Feature: Adventure playgrounds provide antidote to 'learned helplessness'

One of Estonia's first adventure or
One of Estonia's first adventure or "junk" playgrounds in Tartu. Source: Airika Harrik

For swings, slides and climbing frames in regular playgrounds, safety is usually considered paramount, though they may not always encourage children to play quite so freely. In contrast, the more recent trend of adventure or "junk" playgrounds, which is quietly spreading around the world, places a higher value on the need children have for independent play and decision-making. This week, a temporary adventure playground is being constructed in Tartu as part of the Urban Festival UIT.

"It's as if the world is increasingly being wrapped in a blanket. There's more and more emphasis on spoon feeding and safety," says Suzanna Law, a playworker and founder of non-profit organization Pop-Up Adventure Play, who is also working towards a PhD in play at Leeds Beckett University in the U.K.

Law says, people feel that all they need to do is remove hazards from the environment and then everything will be fine. "But is that true? We're seeing a generation of children who can't manage their own risks because every last element of danger has been removed from their lives," Law said.

One place where adults have done their best to remove all possible dangers is the playground. According to Law, round-shaped slides, swings and other fixed-use play equipment do children a disservice. They don't encourage children to initiate play on their own and the equipment is still not necessarily safe when children are left unattended.

At a discussion evening in Tartu on August 11, as well as during a four-day training session the same week, Law presented an alternative option: the "kolahoov," or adventure playground. "A "kolahoov" is a space that belongs to children. They are supported in the background by specially trained adults, but the idea is to ensure that there is as little adult intervention as possible," she explained. According to Leene Korb, a member of the NGO Lapsed Õue (Kids Outdoors), it is the name "kolahoov" that works well in Estonia. "It's quite a culturally appropriate counterpart, because it reminds parents today of their own childhoods," Korb said.

The cure for learned helplessness

According to Susanna Law, no two adventure playgrounds are alike and can be built from a variety of materials, including wood, cardboard and hay. "These structures don't just come into being - all the parts are a result of someone's deliberate choices," Law said. What's also important, she added, is that it's not adults who choose the different pieces and where they are placed in the playground, but the children themselves.

Building together teaches children about communication, cooperation and safety. "With 'kolahoovs,' we give children the opportunity to find their bearings in the face of danger. They can choose the risks they want to take and how far to go with them. They learn to judge for themselves whether or not they can cope with the risks they take," Law said.

No two structures are the same and they are built from a range of materials including wood, cardboard and hay. Source: Airika Harrik

Law added, that children's initiative and independence can be clearly seen if an adult goes to one of the adventure playgrounds and asks a child to show them what to do. "They will tell you exactly what's safe for them and what's safe for you as an adult." For example, a child might direct a parent to cross an obstacle via a different route, or warn them about a loose nail that is sticking out from part of the structure. "They'll be fine if you just give them the time and space to assess and manage their own risks," Law explained.

The idea of the adventure playground, she says, is to teach children how to deal with dangers independently, step by step. "Life is full of dangers. When you cross a road, there is risk. Estonians like to go swimming in the river - that also has its dangers," Law said. If a child does not learn to manage risks on their own, as an adult they will constantly feel fearful of potential danger and will not know how to manage those feelings. "This type of 'learned helplessness' is not sustainable," Law points out.

The way our grandparents used to play

According to Suzanna Law, the aim of play is never the final result, but play itself. "True, play also helps develop a number of useful skills such as self-control, physical literacy and emotional resilience," she said. It also teaches children teamwork, planning and asking for help, as well as communication skills, creativity and imagination.

"We, as play promoters, know all about these benefits. We are able to present them to decision-makers in order to get them to approve the adventure playgrounds. At the same time, play promoters work in the present: they want children to enjoy their childhoods," Law laughs.

For Law, the crux of these pitches to decision-makers is that children have been playing this way for generations, with objects in their hands and without so much guidance from adults. Packaging it up in the form of adventure playgrounds, Law says, is essentially helping to revive the way our grandparents used to play "Everything [nowadays] is too neat and structured. It's time to bring back a little bit more chaos, in aid of a good cause," she says.

Although even the parents of today most likely played in a similar way to this in their backyards when they were young, this kind of play is often associated in people's minds with being poor. "We feel bad that we didn't have such modern facilities in our [childhoods], so we try to provide our children with new things, like toys and equipment," Law explained.

In reality, however, pampering children in this way reduces their ability to cope with their own boredom, according to Law. "There are a lot of children in the world whose lives are so over-managed and over-structured that when they get bored, they immediately turn to their parents and just say, 'I'm bored!' Entertain me!"

On the other hand, adults also often place blind faith in modern playgrounds. "We lose vigilance when it comes to swings, slides and the like because we assume everything is fine and safe. But this playground equipment can often be broken, rusty or old," points out Law. Children don't always play with swings and slides in the way they intended, but instead climb on them, which can lead to falls. There are also instances where a child's turn on a slide ends badly after it turns out to be wet, with no one having had the foresight to check beforehand.

At an adventure playground, Law says, this kind of thing is unlikely to happen, as the playground attendants check all the areas each morning, as do the children themselves before using the slides and other facilities. "Adventure playgrounds are constantly changing and it is the children themselves, who are driving these changes. There are also fewer accidents, due to them being inherently dangerous, so-to-speak," she added. In other words, children know to anticipate small potential hazards in the playground and can decide for themselves which play activities might become dangerous and which will not.

Estonia's first permanent tree houses

One of Estonia's first permanent tree houses has been operating in Tartu for a year now, having grown from initially being a simple outdoor shelter. "Our own children (the initiators of the adventure playground - ed). used to come here from the outdoors. When they left school, it turned out that there was no more time or space for the children to play. That's when we started the adventure playground," says Leene Korp.

In the backyard of a community building on the outskirts of Tartu is an outdoor nursery for children of kindergarten age and up. The adventure playground, which attracts mainly 7- to 12-year-olds, was built by Korp and her colleagues in the yard in front of the building last year. "We did it together with the children and sculpture students from the Pallas University of Applied Sciences, as well as young people from difficult backgrounds," she said.

Suzanna Law and Leen Korp at the Tartu adventure playground. Source: Airika Harrik

The Tartu adventure playground will initially only be open a few afternoons a week and only for children from the local community. "We're still testing out the adventure playground thing: figuring out how to make sure that the play-promoters are there for the children on those afternoons, and to make sure that they don't have to do their work for free," Korp explained.

While there are a few other temporary adventure playgrounds in Estonia in addition to the permanent one in Tarty, Western Europe has far more. "There are a lot in London and several more across the U.K. In the U.S., I know of about five. In Australia, there are three in Melbourne," said Law. According to Korb, Berlin stands out in this regard, with 32 adventure playgrounds. There are also a lot in Japan, said Law, however, it is difficult to find details about the precise number online.

"Berlin and London are both huge urban centers full of hustle and bustle. That's why skyscrapers usually appear in places where children don't have the space to be themselves," explained Law. So, she says, play promoters are working hard to reclaim that play space for children. This includes completing the required paperwork to prove they comply with health and safety regulations. "Adventure playgrounds are not illegal. As play promoters, we're figuring out what it takes, in an increasingly adult world, to get the green light to play, but still remain legal," she said.

In her work, Law has seen people becoming more and more interested in adventure playgrounds. "Our organization, which started as a single pop-up pitch 13 years ago, has now grown into an enterprise, which brings together 30 countries and 300 communities," she said.

According to Law, the aim of play promoters is not to become famous but to spread knowledge. "We've got a new generation of people who don't think grandma's games are weird anymore, and who know how to show them to their kids."

Although for now there are still very few adventure playgrounds in Estonia, including the temporary play space being built during this week's Tartu Urban UIT, Law said she saw a lot of enthusiasm for her ideas when running training sessions for local people. "If those, who are participating now, go away with this knowledge, adventure playgrounds could be created elsewhere in Estonia. Our organization will be happy to support them."

The adventure playground training was attended by youth workers, community leaders, teachers and architects. "These are exactly the kind of people who have an excellent chance of spreading adventure playgrounds throughout Estonia," added Korp. She believes they could be especially well-suited for the yards of Estonia's schools and youth centers. 

Suzanna Law and Leene Korp. Source: Airika Harrik


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Editor: Michael Cole

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