Imagining in the Urban Wild

From Stantec  by Stephen Plunkard

Example “adventure playground” (from Web Urbanist)

About a week ago I was in a discussion with some public officials about parks planning and design. I learned that their primary concerns were that the grounds could be mowed with a gang mower and that we select one of three certified playground manufacturers. The conversation prompted me to start thinking about places that I used to play as a child versus the many “manufactured” playgrounds of today. Could an interesting, creative and challenging outdoor experience be an alternative to video games? Would it encourage girls and boys to become planners, designers and engineers?

I grew up in three countries – in densely urban areas, fringe cities and suburban areas.  Wherever I lived my friends (boys and girls) and I would seek out wild areas to explore on both private and public lands. While never officially stated, I think we would seek out areas that were secluded with ready access to a dump or place that had scrap building materials. Finding an area close to a project under construction had some obvious benefits too. Our premium sites would be conducive to having fires and/or have access to a stream (fish, beavers, tadpoles, frogs, snakes, etc.). Thinking back some of the building materials might have actually been stolen. If another group of boys and girls were building another settlement nearby we would often create flags a variety of signs and other symbols that would clearly brand our operation.

Glamis Adventure Playground (courtesy of

We would normally start a construction project as soon as we were released from school for the summer. Projects were as simple as cutting a path through some high weeds to a secluded clearing or as complex as building tree forts and clubhouses. If we were close to a stream, we would build a stone and earthen dam to create a swimming hole, maybe with a wooden or rope bridge. In some cases we spoke different languages but we had a common interest using our collective imagination—building things, taking risks and changing our little corner of the world.  Out of the watchful eye of our parents and teachers, we were in control with no restrictions on our creativity. Our constructions would only last through the summer months but were sometimes revisited in the following year and modified by another group of young builders.

As I thought more about spaces for children in the urban wild, I reached out to former Louisiana State University professor Max Conrad, and he reminded me of the concept of “Adventure Playgrounds,” which was first formally introduced in the early 20th century. Doing a bit of research on the web, I learned that C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect, noticed that children preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds that he built. He came up with a concept of essentially creating junk yards for kids to play in, from which the “adventure playground” movement was born.

The first adventure playground opened in Denmark in 1943, and the idea quickly spread into other parts of Europe. While today there are over 1,000 adventure playground across Europe and many in Japan, funding, land ownership, and liability issues have thwarted the spread of the idea across the US, where only three still exist, both in California.

The little adventurer, Stephen Plunkard

The whole concept has me asking a number of questions. Is it time to reintroduce, in a big way, the idea of “adventure playgrounds” in our urban wild areas in North America? Would childhood obesity and inactivity be less of a problem if our youth were given the opportunity to play their way? Are we leaving areas of urban wild in the communities we are planning and designing today? Do we need to program or plan everything, or can we set aside unplanned areas for creative young minds? Is land for this kind of use something developers could sell as an added value to their planned communities? Perhaps, most importantly, will young people have any interest in building real things or will they be content living in a virtual world?

As a young school boy growing up in England, building my little settlements, I had no idea that I was actually part of a worldwide movement. Perhaps I should rejoin!

More Playground Crochet from Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam

One of the most interesting playgrounds I have ever seen is totally hand made and it turns out is the most popular in views as well on Playscapes with some links to the makers Toshiko’s website

The post about the crochet playground constructions of Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam is one of the most popular ever here at Playscapes(second only to the Puckelball Pitch in page views).

It has been a bit difficult to find information on Toshiko’s work, as most of the locations are in Japan.  But the MacAdams have recently launched their own site with more information about their unique playscapes, which they call NetPlayWorks…you can now see a comprehensive list of locations, as well as previously unavailable photos of each, a small selection of which are seen below.   Oh, the eye candy…don’t you feel happy just looking at these!

Rainwater on the Playground – Making Drainage a Play Feature

In our Southern African context, play spaces are often neglected and under funded, poorly maintained and even dangerous places, but the need for them is ever more pressing as safe havens for mothers and their children in densely populated and disadvantaged areas. Using natural features and making a feature of essentials such as drainage to stimulate creative play  is a simple and effective way to stretch budgets and get more out of the space – these ideas and references from Playscapes which is a very interesting resource for Landscape Architects in need of ideas.


Learning through Landscapes also produced an insightful report on the Berlin schoolyards, with many great images, including those above.  There’s a wealth of inspiration in these schools’ tolerance for untidiness, their insistence on sand rather than mulch or safety surfacing,  and the ‘reprofiling’ of school yards to introduce slopes and dips….it’s a must-read document.   One aspect of the report is the use of drainage as a play feature.  When you do hear about playground drainage it’s usually as a problem! But these schoolyards consistently see it as opportunity,  channeling the flow with gentle swales and valleys, places kids naturally like to play.

The water course can take various forms, from an artistic mosaic to a boulder-strewn stream bed.  You can of course add piped-in water to these features, but I like the way using rainwater introduces a seasonality and changeability to the playscape.

Orange Park, London by Planet Earth Ltd


Dahl Playfield, Seattle WA, by siteworkshop

The ever-helpful London Play have produced a document all about playing with rainwater and sustainable drainage strategies with loads of helpful tips and great site examples to inspire your own rainwater playscape.