Idea: An Adventure Playground in Northeast Wisconsin

Courtesy: Fernando de Sousa (St Kilda Adventure Playground)

Don’t climb up the slide! Put down that stick — it’s not a toy! Don’t jump off the swings! If you break your leg … don’t come running to me! Have you ever noticed how many parents simultaneously complain about kids and their digital addictions while keeping them on an extremely short leash?

We’re guilty of it in our home, too.

We scold the boys for too much screen time and kick them outside or tell them to do something creative. Then, we get upset when they roughhouse in the yard or start a messy experiment in the kitchen.

Many of us talk about how, when we were kids, we rode bikes all over the neighborhood, climbed trees, played pickup games, built forts, and had adventures. Then, we proceed to fill our kids’ lives with organized sports and other extracurriculars, use the TV and tablet for free babysitting, and do everything in our power to keep kids sheltered and safe.

Back in the ’90s you started seeing kids hooked up to literal leashes. Now they’re referred to as “safety harnesses.” I’m not here to judge. There could be legitimate reasons for strapping a kid into a harness. But, it seems that keeping kids on a leash has more to do with our own anxiety as parents than actual threats to their lives.

As one mom who used a backpack-style toddler harness explains in Today’s Parent:

“Before I became a parent, people would tell me how much joy a child brings to your life. But they failed to mention the sheer terror you feel whenever your kid leaves your sight. My stomach drops, my body starts to shake and I find myself uncontrollably screaming my son’s name while running in every direction.”

I should say that this mom’s son was diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder, and she had plenty of reservations about putting a tether on her child. Although, I’ve found holding a kid’s hand works pretty well, too.

Whatever the case, at some point, parents need to let go (hand or leash).

Even educators and caretakers with the best intentions can limit the natural wildness and joy of explorations found in kids. For example, we enrolled our sons in an awesome nature-based public preschool program — the OAK Learning Center at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. The point of the program is getting kids outside more to learn by experiencing nature.

Before class started each day, many of the kids would gather around a small cluster of cedar trees with low branches that were jutting out horizontally like the rungs of a ladder — the perfect climbing trees for four and five year-olds.

I loved watching them climb, because I remembered doing the same thing with my friends at that age in a neighbor’s cedar trees. Nobody got hurt back then. Nobody got hurt in my kid’s class, either. But one day, we showed up and all the low branches were shorn off to a height of six-feet … out of reach of the curious climbing students.

Are precautions like that really necessary? Or — in the name of safety and reducing our own stress levels — are we taking something away from kids that they truly need?

What’s an adventure playground?

The playgrounds we’re accustomed to include slides, swings, seesaws, monkey bars, and more. Maybe you’ve noticed that they’ve gotten safer (and more accessible) over the years.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with play areas like this. They’re still places where children can exercise, use their imaginations, and have fun. But an adventure playground — sometimes called a junkyard playground or natural playground — is something completely different.

While these playgrounds take many different shapes, they share certain characteristics, such as the absence of adult-manufactured structures and encouragement of unrestricted play. The concept came from Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen, who built the Emdrup Junk Playground in Copenhagen, Denmark, which was the first of its kind.

Marjory Allen, an advocate for child welfare in Britain witnessed this park in its early years and brought the concept back to the U.K. where she eventually introduced accessible adventure playgrounds designed for kids with disabilities In a documentary on her work from the 1970s, Allen said:

“I’ve always been interested in places where people live — their environment — but especially the children. And I think they get a pretty raw deal. What do we give them in our great cities and towns? They’re stuck with asphalt. We give them an asphalt, square playground with a few pieces of mechanical equipment.”

Marjory Allen (Lady Allen of Hurtwood)

Allen’s adventure playgrounds changed all that. Surprisingly, this type of recreation has been shown to cause fewer injuries than traditional playgrounds. Find out more in the video below:

Despite the fact that Americans are known for having adventurous spirits, this type of playground didn’t catch on quite so quickly in the U.S. However, slowly but surely, educators, communities, and parents are warming up to the idea.

NBC News covered New York City’s adventure playground, The Yard on Governors Island (currently closed due to COVID-19). At this park, there are “no parents allowed.” It’s plain to see how much fun kids are having and how blown away the moms and dads are by it all.

Once a year, we go up to PC Junction and Pizza Czar in Door County. In between these two Baileys Harbor restaurants is the closest thing I’ve seen to an adventure playground in our area. Nestled among tall pines and colorfully painted barn wood, kids race around in the dirt on pedal-powered carts, explore a broke-down school bus, play ping-pong, and shoot hoops in a rustic setting with that junkyard vibe.

Left to their own devices (not the digital ones), I think kids probably prefer this type of play area.

During Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order, when playgrounds were off limits, my kids stole hammers and nails out of the garage and modified their tree fort with afghans my great grandmother knitted. (I’d like to think she’d be happy to know they’re still being used by her great great grandkids!)

Months later and the fort is still standing. However, once our neighborhood playground opened back up to the public, it didn’t take long for my kids to say they weren’t interested in going to the park, because “it’s just the same thing all the time.”

Photos from PC Junction and the Steinbrinck boys’ backyard fort modification

What if we built an adventure playground here?

I actually love all the parks in the Green Bay area as well as those I’ve visited in the Fox Cities. Our family has spent countless hours enjoying them, creating Ninja Warrior-style obstacle courses, giving underducks on the swings, and yes … climbing up the slides despite what other parents say.

Still, I think it would be amazing to have our own adventure playground in Northeast Wisconsin — maybe even one that could stay open during the winter months.

Here are some initial thoughts on what we might need:

  • Property: Preferably somewhat rural land with some trees and hills and at least a couple acres of space.
  • Stuff: Another name for these kinds of efforts is loose parts play. That’s where the junk comes in.
  • Tools: Most of these parks include hand tools and other objects kids can use to construct things and experiment with.
  • Staff: Many adventure playgrounds have volunteers or employees (often teens or young adults) who encourage but do not direct play among the kids.
  • Community buy-in: I’m pretty sure kids would be all for it, but there may be others we need to convince.

The hardest part would be finding the space to build it. Most of the work comes from the kids who end up creating their own playground. The second hardest part would be convincing the parents who don’t let their kids play with sticks to allow them to pick up a saw, swing from a rope, or play with fire. Yes, some adventure parks actually encourage that, too.

As The Creative Mission grows, and we take on bigger and bigger ideas, I would love to see this be a project we try to turn into a reality. Adventure playgrounds spark the kind of play that builds lifelong creativity in kids while encouraging cooperation and conflict resolution without the need for grown-up intervention. I believe an adventure playground would be a huge benefit to our community.

As we mentioned in our article on why kids are fearlessly creative, engaging in risky play contributes to childhood development in positive ways. If we are going to bemoan the demise of outdoor play, dopamine addictions from digital devices, or the lack of skills and independence among our youth … maybe we should do something about it.

Is this a project you’d be interested in? Contact us, and let’s talk!


“Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” ~ Marjory Allen


Categories: Creative Living

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