Note: edited since original publication in September 2011
The second International School Grounds Alliance conference took place in San Francisco in August 2011, bringing together advocates for outdoor learning and play in schools from around the globe. One of the conference days included visits to schoolyards and other sites of interest. PLL Jules visited the Berkeley Adventure Playground. The blog post below was originally published on the 1st September 2011.
Day two of the International Green Schoolyards conference took me and others to Berkeley’s Adventure Playground, situated on reclaimed land and sandwiched between a very conventional play park and a yachting marina.
What a glorious anomaly it is. Started over 30 years ago, the playground is a paradise of child-built forts, dens, lookout towers and… ummm… tragically moribund pianos.
Manager Patty showed us around and allowed us to mingle with the families making the most of the Sunday sunshine to practice new and dangerous skills. Adventure Playground has clear and easy to adhere to rules so whilst there is undoubtedly plenty of risky activity taking place, it’s managed and supervised appropriately. At the question and answer session after our visit, Patty explained that ‘appropriate’ supervision and intervention relies on the judgment of the trained staff and volunteers; the purpose is to allow children to experiment- and yes, there is always a risk they will be hurt, but the stats show that injuries are few and minor when they do occur.
On entering the playground, adults sign a waiver on behalf of their child, accepting the risks and agreeing to respect the rules. Cleverly, children ‘earn’ tools by exchanging them for objects and items collected from the floor – nails, splinters, trash and ‘Mr Dangerous’.
A large table adjacent to the staff area offers plenty of space to test the tools and materials before attempting the more challenging tasks in the main play space. Staff have a shipping container full of tools, equipment, safety gear and first aid kits. They also roam around the play space, but I was surprised when Patty told us that there would routinely be only 3 staffers on over a weekend (more on a holiday weekend) – adults playing with their children are expected to be responsible for the children they brought with them, and to look out for other children playing nearby. Hang on, I remember that concept – didn’t it die out in our risk averse, litigation fearing society? Not here, clearly.
I enjoyed observing a few vignettes:
Two boys, eleven or twelve years old perhaps, were trying out various sawing techniques on the test bench, finally working out that having most of the plank cantilevered from the bench made it harder to saw accurately. Having cracked that conundrum, they raced off to the huge timber bays to collect more raw material; they didn’t appear to have any other purpose than the sheer joy to be had in sawing things up.
A patient dad spent ten minutes instructing and watching his daughter, who was determined to do her bit in attaching a long horizontal plank to a fort, at well above her eye level. She showed real tenacity and determination – not to mention delight when she quite literally hit the nail on the head. Meanwhile, a small group of boys were doing the same at the other end of the plank – they appeared to be a bit more experienced, working quickly and accurately and discussing ideas for infilling the new balcony with panels.
A boy who hadn’t previously been involved in this play, walked over, carrying a comically enormous piece of plywood, a saw and hammer and asked if his wood could be used. The group examined it, decided it wasn’t suitable, and the new boy took his treasure off to the next structure where it was gladly received. No tantrums, no nails through anyone’s foot – just a considered response and a polite acceptance of the decision. I wish adults could negotiate this well.
A girl and her mum talking to the ‘saw horse’ – feeding it imaginary carrots, patting its hind quarters and checking its cart was securely fastened (it was – the thirty thousand nails other children had previously added to it made sure of that). The girl then hopped onto the horse and I left them to continue their journey unobserved.
Two boys tested gravity vs human brute force, repeatedly pushing a toy quad bike down the dirt hill into some tyres at the base. A really simple play experiment but carried out in a spirit of fun and with much belly laughing, making it compulsive viewing.
One of my conference colleagues asked Patty, “could this playground be built today?” and her reply, depressingly, was no. It’s there, it keeps its head just below the parapet and it maintains a spectacular reputation for safety and excitement… so it survives. Funding is tight, as it always seems to be for anything children might actually freely choose to do, but gifts and donations (of materials, obviously, but also of money) are one welcome way of sustaining the playground.
And the pianos? Let’s just say they’d spent a lifetime being loved – the painted, bashed keys and water warped cases, the rusty piano actions and hopelessly out of tune sounds emanating from them made them an absolute joy to play (if not to hear).
Adventure playground website: https://www.cityofberkeley.info/adventureplayground/
NB apologies for the blurred faces – we don’t usually hold with doing that on our pics but as I’m sure you’ll appreciate it was not possible to get signed photographic permission forms!