I Took My Kids to an “Adventure Playground” and Gave Them a Taste of an ’80s-Style Childhood

A view of playground:NYC on Governor's Island shows a junkyard kids can find their own fun in.
Image Source: Wendy Wisner

I’d been hearing about these so-called “adventure playgrounds” for a while now. Playgrounds that are hardly playgrounds — at least not in the conventional sense, with clean, safe, and age-appropriate equipment in a space heavily supervised by hovering parents.

No, these playgrounds harken back to my ’80s childhood, with little to no adult supervision, some questionable, rickety, old equipment, and even some veritable junk littering the ground, like discarded pieces of wood, hammers, nails, and pipes.

Naturally, they piqued my interest.

According to The New York Times, these types of play spaces have been around since World War II, when the first one cropped up in Denmark. Since then, adventure playgrounds have multiplied all over the world, including one created near my home in New York City. And so, one hot July morning last week, my family of four set out to play:groundNYC on Governor’s Island, to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about.

There has been a renewed interest in playgrounds like these in recent years, and I suspect it’s partly because of the concern that our children aren’t exposed to enough spontaneity these days. Their lives are terribly over-scheduled, and more often than not, their days involve a parent hovering closely nearby at all times. As Roger A. Hart, a children’s play expert and professor of environmental psychology at CUNY Graduate Center, told NYT: “There has been a loss of child-initiated activity.”

Well, that’s for sure.

A child climbs atop a wooden structure, unsupervised.
Image Source: Wendy Wisner

It was for this reason and more that play:groundNYC was started back in 2016. In a mission statement online, play:groundNYC is described as a “non-profit organization advocating for young people’s rights by providing playworker-run environments that encourage risk-taking, experimentation, and freedom through self directed play.”

Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city on Governor’s Island, I would say that play:groundNYC is not like a playground at all. For starters, there are no slides — except ones fashioned by kids with a couple of sheets of wood. It’s more of a junkyard, with … well, junk, scattered all over the place. And unlike every playground you’ve probably ever heard of, parent are not allowed in. Your children are within viewing distance, but you are supposed to be totally hands-off and as invisible as possible, so that your kids can explore entirely on their own.

A sign in front of the adventure playground reads "children at play do not disturb."
Image Source: Wendy Wisner

I will admit that when I heard the kids would have access to hammers, nails, and even saws — and that I had to sign a waiver form just for my kids to get in — I was a little bit nervous. I’m not the most helicopter parent out there, but my goodness, if my kids might be in any kind of danger at a playground, I’m going to be on it and “interfering” until the cows come home, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find that when all was said and done, that wasn’t the vibe at all. Even though parents aren’t allowed inside the playground, so-called “playworkers” are present at all times. They are hands-off too, but they are there to make sure nothing is awry (you know, like a sharp nail sticking up out of the ground), and to help your kid should they ask for help.

This was definitely a relief for me.

As for what my kids thoughts of the playground? Well, I have two boys — a sassy 11 ½-year-old and a happy-go-lucky 5-year-old — who will try anything. As you might have guessed, the 11 ½-year-old didn’t have the best time in the world, but he actually had more fun than he thought he would. Funnily enough, he was the one who wished there had been more guidance or suggestions, as he didn’t really know how to occupy himself with a pile of junk.

“I didn’t know how to get things into the ground,” he told me, reflecting on the experience. “I tried nailing something and it didn’t work. I think it’s good that they don’t have any instructions, but I would have preferred instructions. I think most kids would not, but I would. Like, for the table, I couldn’t even get one piece of wood onto another piece of wood.”

A pile of "junk", including old tires, pipes, and wood, fill an adventure playground.
Image Source: Wendy Wisner

My 5-year-old had a grand old time though, exploring every inch of the place — even fashioning himself a sword out of two pieces of wood and a nail. He was actually the one who’d had the most concerns about safety ahead of the trip. When he heard there were going to be real saws there, he bristled and assured us that he would be very careful with them.

Wendy Wisner's son leaps off of a wooden structure at the adventure playground.
Image Source: Wendy Wisner

When I asked him, after the fact, if he’d been scared of using an actual saw, he said, “Not really. My fingers didn’t even get close to the sharp part of the saw. I just touched the side of it.” I thought this was awesome because he’d pushed past a fear of his, and proved to himself that he actually could be careful, just by virtue of making wise decisions on his own terms.

There was definitely a feeling of trust that you got when you were there, watching these kids partaking in all manner of play that — under a different set of circumstances — would have seemed reckless or even dangerous. But in a strange way, knowing that you couldn’t intervene, and that the kids would have to figure it out for themselves, was oddly reassuring.

Children run amok at an adventure playground.
Image Source: Wendy Wisner

My husband summed it all up perfectly:

“It was funny because the cues were definitely there that you would normally get nervous. Like if you see your kid running around with a saw, normally you would definitely intervene. You’d tell them to put down the saw, or stop running. So it was the kind of situation where you could get nervous. But I didn’t actually feel nervous at all. It was fine.”

Wendy Wisner's two sons walk around the adventure playground holding two walking sticks.
Image Source: Wendy Wisner

It really was fine, and it pushed our kids just enough without totally freaking us out. I think that going forward, we will definitely think before we intervene — not just at the playground, but during any kind of play. And we will be looking for more opportunities for our kids to “rough it” a little more, build things with their hands, go on adventures, and take risks. Because if that isn’t what childhood is all about, I don’t know what is.

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