Adventure playgrounds for kids

Teaching kids to problem solve with creativity during free play.

Adventure playgrounds are designed to teach kids to be independent, solve problems and have fun while engaging in free play. Slightly resembling junk yards, these playgrounds are filled with old tires, cast-off walkers, a metal barrel for burning and countless other items headed for recycling. A very different twist on what middle class Americans think of as a great place to play, these playgrounds are unique and encourage a child’s creativity. Almost anything can be repurposed for an adventure playground and the playground can be a different experience every day as items are moveable, changeable and removable. Kids are the inventors and with creativity, these once cast-off items become anything a child can imagine.

A seemingly bizarre concept, this idea is not new: adventure playgrounds have been around for a long time in Europe. Despite having research to back up the benefits of such playgrounds, the United States currently only has two adventure playgrounds, both in California. Instead, American playgrounds are very safe, structured environments. In the community I live near, the playgrounds are large wooden structures that are very beautiful, nice, neat and safe. While I understand the concerns of parents, who are worried about injuries or unsafe equipment, after a seven year-old has climbed to the top of the fort, slid down the slide and through the tunnel, there is not much left for them to experience. What would kids do if there was little to no structure on their playground? What might they do to create their own play?

Although we do not have adventure playgrounds in Michigan, I have learned from personal experience that kids can make their own fun despite the lack of nice, safe play structures. For the past two years, I have spent my vacation time from Michigan State University Extension helping at an orphanage in Port Au-Prince, Haiti. On the weekends and in the summer, the kids beg to go to the schoolyard to play. The first time I visited the schoolyard, I was shocked at the razor wire, rusty tin cans, broken glass and especially the open incinerator that supplies energy for the dry cleaner business in the walled yard. These kids weren’t sporting the newest cleats or even shin guards, they played soccer barefooted on the cement and yet they did not return home cut up, bruised or hurt. Instead, the kids simply do not play with the razor wire, broken glass, open fire or anything else that seems hazardous. They have respect for the sharp metal swings, broken teeter-totter and whatever sharp objects might be lurking in the long grass.

The kids in this neighborhood do not have padded play yards or safe playground equipment by our standards. Even the walk to the schoolyard can be dangerous for them. If it rains, the mud in the streets is slipperier that ice and I have learned to be on the lookout constantly, stumbling often. But not the kids – they often take my hand and lead me out of danger, helping me to avoid large holes in cement, broken glass, burning trash in the street, open ditches filled with black gooey water and zooming motorcycles that pass within inches of any pedestrian on the street.

What lessons can be learned from both the adventure playground and the Port-Au-Prince neighborhood? Though kids take risks at times, they know their boundaries and are aware of the environment around them, understanding how to keep themselves safe. If we didn’t attempt to make everything so sterile and aesthetically pleasing to adults, it would be interesting what our kids might learn. Though very different, both of these playgrounds are alike in important ways as they help to enhance creativity, problem solving and teach kids to regulate their social interactions: all important skills to succeed in life.

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