Thursday, January 31, 2013

Imagining in the Urban Wild

Submitted by Stephen Plunkard, principal (Calgary, AB)

Example "adventure playground" (from Web Urbanist)
About a week ago I was in a discussion with some public officials about parks planning and design. I learned that their primary concerns were that the grounds could be mowed with a gang mower and that we select one of three certified playground manufacturers. The conversation prompted me to start thinking about places that I used to play as a child versus the many “manufactured” playgrounds of today. Could an interesting, creative and challenging outdoor experience be an alternative to video games? Would it encourage girls and boys to become planners, designers and engineers?

I grew up in three countries - in densely urban areas, fringe cities and suburban areas.  Wherever I lived my friends (boys and girls) and I would seek out wild areas to explore on both private and public lands. While never officially stated, I think we would seek out areas that were secluded with ready access to a dump or place that had scrap building materials. Finding an area close to a project under construction had some obvious benefits too. Our premium sites would be conducive to having fires and/or have access to a stream (fish, beavers, tadpoles, frogs, snakes, etc.). Thinking back some of the building materials might have actually been stolen. If another group of boys and girls were building another settlement nearby we would often create flags a variety of signs and other symbols that would clearly brand our operation.

Glamis Adventure Playground (courtesy of
We would normally start a construction project as soon as we were released from school for the summer. Projects were as simple as cutting a path through some high weeds to a secluded clearing or as complex as building tree forts and clubhouses. If we were close to a stream, we would build a stone and earthen dam to create a swimming hole, maybe with a wooden or rope bridge. In some cases we spoke different languages but we had a common interest using our collective imagination—building things, taking risks and changing our little corner of the world.  Out of the watchful eye of our parents and teachers, we were in control with no restrictions on our creativity. Our constructions would only last through the summer months but were sometimes revisited in the following year and modified by another group of young builders.

As I thought more about spaces for children in the urban wild, I reached out to former Louisiana State University professor Max Conrad, and he reminded me of the concept of “Adventure Playgrounds,” which was first formally introduced in the early 20th century. Doing a bit of research on the web, I learned that C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect, noticed that children preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds that he built. He came up with a concept of essentially creating junk yards for kids to play in, from which the “adventure playground” movement was born.

The first adventure playground opened in Denmark in 1943, and the idea quickly spread into other parts of Europe. While today there are over 1,000 adventure playground across Europe and many in Japan, funding, land ownership, and liability issues have thwarted the spread of the idea across the US, where only three still exist, both in California.

The little adventurer, Stephen Plunkard
The whole concept has me asking a number of questions. Is it time to reintroduce, in a big way, the idea of “adventure playgrounds” in our urban wild areas in North America? Would childhood obesity and inactivity be less of a problem if our youth were given the opportunity to play their way? Are we leaving areas of urban wild in the communities we are planning and designing today? Do we need to program or plan everything, or can we set aside unplanned areas for creative young minds? Is land for this kind of use something developers could sell as an added value to their planned communities? Perhaps, most importantly, will young people have any interest in building real things or will they be content living in a virtual world?

As a young school boy growing up in England, building my little settlements, I had no idea that I was actually part of a worldwide movement. Perhaps I should rejoin!


  1. This also brings back my memories as a kid and frankly some of the best times I had growing up. It seems the days are gone when we left the house early in the morning to only hear our mother say "Be back before dinner time".

    Maybe now it is more important than ever to give kids a chance to be creative without an electronic device in their hands.

  2. We had swamps and frogs. We rode our bikes up storm sewers. We got tar from building sites as it was cheaper than gum. And, that's not all. We survived.

    John Steil, Vancouver

  3. When we were kids we built forts in the backyard out anything we could find and haul back, nailed it together, and put up a flag. We rode our bikes for hours just to go catch gardner snakes and salamanders and then begged our parents to let us keep them.
    We constructed, we created, we were adventurers, we had "imaginations", now if I ask my son if he wants to build something he say's " I already did" as he whips out his ITouch and shows me the town he built in "MineCraft" It seems kids these days are only interested if they can do electronically.
    As parents we need to get our kids to be "kids" again. Show them there is more to life than what they see on a screen. Let them be adventurers in the backyard, the playground or anywhere!! Maybe then we might not hear..."I'm Bored!!'

    Clayton Dunford, Calgary

  4. As I read of Stephen's adventures, I was reminded of my tomboy days in New York City. Climbing fences to explore the treasures on the other side was one of my favorites. As an adult raising three children, I longed to find ways to connect my children to the outside world; primitive nature trails and streams were places we often visited. Thanks for opening a dialogue and inspiring others to remember these moments - and hopefully reminding the grown-ups to share these adventures with the next generations..

  5. We also need to respect that the world has changed and kids these days are looking for new and different experiences than we could have even imagined as children. Technology is embedded in their lives and I think the next new challenge for us is how we incorporate technology into outdoor environments so that kids leave the confines of the couch and interact w/ other children. I also think adventure playgrounds offer some of the freedom that we've programmed out of our existing parks, and that technology and video games now provide.

  6. Michael, I have to disagree about the need to integrate technology. I found this article and my daughter was instantly on my case, trying to figure out how we could travel to Wales so she could explore 'The Land'. She is 5, has an iPad, and an insatiable thirst for exploration.
    After reading this article, my little one was telling me that if an adventure playground was built in Canada, we could go because it is closer to Wales. I think that in this instance, that old cliche phrase rings true: "If you build it, they will come."