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When childhood architectures build a sense of adventure

Barbara Penner

On the importance of children’ playgrounds

I probably will never know any space as intimately as I know the playground at the end of our street. It was the new centre of our lives for the first five years after my daughter was born. Everything was fixed, safe and vandal-proof (and everything that wasn’t vandal-proof was broken). Parents monitored children’s play from the sidelines, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

When my daughter turned five, she gained access to a different space − an adventure playground. The first time we entered its brightly coloured gates, a brusque, friendly woman, a playworker, introduced us to some of the highlights: an outdoor stage, a towering wooden swing, a climbing structure with gangways and a structure with a kitchen and chill-out room. The chill-out room deeply impressed my daughter. She was struck by something else too. ‘The swing’s made of rope. A rope, mummy, not a chain!’

I was more conscious of the whole scene: everything looked hand-made and scrappy. Toys lay in uncut grass. Salvaged materials, including half a piano, were stacked up in one corner. The space looked at once magical and forlorn, like a movie backlot. A few kids were there painting a wall − no other parents were in sight. The playworker told me, ‘You can leave your child with us if she’s over eight.’ ‘Do you look after them?’ I asked. She looked stern. ‘That’s not what we do.’

I didn’t ask the obvious follow-up question, ‘What do you do?’ But I was genuinely curious. Entering the adventure playground was like entering a parallel universe where spaces for children aren’t tidy, risk-averse and controlled. Most radically, the space is parent-free and children are left largely on their own. Playworkers, I discovered later, are more like benevolent guides who assist rather than police. The entire philosophy is appealing yet subversive, Garden of Eden meets Lord of the Flies.

Although the adventure playground now seems less exotic to me, it is no less intriguing. And it now has the scholarly account that it deserves: architectural historian Roy Kozlovsky’s very fine The Architectures of Childhood: Children, Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Postwar England (Ashgate, 2013). Kozlovsky’s research began from a simple observation: between 1935 and 1959 in England, the architectures of childhood − playgrounds, schools and hospitals − were central to architectural discourse in a way that they haven’t been before or since. He set out to find out why.

Kozlovsky notes that architects’ concern for children coincided with the ‘child-centredness’ of the postwar welfare state, when the government was grappling with the impact of wartime measures like evacuations on traditional family structures. Kozlovsky traces how adventure playgrounds emerged from the perceived need to initiate an inadequately socialised generation of English children into a liberal model of democratic citizenship. Adventure playgrounds were nothing less than an effort to foster social and political stability in the postwar era.

In this project, aesthetics and design were not driving concerns. Adventure playgrounds were rough (the first were actually located in bomb sites) and play equipment consisted of junk rather than readymade gear. Environments were challenging precisely in order to engage children in play. By working cooperatively to improve their chaotic surroundings, so the theory went, children would learn to govern themselves, a skill they would take into adulthood.

‘Adventure playgrounds were nothing less than an effort to foster social and political stability in the postwar era’

Kozlovsky provides a sympathetic but critical account of adventure playgrounds. He particularly questions the belief that play is a human instinct that surmounts its historical context. His research suggests the opposite: that postwar play was steeped in politics and instrumentally bound up with English hopes for reconstruction. He ends by noting, however, that like so many other bits of postwar social policy, the dream was relatively short-lived − and ultimately a failure.

I hope he is wrong. Adventure playgrounds today may be less radical in that they’re less risky (I can only imagine the reaction if our local playworker handed out axes as her predecessors once did). But their flexibility, emphasis on self-initiated activity, and sense of challenge remains, offering a genuine alternative to our overly regulated approach to children. And whatever adults might think, kids still get it. ‘What do you think about the adventure playground?’ I asked my daughter. Her answer was unequivocal. ‘More fun. More special.’

The Architectures of Childhood: Children, Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Postwar England

Author: Roy Kozlovsky
Publisher: Ashgate
Price: £65.00

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