Adventure playgrounds in London can get less hype than jazzy new play areas but they are worth your time exploring and we have the perfect person to explain why. You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who cares so deeply for the ability for all kids to experience free, creative, adventurous play as Kerri Burton, a London playworker and mum.
This is Part 2 of our interview with Kerri, in which she discusses the challenges and future outlook of adventure playgrounds in London. You can read Part 1 HERE.
Please introduce yourself…
I’m Kerri, I’ve been a playworker for 15 years working at different settings including adventure playgrounds. I live in Islington and spend a lot of time exploring playful places in the city with my five year old son. I’m currently completing my Masters in Childhood and Youth as well as working for the wonderful Assemble Play and co-running my own community play project Make-Do Play.
What are the biggest challenges you see adventure playgrounds in London grappling with?
They are severely underfunded and many are fighting a constant battle to remain open. Senior playworkers often have to dedicate most of their time to chasing funding and simply surviving, they may have to decrease their opening hours and have a lack of resources. Play is simply not valued for its own sake, funders want to see educational outcomes and many settings end up having to compromise on who they in order to get money.
Playwork is not taken seriously in the same way as other fields, and I get constantly infuriated by hearing parents refer to playworkers as ‘volunteers’ when we are trained, paid professionals. Many adventure playgrounds are built on very valuable land and cash-strapped councils are eager to sell that land off to developers so gentrification and social cleansing is a massive threat to adventure playgrounds and the communities they serve.
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What you’ll often see is a case of managed decline whereby a playground gradually has its funding whittled away until it is simply unable to offer a quality service, then it is labelled as failing and closed down, with a generic fixed-equipment playground swathed in that awful expensive rubber ‘safety’ surfacing installed in its place (which usually does not cater at all to older children and teenagers) and the council pats itself on the back for building a new playground. This has happened recently in Battersea Park, Leyton Square in Southwark, Dickens Square Park in Elephant and Castle, many in Tower Hamlets and sadly looks set to happen to the adventure playgrounds in Lewisham.
Some adventure playgrounds are taken over by organisations with no experience of these sorts of settings and staff who don’t have a background in playwork which results in the playground losing its anarchistic, radical identity and instead prioritising organised sports or adult led classes, replacing playworker built structures with ready-made catalogue equipment or removing loose parts, one of the most important elements of an adventure playground.
There’s also a big problem with society becoming more and more risk averse. Some playgrounds have recently had issues with their insurance providers, and as parenting attitudes change less parents are willing to allow their children to attend adventure playgrounds on their own.
Is there anything that frustrates you about adventure playgrounds or how they are perceived?
Because most adventure playgrounds are so underfunded, they may not have the time or resources to keep websites updated or information about things like opening times up to date, and many parents I’ve spoken to have been very confused about when they or their children are able to visit.
Parents may not even realise they are living close to one, and because very few adventure playgrounds can afford to be open in the week, parents of younger children may only encounter them as mysterious places with constantly locked gates that are never open to them. They’ll therefore be grateful when they’re replaced with a standard playground because at least they can access it. But they never had to chance to see what they were missing.
Because I had only ever worked at adventure playgrounds that didn’t allow adults in, when I had my own child I was overjoyed to discover there were plenty that did welcome younger children and families. However this wasn’t always advertised and it took a lot of research to figure out which ones we could visit and when. (I have a Guide on my Instagram which details all the times you can visit with toddlers). And it was a lifesaver.
My son has always been very adventurous even as a baby and he got bored at most stay and plays. Normal toddler playgrounds weren’t challenging enough and I wanted to be able to spend my time in places where I wouldn’t feel constantly judged.
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I know some parents think adventure playgrounds seem intimidating, either because of safety concerns, prejudice against older children, or sometimes I suspect, classism. But they really are as safe as any other playground despite their ramshackle appearance and children are a lot more capable than we think at assessing their own risk.
I also think there are massive benefits to the mixed-age play that adventure playgrounds provide, and I’ve always found older children to be mostly incredibly sweet and accommodating to the little ones.
There is however a very nuanced conversation to be had about letting families into adventure playgrounds. It’s something many playworkers feel conflicted about.
Adventure Playgrounds are children’s spaces, somewhere they can be free from adult interference, and allowing parents through the gates can get in the way of this. Children play differently when their parents are present, some may resent the intrusion of lots of adults. Some adults may intervene too much or nor respect the playground’s ethos.
To be frank, there’s also a concern about an influx of more privileged families using these spaces and alienating the communities who most need them. So visitors need to be respectful.
I would however argue that adventure play is hugely important for any child, and with adventure playgrounds in decline its really important for parents to witness the magic that occurs inside. By visiting with their children when they’re young they’re more likely to feel confident in sending them on their own when they’re older. They can be amazing community spaces and a safe supportive place for parents as well as children. The loose parts and relaxed child-led atmosphere make them perfect for toddlers to explore, I’d be heartbroken if my son had had to wait until he was six.
There’s a lot of adventure playgrounds who have struck a good balance in offering specific sessions when families can visit and keeping the space adult-free the rest of the time (for example all the ones in Islington have family sessions for the first part of the day on term-time Saturdays).
If you could design your own adventure playground, what would be its key features?
I wouldn’t. A true adventure playground is not designed by adults. It grows organically from the actions of the children and how they use the space, they should be the ones who make decisions and playworkers should know that children are the real experts in play.
It is important for playworkers to make sure children can access a variety of materials and loose parts and are supported to create what they choose to, and that the space caters to all 16 play types – this might mean providing materials for imaginative play, areas that can be dug up, or quiet secluded corners for children who want to be alone.
What is the future of adventure playgrounds?
Sometimes it’s hard to be positive when it feels like we’re constantly hearing about yet another adventure playground being taken over or closed down. But there have been some really encouraging achievements, such as Islington Play Association successfully persuading the council to agree to protect all 12 of the borough’s adventure playgrounds in perpetuity.
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There are examples of great new adventure playgrounds being set up across the UK, for example here in London Roman Road Adventure Playground in Tower Hamlets has only been going since 2010 so is a real newbie and also the first adventure playground to be started by a housing association.
It’s also really important to bring the ethos of adventure play into other areas. Mainstream schools are never going to be settings where playwork can be fully realised, but we can definitely support schools to prioritise play more, to incorporate loose parts and make their playtimes more risky and child-led.
The biggest organisation which works with schools on this is Opal Play. Woodland Tribe do great work promoting adventure play at festivals where they get back to the roots of adventure playgrounds by enabling children to build the structures themselves. They also support existing adventure playgrounds and do workshops in schools. They recently built a playground with children in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern which was amazing and I was honoured to work on the project.
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It’s important to remember that as much as adventure playgrounds are wonderful places, they are not the ideal. They exist because the built environment neglects children, is unsafe or unwelcoming for them to play in, and spaces were needed that gave children the chance to play freely. But children should be able to do that outside the fences of the adventure playground.
The aim now should be to make public spaces more child friendly. Assemble Play bring play into the public realm with their pop-up play spaces. What they do may not be instantly recognisable to everyone as adventure play, but actually it upholds the most important elements – the magic of loose parts and the freedom for children to direct their own play. I recently started a community play project with my friend Dom called Make-Do Play, the aim of which is to bring the ethos of adventure play to families – predominantly parents of younger children, who feel overwhelmed by the pressure to pay for overly structured expensive toddler classes.
Follow Kerri and her adventure playground exploration: HERE
READ PART 1: Best Adventure Playgrounds in London