The Wellfleet Elementary School has not had a playground since March 2020, as staff reporter Jasmine Lu wrote in the Oct. 7 issue of the Independent. First, it was off-limits because of Covid precautions; then, the old playground structure was torn down after a child was injured on it and the fire dept. determined that it was unsafe.
Safety must be considered, and money is always an issue, but there’s something else important that ought to be part of any playground plan: imagination.
Jasmine’s report included some of the kids’ suggestions for playground design. Sinia Winslow’s had a castle with a drawbridge, tire swings, and a see-saw. Spaces for children’s play work best when they allow for free expression of kids’ imaginations, as Sinia’s picture of her “perfect playground” shows.
You won’t find Sinia’s perfect playground in the catalogues of the companies that sell playground equipment. They are constrained by rules that have been drawn up by liability lawyers, not by kids — or by child development experts. Sinia’s castle would never pass muster with the play cops: its interior corner spaces are out of sight of adults. Who knows what might go on in there?
The drawbridge is definitely out; too easy for little fingers to get crushed. And tire swings are also forbidden. Feet can get caught inside the rim, causing injury in case of a fall. And the poor old see-saw was banned from playgrounds years ago, thanks to pranksters who loved to hop off their end just as it hit bottom, with disastrous consequences for the other rider’s tailbone.
I learned about playgrounds from Penny Wilson, a British playworker (yes, “playwork” is a profession in England and some other countries). I edited Wilson’s book, The Playwork Primer, in which she describes the amazing “adventure playgrounds” created in London in the late 1940s.
“At that time,” Wilson writes, “London children had little space to play except for bomb sites left after the Second World War. Here they spent their time building, making fires, digging for treasure from the dead homes, and generally scrubbing around on their own.”
Were these play spaces somewhat dangerous? Of course. But Londoners who had just experienced the blitz had a different sense of acceptable levels of risk — and risk is an essential element of true play.
“An adventure playground should be in a constant process of change,” writes Penny Wilson, “directed, informed, and executed by the children and their playing and supported by the playworkers. It is a space that allows for all the different types of play to be discovered by children. It is a place of psychological safety and calculated risk.”
Am I suggesting that the kids be allowed to build fires behind the schoolhouse? Not exactly. But it might be worth looking beyond the typical American school playground before spending $400,000 on a new one out of a catalogue. Adventure playgrounds (they still exist) are mostly collections of tree stumps, scrap lumber, rocks — “loose parts,” the playworkers call them — that kids can use to build whatever they imagine, including castles and play houses.