also buy gang-status and is a means of giving society a kick in the pants, of forcing it to sit up and take notice of their existence.
Add to this the growing awareness that none of us may amount, tomorrow, to more than a handful of radioactive dust, and it should astonish us that young crime figures are not twice as high.

–AUDREY HARVEY, in a letter to "The Observer", 13/8/61.

how can children find this kind of private world in towns, where, as Agnete Vestereg of the Copenhagen Junk Playground writes:

Every bit of land is put to industrial or commercial use, where every patch of grass is protected or enclosed, where streams and hollows are filled in, cultivated and built on?
But more is done for children now than used to be done, it may be objected. Yes, but that is one of the chief faults – the things are done. Town children move about in a world full of the marvels of technical science. They may see and be impressed by things; but they long also to take possession of them, to have them in their hands, to make something themselves, to create and re-create.

The Emdrup playground was begun in 1943 by the Copenhagen Workers' Co-operative Housing Association after their landscape architect, Mr. C. T. Sorensen, who had laid out many orthodox playgrounds had observed that children seemed to get more pleasure when they stole into the building sites and played with the materials they found there. In spite of a daily average attendance of 200 children at Emdrup, and that 'difficult' children were specially catered for, it was found that "the noise, screams and fights found in dull playgrounds are absent, for the opportunities are so rich that the children do not need to fight."
The initial success at Copenhagen has led in the years since the war to a widespread diffusion of the idea and its variations, from 'Freetown' in Stockholm and 'The Yard' at Minneapolis, to the Skrammellegeplads or building playgrounds of Denmark and the Robinson Crusoe playgrounds of Switzerland, where children are provided with the raw materials and tools for building what they want and for making gardens and sculpture. In this country we have had at least a dozen adventure playgrounds, several of them temporary, since their sites were earmarked for rebuilding, but there has been enough experience and enough documentation of it, for us to gauge fairly well their successes and pitfalls.
These accounts – which should disabuse anyone who thinks it is easy to run an adventure playground, as well as anyone who thinks it a waste of time, include the following:

Adventure Playgrounds, Lady Allen's pioneering pamphlet, which incorporates Agnete Vestereg's account of the Emdrup playground and John Lagemann's of The Yard.
Adventure in Play by John Barron Mays, describing the Rathbone Street Adventure Playground at Liverpool.
Annual Reports of the Grimsby Adventure Playground Association, by Joe Benjamin, the project leader until 1959, who has also written elsewhere on this playground.
Lollard Adventure Playground, a pamphlet by Mary Nicholson, and Something Extraordinary, by H. S. Turner, the warden at Lollard Street.
Play Parks, by Lady Allen of Hurtwood, an account of the Swedish play parks with suggestions for their adoption here.
Adventure Playgrounds, a progress report by the National Playing Fields Associations on the playgrounds at Lollard Street, Grimsby, Romford, Bristol, Liverpool and St. John's Wood, with facts and figures useful to people thinking of starting a playground.

When The Yard was opened at Minneapolis with the aim of giving the children "their own spot of earth and plenty of tools and materials for digging, building and creating as they see fit",

it was every child for himself. The initial stockpile of secondhand lumber disappeared like ice off a hot stove. Children helped themselves to all they could carry, sawed off long boards when short pieces would have done. Some hoarded tools and supplies in secret caches. Everybody wanted to build the biggest shack in the shortest time. The workmanship was shoddy.
Then came the bust. There wasn't a stick of lumber left. Hi-jacking raids were staged on half-finished shacks. Grumbling and bickering broke out. A few children packed up and left.
But on the second day of the great depression most of the youngsters banded together spontaneously for a salvage drive. Tools and nails came out of hiding. For over a week the youngsters made do with what they had. Rugged individualists who had insisted on building alone invited others to join in – and bring their supplies along. New ideas popped up for joint projects. By the time a fresh supply of lumber arrived a community had been born.

As in Copenhagen the prophesied casualties did not happen. "After a year of operation, injuries consisted of some bandaged thumbs and small cuts and bruises for the entire enrolment of over 200 children. No child has ever used a tool to hit another person."
This question of safety is so often raised when adventure playgrounds are discussed that it is worth citing the experience in this country (where the pernicious notion that whenever accidents happen someone must be sued has actually caused some local authorities to close their orthodox playgrounds – so that the kids can get run over instead). The insurance company was so impressed by the engrossed activity at the Cyldesdale Road (Paddington) playground, with its complete lack of hooliganism that it quoted lower rates than for an ordinary playground. At Rathbone Street, Liverpool, the 'toughest' of the English playgrounds:

So many children crowded together with so many opportunities for mutilating one another were bound to produce a steady flow of abrasions, cuts and bruises with the occasional more serious wound requiring stitching or a fractured bone. Statistically, however, the slide appeared to be the highest risk while the permanent ironwork equipment generally produced more accidents than the junk and scrap materials in the Adventure Playground proper.

Reading Mr. Mays' account of the Liverpool playground, with its stories of gang-warfare, sabotage, thieving scrap-metal merchants, hostility and indifference in the neighbourhood except for one street of immediate neighbours, senseless and wanton destruction, the reader may wonder how on earth it could keep going. But the author, reminding us that the essence of an experiment is that it is experimental, concludes that

In spite of all its shortcomings, many of which were the result of hasty planning and lack of solid financial support, in spite of mistakes made by its management committee and the errors of its two appointed leaders, inspite of the roughness of the site, the endless brickbats, the noise, the dirt, the disorder, sufficient evidence has accrued to support the main thesis on which the playground was established – that given the tools, the materials, the adult interest, advice and support children will indulge in constructional play, they do derive satisfaction from using hand and eye in making and building, fetching, carrying, painting and digging.

The shortcomings, he points out, are no more inevitable than the community allows them to be. The Rathbone Street playground only seemed a failure from a distance: those closest to it, as Mr. Mays says, "are much less gloomy about its value", and it has already led to further adventuring in Liverpool.
On the other hand, the Lollard Playground which seemed from the outside to be as the Evening Stardard called it, "a heartwarming success story" gave rise among its workers to the kind of feeling which Sheila Beskine describes in this issue of ANARCHY a, "fantastic spontaneous. lease of life" followed by a slow decline, so that its spirit had died before the Lee took over the site for building. But permanence is not the criteria of success. As Lady Allen says, a good adventure playground "is in a continual process of destruction and growth". The splendid variety of activities which came and went at Lollard from vegetable-growing to producing a magazine, plays, operettas, jiving and 'beauty sessions' were a measure of its success. As at Emdrup, this playground kept the interest of older children and young people up to the age of twenty thus enlarging the scope of possible projects. The older boys built and equipped a workshop and eagerly sought to serve the community in which they lived, doing repairs and redecorations for old people in the district, paying for the materials from a fund of their own. These were the same young people who are such a "problem" to their elders. The difference is that between the atmosphere of the irresponsible society, and that which was precariously built at the playground. The place, said the warden "stands for far more

Granting that childhood is playhood, how do we adults generally react to this fact? We ignore it. We forget all about it- because play, to us, is a waste of time. Hence we erect a large city school with many rooms and expensive apparatus for teaching; but more often than not, all we offer to the play instinct is a small concrete space. One could, with some truth, claim that the evils of civilization are due to the fact that no child has ever had enough play … Parents who have forgotten the yearnings of their childhood – forgotten how to play and how to fantasy – make poor parents. When a child has lost the ability to play, he is psychically dead and a danger to any child who comes into contact with him.


than a mere playground", and the Chairman summed up

This playground is different because it's a place where the children have an infinite choice of opportunities. They can handle basic things – earth, water plants, timber-and work with real tools; and they have an adult friend, a person they trust and respect. Here every child can develop a healthy sense of self-esteem, because there is always something at which they can excel. The wide age range, from two years to twenty-three, is perhaps unique in any playground. There can be progressive development through rich play opportunities, to a growing sense of responsibility to the playground, to younger children and, finally, to others outside the playground. Their willingness to help others is the sign of real maturity which is the object of all who work with young people.

The Grimsby playground, started in 1955, has a similar story. Its cycle of growth and renewal is annual. At the end of each summer the children saw up their shacks and shanties into firewood which they deliver in fantastic quantities to old age pensioners. When they begin building in the spring, "it's just a hole in the ground – and they crawl into it". Gradually the holes give way to two-storey huts. But

they never pick up where they left off at the end of the previous summer. It's the same with fires. They begin by lighting them just for fun. Then they cook potatoes and by the end of the summer they're cooking eggs, bacon and beans.

Similarly with the notices above their dens. It begins with nailing up 'Keep Out' signs (just as in The Yard at Minneapolis). After this come more personal names like 'Bughole Cave' and 'Dead Man's Cave', but by the end of the summer they have communal names like 'Hospital' or 'Estate Agent'. There is an ever-changing range of activities "due entirely to the imagination and enterprise of the children themselves … at no time are they expected to continue an activity which no longer holds an interest for them … Care of tools is the responsibility of the children. At the end of 1958 they were still using the same tools purchased originally in 1955. Not one hammer or spade has been lost, and all repairs have been paid for out of the Nail Fund." Mr. Benjamin,

A small space which belongs to it alone, a playground not too far from the house, providing the opportunity of contacts with children of different ages, and simple materials for creating things; that is all it needs. But these facilities are essential, and where they are lacking, the effects will be similar to that of a lack of vitamins to the body. The child starves and gets a mental beri-beri disease, psychic scurvy. Today we witness the eruption of wild destructive instincts among youth, which represent nothing more than distorted aggression which was not activated in the normal way in childhood. When denied natural outlets for activity and adventure, the child becomes prone to harmful and stupid forms of expression.

–Professor H. ZBINDEN.

the project leader for the first years at Grimsby has thought deeply on the implications and lessons of the adventure playground movement answered sceptical critics in a memorable letter:

By what criteria are adventure playgrounds to be judged? If it is by the disciplined activity of the uniformed organisations, then there is no doubt but we are a failure. If it is by the success of our football and table tennis teams then there is no doubt we are a flop. If it is by the enterprise and endurance called for by some of the national youth awards – then we must be ashamed.
But these are the standards set by the club movement, in one form or another, for a particular type of child. They do not attract the so-called 'unclubbable', and worse – so we read regularly – nor do they hold those children at whom they are aimed.
May I suggest that we need to examine afresh the pattern taken by the young at play and then compare it with the needs of the growing child and the adolescent. We accept that it is natural for boys and girls below a certain age to play together, and think it equally natural for them to play at being grown up. We accept, in fact, their right to imitate the world around them. Yet as soon as a child is old enough to see through the pretence and demand the reality, we separate him from his sister and try to fob him off with games and activities which seem only to put off the day when he will enter the world proper.
The adventure playgrounds in this country, new though they are, are already providing a number of lessons which we would do 'well to study … For three successive summers the children have built their dens and created Shanty Town, with its own hospital, fire station, shops, etc. As each den appeared, it became functional – and brought with it an appreciation of its nature and responsibility …
The pattern of adventure playgrounds is set by the needs of the children who use them; their 'toys' include woodwork benches and sewing machines. The play of the children is modelled closely on the world around them – and as such has a meaning that is understood easily by all types. We do not believe that children can be locked up in neat little parcels labelled by age and sex. Neither do we believe that education is the prerogative of the schools.

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Apart from the kind of objection you will always get 'from people who resent anything pleasurable that doesn't make money, three kinds of objections are made to adventure playgrounds – danger, unsightliness, and expense of supervision. Happily the danger is more apparent than real, and the Secretary of the National Playing Fields Association has stated that the accident rate is lower than on orthodox playgrounds since hooliganism which results from boredom is absent. They are unsightly in the ordinary sense (and so is nine-tenths of our physical environment), for as Mr. Mays notes,

Children like disorder or find some invisible order therein. Most adults hate it. Children do not in the least mind being dirty. Most adults abhor it. Children will find a source of enjoyment in the oddest and most unlikely play material: tin cans, milk bottle tops, broken slates, soil cinders, firewood. The adult mind thinks of these things in terms of refuse and rubbish …

The solution of course is to use a solid fence instead of chicken-wire, as is after all customary for adult building and demolition operations. (The Emdrup playground has a 6ft. high bank with a thicket hedge and fence on top, which also absorbs the high frequencies of children's voices).
Certainly more skilled adult assistance is needed than in a conventional playground. Indeed everything depends upon having something different from a park-keeper saying 'Don't!' or a patronising leader saying 'Do!'. Against the cost of this can be set the lower capital costs than for a conventional playground and the fact that much public goodwill, assistance as gifts of materials can usually be counted on. (Many advocates of adventure playgrounds who see them as "saving children from delinquency" would set the cost of leaders' salaries against the enormous cost of putting children in remand homes, approved schools and so on). On the question of such costs, local authorities are empowered under section 53 of the Education Act to grant aid to the cost of employing play leaders, and the adventure playgrounds in this country, mostly run by voluntary organisations, have in fact had financial help both from local councils and from the National Playing Fields Association and in some cases from philanthropic foundations.
Much could be said about the nature of adult help in an adventure playground. The NPFA report sees the person of the play leader as the over-riding factor in success besides which the other considerations fall into insignificance. (It is worth nothing that Stockholm with a population of 3/4 million has 84 play leaders and London with 8½ million has eight or nine). Yet as Mr. Turner in his book about Lollard shows, there is no specification for the ideal person, the most bizarre characters have been wildly successful. Discussing the early experience at Clydesdale Road, Lady Allen made the point that, although we use the word leader we want something different:

it must be a grown-up who exerts the minimum authority and is willing to act rather as an older friend and councillor than as a leader … It is these children, particularly, who so deeply enjoy the companionship of an older person who is willing to be understanding and very generous of his time. We cannot think of a good title for this individual: supervisor is wrong, connected in the children's minds with discipline; a play leader is trained for a different type of work, and for younger children. So we use the word 'leader' but it is not right.

The role of the 'leader' is catalytic, and it is apparent from the various accounts of adventure playgrounds that too few adults have had to fulfil too many roles – from social worker to begging letter writer and woodwork instructor. An informal and changing group of people, both full-time and voluntary, and including friendly neighbours and older children is evidently the happiest combination.

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Finally, in case it isn't obvious, why do we claim the adventure playground movement as an experiment in anarchy? Well, let us repeat yet again, Kropotkin's definition of an anarchist society as one which

seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all. A society to which pre-established forms, crystallised by law, are repugnant; which looks for harmony in an ever-changing and fugitive equilibrium between a multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own course …

Everyone of these phrases is recognisably a description of the microcosmic society of the successful adventure playground, and it leads us to speculate on the wider applications of the idea which is in essence the old revolutionary notion of "free access to the means of production", in this instance to the means of every kind of creative and recreative activity. We think of course of the Peckham Experiment – a kind of adventure playground for people of all ages, or the kind of variations on work and leisure in freely chosen activity envisaged in Paul and Percival Goodman's Communitas. The adventure playground is a free society in miniature, with the same tensions and ever-changing harmonies, the same diversity and spontaneity, the same unforced growth of co-operation and release of individual qualities and communal sense, which lie dormant in a society devoted to com- petition and acquisitiveness.