Persistence and Change part 1: Children play, and adventure in the urban environment

Tuesday May 18, 2021

In this guest blog, Eddie Nuttall, long-standing playworker, play advocate, thinker, writer, and manager of Bristol's Felix Road Adventure Playground, reflects on children's play and the influence of context. Ensuring sufficient opportunities to play requires us to pay attention to the ways in which we can create environments fit for that purpose. Playing with concepts, parallels and comparisons, Eddie provokes and encourages us to imagine a place that might work better for children and adults.

That which is loved should persist[1]

In urban communities, there are constant challenges that make it difficult for children to set off upon everyday adventures. Much of the modern environment is set directly against playful exploration; the drive to wander out of the door and into open space is almost immediately curtailed by traffic, commerce, local service activity, harsh buildings, and the physical and psychic noise all of this produces. The capacity for children to affect this environment in a way that will return a healthy sense of meaning to them is limited at best and simply impossible at worst. I don’t believe it to be an exaggeration to say that the contemporary city – and all it represents emotionally, politically and experientially – poses a very real threat to the humanity of the children of the modern world.

In the middle of the last century, the adventure playground was conceived as a project to address the problems that urban children faced in a war-shattered Northern Europe. The ideology was – and remains – somewhat contested territory; ranging from the necessity to create a utopia for children that shielded them from the evils of the post-industrial city, to a laboratory for what might be possible to conceive for and with children if the landscape beyond could be configured differently.

Though the world has changed significantly since the 1940s, children’s needs remain alarmingly misunderstood and poorly considered in contemporary cities. The adventure playground as a concept is as germane now as it ever has been, and it remains a necessary imperative to fight for the survival and development of the adventure play movement wherever it exists or might take seed. It is not, however, the final answer to the riddle of the child’s place in the city, though it might pose some very important questions to us; questions that for me are crucial for us to consider. I will return to this shortly.

A child’s world that persists through change

‘The circumstances of… preservation meant that most of these fragments had been torn from their context like pages from a book. Their edges were raw with the violence of that removal, and the haphazard way they’d been thrown together only made their disunity seem more acute. But there were compensations. The very disparity of the pieces – the way the domestic abutted the public; the commonplace, the fabulous – created fresh conundrums; hints of new stories that these hitherto unconnected pages might tell.’

Clive Barker, Weaveworld

To enter into an authentic adventure playground, or a space with similar permissions and affordances, is to move into a framework of reality where everyday rules do not apply. This is the unfettered reality of children’s play in what playworkers call an enriched environment[2]; It is a world where emotion and dream-like states govern the order of the day. These worlds are infinitely malleable; they will shift continuously in form and narrative subject to whim, encounter and interaction, incorporating other bodies into the blend as well as objects and symbols found in nature, in the made world, and all manner of other flotsam and jetsam.

During his address to the International Play Association conference in Cardiff 2011, play theorist Brian Sutton Smith – a man with a lifetime devoted to the study of childhood reverie – revealed feelings of doubt about how conventional psychological approaches to children’s play have often reduced their analyses to a rational and progressive framework, and he intimated that aspects of the complexity of play might be getting misunderstood within this way of framing the ludic. Implicit in his comments was the recognition that we may be chasing our tails trying to interpret children’s play through the adult filters of abstraction, categorisation and development.

In actuality the experience of playing from the child’s perspective happens in a psychic landscape that would appear strange and distant to our ordinary, everyday sensibilities.

While talking about the folklore of play, and his inspiring conversations with Peter and Iona Opie[3] in England in the late 1950s, Sutton-Smith shared that he had felt moved to become involved with children’s folklore societies with the wish to ‘get under the skin’ of children’s play to a greater extent. “Psychologists are trapped by their own need for an experiment,” he offered as a poignant aside, “good or bad as it may be, it doesn’t take you to the world.” (my emphasis).

What the Opies, Sutton-Smith, and the neurologist Antonio Damasio[4] all came to from different angles in their discrete fields was how play sets the stage for (or mediates) emotionally driven experience, and that this happens in every culture on earth; put simply, play is the vehicle that keeps the emotional body supple and lithe; it is the medium with which the child comes to terms with their experience in both the inner and outer world. It is both the vehicle for humanness and the mode with which the universe is understood and interpreted.

It doesn’t take you to the world.

I am moved to consider how small an aspect of formative human experience most of our popular concepts of play and play-space design are concerned with. In comparison to the immensity of potential that the play drive may represent in terms of our human story, I would argue that most efforts to provide for or enable that drive, fall pitifully short.

Play environments have a duty to be pioneering spaces for facilitating children’s culture, interaction, immersion and development[5]. The environment should treat children with the utmost care and consideration for what flows through them, like fragile watercourses meandering through arid desert land. These should be environments rich with human stories, and adequately and plentifully supplied with the resources to accommodate the shifting sands of these narratives. To my eyes, many of the established play spaces I have visited over the years look tired, static and lacklustre for much of the time; conceived as an afterthought, designed to be used in one general direction rather than being places of possibility, ‘disturbance’[6] and continuous renewal.

The enclave in the shadow of the city

“What have we banished to the underworld? The feminine, the irrational, the company of Gods…” Susan Dermody, Breathing Underwater.

It has been argued that the adventure playground represents the greatest artificial environment that we have ever achieved for children’s autotelic use. To every playworker worth their salt, that sentence should be both a source of pride and an implicit acknowledgement of a broader failure of our culture. We have as a society through intent and oversight marginalised children to such a degree that there is little space, time or permission for them to exercise their right to play; to have creative agency and personal control in and over their lives.

An adventure playground creates the potential for a ‘field of free action’ to open up. Quality is important here – the quality of the encounters, the resources and the space will have a significant effect on the depth to which children immerse themselves in the environment, and the returns they receive from that environment to stimulate the cycle of play. A rich and diverse space will afford for potentially infinite combinations of interaction and means of engagement. Within such a place there should be countless opportunities for children to experience a range of stimuli through the senses, to interact with other children and other forms of life, to experiment with roles and identity, to meander or fly through a spectrum of emotions, and to both observe and affect change in the natural and built environment.

There is a significant body of work that describes the possibilities of these spaces, enclaves within the greater domain of civic society. They celebrate the anarchic construction and deconstruction found therein; of paths and gangways to nowhere; of wheelbarrow deckchairs and sand-pit go-carts; of doors in the sky and portals in the air accessed through jumping from shipping containers.

There is, however, very little committed to print about how we only permit these laboratories for non-sense behind garrison walls, safely hidden away from the rest of the city like a wild and guilty secret. Why do we not see this kind of free action in the broader urban environment?

To be sure, there is little time for nonsense elsewhere; there are houses to be built with functional balconies designated for recuperation, there are highways that carve through and criss-cross the built environment with their own relentless logic; there are spaces for those with income to be indulged by the city; resplendent with roller-blind garages and ever-watchful cameras, and there are towering concrete huddles of high-rise flats where the poor take shelter against the cold.

While I very much believe that adventure playgrounds remain crucial to the fabric of the modern city, I also think that we need to do much more to replicate that which can be found within them in the landscape beyond; to create a participatory culture in civic space where children are visible in a way that isn’t just as an appendage of an adult; dragged along for the school run, or on their way to and from the mall. The city should be a place that accepts the need for children to engage with it playfully in every place that they might pass through, while also affording opportunities for the space to be acted upon that could change its function opening up new possibilities for future design and intervention.

We can characterise this as children roaming in a ‘contested multi-functional space’ (the street) which takes ‘shared responsibility’ for them. In this view, children are seen as ‘legitimate peripheral participants in the life of a community and accepted as part of society: they have a right to be there just as anyone else does’ (Battram, 2014)[7]

What does an emergent children’s culture in the urban environment look like?

As a little vignette, at the start of June 2020, I was furloughed and charged with trying to find something safe and stimulating to do with my own children.

There isn’t a great deal to do with children aged two and four in my end of the city, so we would get a bus into the town centre and walk back towards the waterside where they could both play by the fountains and the open water, climb on the low stone walls next to the gardens and run down the cobbles past the old harbour sheds towards the ice cream van.

En route to the harbour, we passed the plinth to Edward Colston, the wealthy merchant and now-famous slave trader who had contentiously looked out upon Bristol’s waters for 120 years. My eldest son had watched the footage with me of the statue’s demise on June the 8th, as the ropes of the protesters found his throat and in a scene that incontestably paralleled a history and fate that had been suffered by thousands of slaves exported to the new world, dragged the iron carcass to the water’s edge and cast it into the opaque waters.

A week or so after the protest, Mayor Marvin Rees was interviewed about what might happen to the empty plinth. As both a black man and an elected representative of the full width of Bristol’s cultural capital, he was in a difficult position. ‘I think leaving the plinth empty for the time being is a strong statement in and of itself’ he responded.’

‘Ah, you ducked it’, was my instant reaction. This was a chance to tackle Bristol’s past head-on, I thought, and instead, we kick the can down the road.

Through the months of June and July, we walked past the empty plinth and the scene shifted each time. On one occasion a group in their early twenties filmed an impromptu drill video with one of the lads rapping on the edge of the obelisk. On other days placards of different sizes and colours had been placed around the base of the platform. Another day a group of teenagers were scattered around the surrounding plaza, chalking words and poems about emancipation and freedom.

Aside from the more obvious politicisation of the space around the statue, and what it had now become – a pilgrim destination for those who supported the solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement – it had also done something ‘less capital ‘P’ political’ to the space. It had created an occasional community that didn’t seem to me that dissimilar in ‘feel’ to aspects of the adventure playground – people hanging around, keen to scribe their thoughts and feelings on to a space that now was imbued with a ‘meaningful absence’ that implicitly invited creative interaction and disturbance. The removal of the statue had created the potential for something emergent to unfold within that space, it had invited action, commons, and an occasional community.

The temptation with creating environments for children to interact with is to ‘make a statement’ – to build something that does something exciting; provides an opportunity to swing, or something to slide down, that has a theme that connects with a character or fantasy that is familiar to children. I think it is more meaningful to think about how we might create environments that invite children to act upon them in ways that are far more open-ended; a ‘possibility space’[1] that is ‘charged’ with permissions to act upon that space and ‘run with it’.

At the heart of any space we provide for a community of children that we want to retain a sense of vividness through time, there needs to be a custodian community that tends to the environment to keep it ‘live’ and attractive to the children’s sense of intrigue. This is one side of the coin of what playworkers do in adventure playgrounds. The other aspect of the playwork role faces outwards into the surrounding environment and guards the gossamer-thin membranes of what children are creating from the many wildly oscillating layers of the city.

In my experience of working with children at play in an industrial part of Manchester, one of the hardest things to protect in a busy environment saturated with noise is the imaginary realms that children inhabit. While overlooked on three sides by factories and the traffic that went in and out of them, I would watch the kids attempt to start these imaginary worlds in motion, only to be halted abruptly either by a distraction from the comings and goings of the factories, vehicle noise and other industrial disturbances.

Adventure playgrounds, garrisoned as they so often are, safeguard children and their play from the omnipresent distractions of the city. The safeguarding of the full spectrum of children’s culture in the built environment needs to be at the heart of any urban development process in the future, if we are to envisage cities that will survive us predicated on sanity and humanity rather than constructs of progress that culminate in an untenable horizon point.

The circumstances that have befallen us this last eighteen months may present us with an opportunity to rethink our trajectory and to re-humanise the urban environment so that communities of children are part of the fabric of the space and their agency upon the environment is part of a continuously shifting and accommodating landscape. Perhaps they can help us to actualize a world that will be liveable for their adult selves, and sustainable for the children they bare forth and the generations that will in turn follow.

List of References:

[1] From conversations with my friend Arthur Battram in the summer of  2021.

[2] Hughes, B. (1996) Criteria for an Enriched Play Environment, in Play Environments: A Question of Quality. London: PLAYLINK

[3] Bishop, J.C. (2014) The lives and legacies of Iona and Peter Opie. International Journal of Play, 3

[4] Damasio, A (2000) The Feeling Of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. Vintage.

[5] Development in every sense: mutation, annihilation, growth, drama, crisis and transcendence.

[6] See for example Lester, S (2014) Play as protest: clandestine moments of disturbance and hope. In C Burke and K Jones (eds) Education, Childhood and Anarchism. London: Routledge

[7] Battram, A (2015) Strategic playwork‘: a possibility that is neither ‘intervention playwork ‘nor ‘environmental playwork International Journal of Play. Taylor & Francis


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