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What Adventure Playgrounds Teach us About Community Building

In the hyper-structured western culture I grew up in, playgrounds are designed for safety. It’s natural, from this context, to look at the emerging Adventure Playgrounds with horror.





An Adventure Playground is a parent-free space designed for kids to learn and grow. They look like glorified junk yards with saws, nails, and scrap material littering the space. Advice and suggestions from parents are prohibited and there are literal boundaries protecting a space where kids make their own decisions.


Adventure playgrounds are a hub for play, discovery, creativity, developing social skills, and some pretty awesome forts. The most famous adventure playground in Berkeley, CA, has a sign that says "our home." This source reported: "Children feel ownership over the adventure playground, and they take responsibilty for the space because it exists as a result of their efforts."


But what about safety?

According to this study, Adventure Playgrounds are statistically 4 times safer than traditional playgrounds:

"One hour’s play per child on the recess playground carries a 0.00336% likelihood of injury. At the adventure playground the risk was 0.00078%. Accordingly, a child is 4.3 times safer there than on the conventional equipment site."

What they found is when you place a child in an environment designed for their safety, they are incentivized to push the boundaries of that space (hanging off the roof of a playground tower, for example).


But when you place a child in an environment NOT designed for them, the child must test and tinker to find their own boundaries in that space (moving cautiously with a saw knowing it could cut your arm off).


As a community builder, I can’t help but wonder if we are over-designing some of our member experiences and robbing them of the agency and self-discovery required to find their own boundaries in a space.


From a farm girl's perspective

I can’t help but reflect back on my own childhood experience. I was raised in western playground culture, but I also grew up on a farm as the oldest of four. At the ripe age of ten, playgrounds were a boring second to riding bareback through the fields on my pony.


From 10 to 16 I got bucked off, squished, kicked and bit more times than I can remember. But what’s fascinating is I never broke a bone (none of my siblings did either). We had horses, an in-ground trampoline, and a three-wheeler for God’s sake.


Broken bones? Not. Even. One.


An absurd level of self-confidence? I've been trying to tone it down ever since.


You could argue we were divinely protected (not untrue), but I think there was something happening on the design-side of things.


Boundaries

Please don’t mistake unconventional design for a lack of design. There are very clear and enforced boundaries in adventure playgrounds, but on the inside of those boundaries, members are afforded tremendous agency to collaboratively or individually create their own worlds. The boundaries empower greater play.


These are some of the boundaries I remember from my childhood:

  • Screaming is never allowed unless you are hurt (even then, you better be dying).

  • The three-wheeler will kill you and your passengers if you flip it.

  • You can gallop, but never gallop home, you won’t be able to stop the horse.

Boundaries in an Adventure Playground could be:

  • No fires near wooden forts or huts (other places are acceptable)

  • No parents allowed inside the boundaries

  • When another child declines to play with you, you must respect that choice.

In glorifying safety, traditional playgrounds have forfeited the need for boundaries - making them inherently more unsafe.


How this impacts community

The point of this piece isn’t to provide an answer, but to prompt thoughts and questions about HOW we designs our community places. I’m pondering:

  • How do I craft boundaries that empower discovery rather than micromanage safety?

  • Is there a space where suggestions and advice are not allowed?

  • What are the 2-3 sure-as-hell, make-or-break boundaries we need here?

  • How do we make those boundaries strong and clear and ritualized?

  • How do we keep ourselves from adding in more boundaries just so we can avoid hard conversations?


If you have thoughts or examples, I would love to hear them! Share in the comments or find me on LinkedIn.



 





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