One of the things that drives me crazy about moms is our need to research the crap out of everything — including crap. I am seriously a scatological expert in some circles. If the United States government created a branch that focused solely on researching child psychology, food allergies, sleep problems, and the other 245,347,894 things that mothers worry about, I’m positive that branch would drown in funding.
So the other day I was wondering about/worrying about/researching unstructured play because my son is coming up fast on 18 months and, according to some of my friends, now is the time to put him into organized sports. Which seems a little crazy to me. I mean, we already have an anxiety problem in our culture partially due to the fact that we over-schedule our children from a young age — can’t I just let my kid play in the mud and call it good?
And the answer I’ve come up with? Yes. And no.
See, structured play has its time and place. When you have set rules and set objectives, your child will learn important interaction skills such as taking turns and sharing. In fact, structured play is strongly encouraged for children within the autism spectrum, as the rules and guidelines can help lower the stress that can come with decision making. So board games, puzzles, and organized sports are good things.
And unstructured play has its time and place as well. When you give your child a very open-ended goal (build something; draw something; play with the dolls), they learn to come up with their own objectives and goals. Their creativity spikes, they take more risks, and they’re still learning.
Really it doesn’t come down to structured play versus unstructured play — childhood (and I’d argue it extends throughout life) thrives with quality play. If they’re engaged and enjoying themselves, that’s quality play.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, I want to introduce you to some awesome unstructured playgrounds, also known as “adventure playgrounds.”
Way back in 1931, a Danish landscape architect named Sørensen noticed that children were playing everywhere but the playgrounds he had built. So he came up with the idea of “junk playgrounds,” where city kids could have a chance to play like country kids. They would be provided with materials, tools, and wardens, but ultimately the children would choose what to play with and how to play. The first junk playground was built in 1943 in Denmark, gained popularity, and soon had expanded throughout Europe and earned the more polite moniker of “adventure playground.”
Adventure playgrounds are now found worldwide, but the following three are some of the most well-known in America.
Imagination Playground | Manhattan, New York
The Imagination Playground company has created a playground in a box. And no, it’s not a playground for ants. Inside the box you’ll find sturdy blue foam pieces in different shapes … and that’s it. The children playing with the pieces decide what the playground will look like.
The creators of Imagination Playground hope to encourage creativity, collaboration, and physical exercise. You can find their many locations on their website, or even order your own, which is kind of cool.
And no, they didn’t pay me to write this, but I wouldn’t mind if a box of blue foam blocks mysteriously ended up on my doorstep …
Berkeley Adventure Playground | Berkeley, California
You know what’s great about Berkeley? Hippies. Even their government is full of hippies. The Berkeley Adventure Playground is a prime example — it’s run and funded by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and has been since 1979.
This adventure playground has a staff of well-trained adults, but children are encouraged to design, build, and paint structures on their own. The half-acre park has sheds, tools, a zip line, fort-building competitions, and tons of fun.
According to their site, this is a “school-age play area featuring unique low-risk ‘build your own playground’ activities, including hammering, sawing, and painting. Creative materials [are] available for imaginative play.” There’s also climbing, sliding. and jumping on kid-designed and -bulit forts, boats, and ropes.
Even cooler? Children ages 7 and older can be dropped off by a parent and can stay and play for up to three hours. THE DREAM.
Ithaca Children’s Garden | Ithaca, New York
Ithaca Children’s Garden is partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and their mission is to get kids back into nature. While the garden boasts many incredible areas like the Kids’ Kitchen, the Kitchen Garden, and the Troll House, their adventure playground has the best name of all: The Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone. The more removed you are from something, the less you care about it, so The Hand-on-Nature Anarchy Zone works to get kids as messy as possible!
Children are encouraged to build with the straw bales, climb the trees, splash in the water, dig in the dirt, and really reconnect with the earth. If it ends up cultivating environmental stewardship in my kid, awesome. If it tires him out for the day, even better.
Want in on this sweet action? Maybe you could take a page from Berkeley or Ithaca’s book and get the government involved in an adventure playground for your area. Maybe you could pitch in with a few friends and buy your own Imagination Playground. Maybe you could just throw some cardboard boxes and duct tape at your kids and see what they do. Whatever you do — have fun!