Why we need loose Parts Adventure Playgrounds!

Loose parts play is so exciting. On a smaller scale it can easily happen everywhere and anywhere, inside the house, outside of the house, the beach, the park or the side of a muddy, pebbled path.  There is another kind of loose parts play though on a larger scale which will blow kids (and adults) minds and that is the Loose Parts Adventure Playground! Many loose parts adventure playgrounds that have popped up around the world in recent years. We sadly don’t have one in New Zealand but this is a call out to the Government, Councils, communities, schools and parents – Let’s get one! Let’s get one in every city and town. Let’s invest in playgrounds that have real possibilities for rich play where children can learn about themselves and their world in a free open ended way.

My particular favourite is in Wales. Check out this link for a short film about ‘The Land’ in North Wales . The kids play with hammers, nails and a veritable junk yard of what looks like rubbish to the adult eye and - prepare to be blown away - fire! The intention of The Land is to provide kids with a junk playground where they can explore and play inspired by their own vision of how that should look and not those prescribed to them by adults.

There is risk because children need the chance to develop their understanding of their own capabilities and that necessitates that they actually are exposed to some risky play environments. This could be as simple as climbing a tree and working out their own abilities without having an adult waiting, below filled with anxiety and directing where to put their feet every move they make. I think letting children learn about risk means adults making a choice to let children find their own way as much as possible but being there if they get well and truly stuck.

Loose parts playgrounds are sustainable and environmentally awesome. They are a challenge to social expectations of what is junk. This is important as it opens up conversation and provides opportunities for innovation with materials that would otherwise end up in landfills. In a world where we make too much waste, utilising materials which would otherwise be seen as junk and making them into something else, giving them a new lease on life, perhaps 100 new lives, makes utter sense.

Consumerism, of often expensive plastic toys, which only do one thing and then end up in landfill is not sustainable nor does it really offer children much in the way of developing their imagination and creativity. What a child can do with a cardboard box or an old tyre instead - The possibilities! We can look after our planet and provide a rich learning environment or our kids.

Loose parts play can include natural and man-made materials such as pallets, plastic bread crates, tarp, fabric, wooden planks, wood rounds, tyres and old de-constructed toys. Basically anything that isn’t hazardous and that takes you fancy. Parts can be moved, merged, transformed, taken apart and put back together again in a variety of endless ways. Children need environments they can manipulate and where they can invent, construct, evaluate and modify their own constructions and ideas through play. These playgrounds often include the use of construction tools such as hammers, saw and nails. Structures can be built, played in and pulled down. Children learn a zillion skills along the way while developing their creativity and working together with other kids. Win-Win!

Children are often supervised by trained play-workers who understand how to facilitate rather than lead play. They might put in extra resources or pull out those that are utterly depleted. They might scaffold a skill being developed or engage when children have had ample opportunity to sort out their own issues if they arise but just can’t quite get there on their own. Playworkers think about the actions they make as to not take away opportunities for children to think and problem solve for themselves. A child may for example, be having real trouble sticking something together but instead of suggesting they use a different material they might just place that material near them as a prompt without one word being spoken.

Loose parts adventure playgrounds being developed in public parks also create conversations about whose space this is. If I think about how our public spaces are used in my city it’s often quite controlled. Controlled manicured gardens, controlled marked out ‘play spaces’ where children can engage in acceptable forms of play (hut building, don’t even think about it) and mown grass. Nice, but I think there’s room for more!

When it comes to activities in the park it’s often sanctioned activities that are organised for us, decided for us and given to us by those in ‘control’ of the public spaces. Loose parts adventure playgrounds turns this on its head in a way as it is so decidedly out of the norm. It’s not clean nor mess free nor pretty. It’s not controlled and regimented (yes, it is still organised for kids if you want to get pedantic about it) but kids can play in rowdy, free and dare I say it, an anarchic way - not to say there’s no rules folks cause you’ve still got to respect each-others play and creations but its child led and that, when it comes to the quality of play, how the play experience can be maximised to get the most out of it, is pure gold.  

Loose parts adventure playgrounds are not new to the world. The concept is based on the very first playgrounds that organically emerged from children playing in bomb sites and rubble after World War Two in Denmark. A visiting British Architect saw the children playing and brought the concept back to the United Kingdom which then saw the growth of the modern playground that we know today. Loose Parts Adventure Playgrounds such as this one in New York - hark back to the original roots of those bomb sites. Open ended, richly resourced (although junk to the adult eye) space just waiting for children to build huts, create forts, design new inventions and just play! Sawing, hammering, painting, taping, tying, destroying and re-making. It is dynamic and exciting.

The UK, in particular, has recognised the need for children to be exposed to more open ended creative play opportunities in public spaces. They are investing significant time and resources into loose parts playgrounds. They are being opened for weekends in parks and on streets and in some cases in permanent sites such as The Land. It is open-ended and engages children’s innate imaginations. It advances the abilities of children giving them a chance to grow, develop their skills, make mistakes, take risks and just have plain old fashioned messy fun. It’s not tidy, organised and structured nor utterly risk free. It is radical but not new and a challenge to what is typical. It’s thought provoking, educational and so necessary. Let’s get one New Zealand!

Additional resources –

Check out the impact of loose parts play in this school….

A little bit of what we need too. Check out New York’s plans!

Good reading includes Adventure - The Value of Risk in Children's Play By Joan Almon


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