By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum
When 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.
But the kind of play adventure playgrounds provide isn’t actually unusual here. In fact, it happens all the time and is completely acceptable — at the beach.
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.
I 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.