Adventure Play – Past, Present, Future

As a creator of active play systems, I’ve been a huge fan of Adventure Playgrounds. It has been disappointing that they have not been more popular. It would not surprise me to learn that 99.9% of all children in America have not set foot on one. There are many reasons for this failure to thrive but let us, for the moment, accept this as reality.

At its core, Adventure Playgrounds are a great example of “loose part play” Ever since Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts, the term has been used primarily for small parts like blocks. Adventure Playgrounds, in contrast, use large parts. Unfortunately, the venue for large motor play is fully occupied by static equipment. Since I’ve played a major role in creating and popularizing these systems, I feel obligated to push back on their monopolization of public play spaces.

The question becomes, since large motor loose part play is so beneficial for children, what can be done to bring it to the mainstream?

The good news is that such a movement is already taking place in China. Over the past decade, the Anji Play program for early childhood education created by Cheng Xueqin has grown from one school to become a standard approach throughout China. Any fan of Adventure Playgrounds can take one look at the image below and recognize the similarities.

What makes Anji Play thrive?

Photo Anji Play

The big difference is that the play setting is created anew every day. This solves one of the issues that face Adventure Playgrounds when a few children create relatively permanent structures. Yes, such questions of kids “owning” a piece of the play space can be great “teaching moments,” but these are the sorts of program characteristics that are problematic.

Of course, the big difference is that Anji Play is part of the public school system. Once the program’s benefits were firmly established and tested, it was logical to make those benefits available nationally.

The current situation in America is that public playgrounds must compete with so many other entertainments that they are losing their customers. This one of the reasons we see a rise in multimillion-dollar playgrounds. This movement further increases the impact of income inequality.

To address this issue, it would be a great idea to provide the benefits of loose part play to the huge installed base of underperforming playgrounds. What I propose are Toy Boxes that have standard digital locks. This will allow the recreation department to bring their programming to every playground at very little cost. As thousands of Toy Boxes get installed, they will provide the opportunity to create a whole range of new play devices that are compatible with the existing equipment.

The fabulous playworker Penny Wilson has written a wonderful “manual” for creating such play accessories. PlayThings: Loose Parts Play in Good Times and Bad. Currently, much of Penny’s program is in the King’s Cross Station area in the parks and at the mall.

Photo Penny Wilson

I have been shopping the idea of Toy Boxes on playgrounds to the usual suspects without a bite. I want to blame this on Covid-19, and I’m sure this is the primary reason since everyone is preparing to adjust to a new and yet unknown future.

What can make Toy Boxes much more likely, is for those of us who love Adventure Playgrounds to weigh in on the benefits of such a program. I’ve learned over the years that change only comes about when it is needed. So far, the need to upgrade the quality of play on the millions of public playgrounds has not become a compelling issue for park departments or play equipment producers. The voices of advocates can help make changes.

In the meantime, Anji Play is coming to preschools in America. Yeah. Long live Adventure Play!

6 thoughts on “Adventure Play – Past, Present, Future

  1. Yes, Jay! It is really past time for this issue to be faced directly, and real solutions, like play boxes activated. Plus. If Anji play has had a positive effect in China, then it should also do so here, given the chance to prove itself. I always hear the fear in the comments criticizing these initiatives, but there is scant evidence that institutions like Adventure Playgrounds are unsafe, and much that points to the benefits. Another initiative that has succeeded in Europe and barely exists here is a system of certified professional playworkers. We could do better, especially if we can get beyond tripping ourselves with fear.


  2. Loose parts, adventurous play, with an element of risk recognised by the Health and Safety Executive of the UK government and insurers, has been thriving in UK schools for fifteen years! OPAL is supported by Sport England, the national body. Primary/ elementary schools have been signing up to the OPAL programme at a rate of three per week. OPAL now operates in half a dozen countries around the world. Half a million children, in more than 550 schools, have enjoyed self directed playtimes/recess for a long time now. National media has recently begun calling for play to be added to the national curriculum.


  3. Jay,

    Listened to this conversation between Ezra Klein (NY Times) and Alison Gopnik about “play”, consciousness, and AI. I think you might find it interesting – but perhaps not novel!

    A Conversation About Human Minds, for Human Minds

    The psychologist Alison Gopnik and Ezra Klein discuss what children can teach adults about learning, consciousness and play.

    =============================================== A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born. o=o=o=o Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    =============================================== Richard Burg 707-479-9092 ===============================================



  4. Quite an interesting read, Jay! I agree that adventure playgrounds were an amazing space that facilitated learning for children through exploration and imagination. They allowed children to take ownership in their projects and they could build, construct, and interact socially with other kids and adults.


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