3.4 : Adventure Play

When we think about open-ended materials and loose parts, our inclination might be to think about small items to manipulate quietly on a tabletop.

One of the most prominent examples of truly open-ended, child-centered play comes from the tradition of playwork in Europe, especially in the UK.  Playworkers are usually associated with adventure playgrounds, which have started to grow in number around the world, despite a drop in the spaces in the past few decades.  In this lesson, you’ll learn about playwork and adventure play: stepping out of our comfort zone to let kids truly explore the world through play.


“At the beginning of the 1970s there began to evolve a new generation of play leaders who called themselves playworkers who, uncomfortable with simply supervising, organizing, and socializing - what I would call ‘domesticating’ - the children in their charge, began increasingly to turn to the scientific literature to underpin their practice.”  (Bob Hughes, Evolutionary Playwork and Reflective Analytic Practice)

Playworkers work in community play spaces, including adventure playgrounds.  "Playwork", like Hughes says above, should be more than just supervision.  Playworkers have the opportunity to curate an open-ended environment, where children can explore the world they want to explore, on their own terms; have a safe space for calculated risks and new experiences.  You learned a bit about the relationship between people, space, and materials in the Play Lab video; these same principles apply to playwork.  The people include playworkers and children of all ages; the space is the playground; and the materials are limited only by the imagination.

Planning the Environment

These innovative environments, Hughes argues, should include, at a minimum:

“Outdoor and indoor space

Access to elements (fire, earth, air, water)

Access to height, depth, motion, balance, co-ordination

Access to creative experiences like music, inventions, discovery, and arts

Access to mastery experiences like building, planting, digging, and damming

Access to other species and systems, like farm species, rocks, and sand

Compensory alternatives and choices like new foods, music, views, noises, and perspectives

Landscaped with flowers, fruit, and berries”

P. 17

To an early childhood educator, this sounds like the dream environment for exploration, providing children with the things they are so eager to engage with in our classrooms, and in the world in a more general sense.  The other layer to these environments is children’s choice: it is key to understand the playworker’s role is not to lead play, but rather to facilitate it.  

Materials are real world things, and don’t necessarily need to be found and presented by us, the adult.  Deep engagement with materials stems from children’s priorities, and adventure playgrounds give children the choice, without restrictions.

Adventure Playgrounds

Adventure playgrounds are endangered spaces : the entire idea makes most people uncomfortable!  Adventure playgrounds are an amazing example of children's innate desire to play and explore, and they are spaces for children to take charge - which often includes risk.  Playworkers have a major role at Adventure Playgrounds: they support children by understanding the environment, and thinking about the possible.  They observe, and act when they need to, but they spend time facilitating both the environment and the play.  

Lady Allen of Hurtwood is one of the pioneers of the Adventure Playground movement.  

The trailer below is from The Land, a short film about Plas Madoc, an adventure playground in Wales.

A third example comes from play:ground, an adventure playground on Governor's Island in New York City.


Bringing it to your setting

Playwork and adventure playgrounds illustrate a relationship between people, space, and materials.  Often, the materials that we choose are about our preferences as an adult, rather than the preferences and insights of the kids who will play with them.  Kids see the world as an organically playful place, from hiding in clothes racks in a department store to telling a story with sugar packets at a restaurant.  Spaces like the ones in the videos above remind us that childhood is a thing.

No matter your educational settings, there are implications for playwork and the physical spaces like adventure playgrounds.  


How might you incorporate aspects of this work into your setting?  How is playwork like teaching?  How is an adventure playground like a classroom?  What are some barriers to this type of work in your setting?