Flexibility promotes agency and is needed for the future of adventure playgrounds and cities.

Take note: Play advocates, youth workers, policy makers, educators, urban designers

What is the problem: Children’s play is an expression of their agency and a protected right in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Prevailing theory suggests that flexibility is necessary to support children’s agency.

Adventure playgrounds originated as child-controlled spaces where children built with scrap parts, but cultural changes have brought about the formalisation of many of these environments. Many believe that these changes have had negative impacts for children.

What I did and why: This study looked at how children’s agency has been affected by change on three adventure playgrounds in south England, Blackbird Leys Adventure Playground, South oxford Adventure Playground, and Homerton Grove Adventure Playground. These playgrounds have each undergone some degree of formalization since their origins and represent an array of approaches toward adventure playground management.

Environmental analysis, observations, interviews, and creative child-accessible methods were employed to gather data at the playgrounds. Content analysis was utilized to identify key concepts in the data.

What this study adds: This study found that the level of flexibility on adventure playgrounds varied and correlated with the management’s approach to risk and boundaries on the playground. Conflicts of agency were apparent in the issues of controlled access childcare, parents on the playground, restrictions on children’s use of technology, and the definition of ‘authentic’ adventure play. These issues stem from a struggle to avoid change.

Yet, if adventure playgrounds cannot adopt new understandings and experimental approaches for promoting agency in today’s changing world, they may not survive.

Implications for city policy and practice: An effort must be made to support children’s agency in the current cultural climate rather than attempting to maintain a static vision of the adventure playground. This will require flexibility in the environment through the application of dynamic and experimental approaches.

The ‘junkification’ or addition of more loose parts on adventure playgrounds is one suggestion for increasing flexibility. Adventure playgrounds hold opportunities that are lacking in the broader environment e.g. the city, thus the findings of this study should be applied broadly in the pursuit of a child friendly city.

Full article: Flexible futures: Children’s agency on the adventure playground

Author: Sharadan Rorabaugh (@sharadanchick)
City Know-how editor: Marcus Grant