The Strangest Playground on Earth

There’s a playground in the U.K. that’s such a far cry from the primary-colored plastics and rubbery safety floors we’re used to that many parents (and kids, for that matter) might easily mistake it for a town dump. But it’s precisely that parental-nightmare quality of danger — with its ragtag collection of broken chairs, piled tires, dirty mattresses, loose hammers and nails, and tin-drum fire pits — that makes this place, called The Land, so thrilling to the children who flock here.

It opened two years ago, in North Wales, a throwback to the 1940s, when the idea of “adventure playgrounds” first took hold. But lately the novelty, staffed by “playworkers” who try hard to not intervene, has become a subject of renewed interest, part of a growing trend to take today’s overprotective, obsessive “helicopter parents” to task for sucking all the fun out of childhood. 

“Today, these playgrounds are so out of sync with affluent and middle-class parenting norms that when I showed fellow parents back home a video of kids crouched in the dark lighting fires, the most common sentence I heard from them was ‘This is insane,’” writes Hanna Rosin in her new Atlantic magazine story “The Overprotected Kid,” which focuses on the Land and its place in the new hovering-parent landscape. (Although another one exists, the 34-year-old Adventure Playground, in the U.S., in Berkeley, California.) “That might explain why there are so few adventure playgrounds left around the world, and why a newly established one, such as the Land, feels like an act of defiance.”

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Rosin explains that the philosophy behind it is rooted in history: that of “adventure playgrounds,” which became popular in the 1940s as a result of the efforts of Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood. She was a landscape architect and children’s advocate who pushed for playgrounds with loose parts that kids could manipulate, and where there would be a “free and permissive atmosphere.” But by the late 1970s, any allowance for this type of approach began to shrink rapidly, especially in the U.S. — a result, Rosin surmises, of both a safety crusade spurred on by an increase in playground-accidents lawsuits and the era of the missing child, launched by the disappearance of 6-year-old New Yorker Etan Patz in 1979.

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Today, as some adults begin to feel nostalgic for the days when kids roamed freely and had hours of unsupervised time to be imaginative, the Land can seem intriguing. It’s why filmmaker Erin Davis is working on a documentary about the playground, and on adventure play in general, after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013. “I think there’s a vibrant story here about bridging the gap between what children seem to be driven to do and what they’re often permitted to do,” Davis noted in her Kickstarter video.

It’s the same belief that’s driven Gever Tulley, author of “50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do),” to operate a camp for kids, the Tinkering School, from which he pretty much guarantees they’ll return home “bruised, scraped, and bloody.” A pioneer of this new wave version of the thinking, Tulley gave a TED talk against overprotectiveness in 2007, when he noted, “There doesn't seem to be any limit on how crazy child safety regulations can get … . When we round every corner and eliminate every sharp object, every pokey bit in the world, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything sharp or not made out of round plastic, they'll hurt themselves with it. So, as the boundaries of what we determine as the safety zone grow ever smaller, we cut off our children from valuable opportunities to learn how to interact with the world around them.”

So will adventure playgrounds have a resurgence? It’s too soon to tell, although books such as “Free to Learn,” “Free-Range Kids,” and “The Idle Parent” — not to mention newly innovative play spaces with movable (albeit safe, soft) parts such as the Imagination Playground locations around the world — could signal something of a comeback. Perhaps without the fires, though.