'Adventure Playgrounds' a Dying Breed in the U.S.

At so-called adventure playgrounds, kids are given hammers, nails, paint, scrap wood — anything they want, really — to make whatever they want. These playgrounds are popular in Europe, but in the United States liability issues have made them a dying breed. Kristin Wiederholt reports on the Berkeley Adventure Playground in Northern California.

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Building playgrounds is big business. City park departments, elementary schools, and rec centers spend millions of dollars on state-of-the-art playgrounds. Member station KALW's Kristin Wiederholt visited a different type of playground. It's one the casual observer might mistake for a junkyard.


Before you see Berkeley's Adventure Playground, you hear it.

(Soundbite of children on playground)

Unidentified Child: Oh, yeah.

WIEDERHOLT: When you look for the chain-link fence that surrounds the area, there's a moment of doubt. Could this really be a playground for kids?

(Soundbite of children on playground)

Unidentified Child: Awesome. Yeah, heck yeah.

WIEDERHOLT: Scattered around the one-acre lot are at least 15 wooden forts of varying size--some two stories high, others with only two walls. They're all covered in paint, and many bear the names of the children, who had a hand in their creation: Sophie, Bobby, Roger, Morita. There are also piles of scrap wood, old boats, fishing-net tires, you name it.

(Soundbite of saw)

Unidentified Child #1: Dude, there's a nail right there, we need a hammer. A very long hammer.

Unidentified Child #2: A very long one?

WIEDERHOLT: Before they're given tools, kids are required to find ten stray nails, five wood splinters, some trash, or one Mr. Dangerous, the sharp side of a nail, sticking out of wood.

(Soundbite of children on playground)

Unidentified Man: This is gonna work with it? You wanna try wacking it, Rebecca?

Rebecca: No, I don't. No thank you.

Unidentified Man: How about holding this one?

Rebecca: Okay, because that's pretty rusty.

WIEDERHOLT: Kids with hammers and saws? A risk assessor's nightmare. That may be why Berkeley's Adventure Playground is one of just three left in the United States. The other two are in southern California. Denise Brown, who manages the playground, says liability concerns make it nearly impossible to open this type of playground now, but in her experience, there are fewer injuries here than at more standard playgrounds.

Ms. DENISE BROWN (Manager, Berkeley Adventure Playground): What we like to say is that there are no hidden risks in the playground. Even a young child walking through the playground gates can look around and tell that it's a different type of playground, and there are sticks and boards and nails and rocks and things that they need to watch out for.

WIEDERHOLT: In a less litigious Europe, adventure playgrounds are very popular. There are roughly 1,000 scattered across the continent. The idea was born there during World War II, when a Danish landscape architect noticed that children were happier playing with rubble and scraps than at more traditional playgrounds. Back in Berkeley, Brown says kids really bloom in this environment.

Ms. BROWN: When kids walk through the gates, and they say what can we do in here? And we say, whatever you'd like, their eyes just light up, and they get very excited because there's a sense of freedom, walking into a space with so much potential.

WIEDERHOLT: And it's not all hammers, saws, and nails.

(Soundbite of old piano)

WIEDERHOLT: The young people here today are finding a variety of ways to use a bunch of old rotting pianos, from stripping out wires to simply playing them.

(Soundbite of old piano)

For the less musically inclined, there's also, apparently, fun to be had climbing in a plastic barrel and rolling down a small hill into a mud puddle.

(Soundbite of children at playground)

Unidentified Child #1: Did you get wet?

Unidentified Child #2: No.

WIEDERHOLT: It's the kind of place you could imagine Huck Finn or Pippie Longstocking feeling right at home. It may not be perfectly molded plastic and pretty colors with a regulation safety pad, but the kids are having a blast.

For NPR News, I'm Kristin Wiederholt, in San Francisco.

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