Blaine Brownell

Ten years ago, I led a study abroad trip to Japan with a dozen architecture students from the University of Michigan. There, we met Shunichi Watanabe, urban planning professor emeritus at the Tokyo University of Science, who gave us a tour of the Shimokitazawa neighborhood in Tokyo.

Watanabe, a researcher of community-generated urban planning, took us to Hanegi Playpark to see two adjacent playgrounds with distinctly different designs. The first featured meandering paths bounded by colorfully painted concrete walls and interspersed metal climbing structures. A few children were present, playing a game of catch. Watanabe told us that the playground was designed by an architect and then, with a sly grin, escorted us to the second play area.

We smelled it before we saw it. In the more densely forested environment, we noticed a few campfires nearby several haphazardly built wooden shacks and a two-story clubhouse made of logs. A collection of slides, ramps, terraces, ladders, swings, and shelters in varying states of completion was scattered around the 1-acre forest. The bare ground was littered with scrap materials like lumber, rope, metal barrels, cardboard boxes, and plastic tarps. Then we noticed the children.

Author Amy Fusselman describes a similar moment of realization best in her book Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), which details her first visit to Hanegi Playpark, nicknamed “Savage Park” by her Tokyo-based friends: “I looked up at the trees. I was astonished to see that there were children in them. The more I looked, the more children I saw. There were children 15 feet high in the air. There were children perched on tiny homemade wooden platforms ... There were children, preteens, crouching 15 feet up on the roof of the playpark hut and then—I gasped to see this—leaping off it onto a pile of ancient mattresses.”

Fusselman's experience forms the basis for her thoughtful rumination on contemporary childhood development. Like Fusselman, I was incredulous upon discovering this particular play space. (In truth, my first thought was that this playground would be a haven for personal injury lawyers in the United States.) However, I was simultaneously awed by the children's excitement of having been granted such freedom.

Blaine Brownell

The benefits of constructive play—with blocks, Legos, or the digital surrogate Minecraft—for children are well-documented; yet these are small, or virtual, toys with limited spatial influence. But the Savage Park elements "were structures that looked like what remained when my sons decided to build an airport out of Legos and then abandoned the project halfway through," Fusselman writes. "Only these half-made baggage carts and control towers were much larger and crafted not from nicely interlocking plastic rectangles but from scraps of wood and nails.”

As evidenced by a child’s ability to transform an empty box into a spaceship (or whatever), one's desire to manipulate their environment is an essential impulse that begins in childhood. This environmental agency is also what delights Watanabe, a scholar of community-empowered design. That is, the most popular play area in Hanegi Playpark is not the one designed by architects, but the one designed—and built—by kids.

So are architect-designed playgrounds undesirable? No. In architecture critic Alexandra Lange’s new book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Bloomsbury, 2018), she extols the virtues of thoughtfully conceived playscapes by architects and landscape architects such as Aldo van Eyck and Isamu Noguchi. Lange credits the open-ended, abstract character of such environments—as opposed to the mindless aggregation of mass-produced play equipment—in inspiring children’s imaginations. And it can be problematic if children are never allowed to develop a capacity for spatial agency. “The main thing wrong with playgrounds is that kids can’t change them,” architect Richard Dattner, FAIA, said in a 1966 interview for New York Times Magazine. “A child must feel he has an effect on his environment. I really think that’s why some kids destroy things. If they cannot create, they must destroy.”

The Savage Park typology emerged in mid-20th century Denmark when landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen created the first “junk park” on a Copenhagen site that had been bombed during World War II. The nickname “junk park” was replaced by the more palatable “adventure playground,” a model that enjoyed a modest amount of popularity for the next few decades. By the late 1970s, there were at least 20 well-established adventure playgrounds in the United States alone.

Yet such parks would prove too perilous for American parents growing concerned with child safety. According to Lange, although only 3 percent of playground accidents resulted in hospitalization—“it is more likely that a child will die in a car accident driving to a playground than while playing there”—the junk parks were no match for our increasingly fearful and litigious culture.

Blaine Brownell

In the absence of such playgrounds, what have we lost? According to Lange, children require exposure to risk as a fundamental part of their psychological development. The long-term advantages to kids who frequent adventure playgrounds include “resilience, self-reliance, adventurousness, and entrepreneurialism.” Additionally, increasing a child’s environmental agency can make a better citizen—and potentially a better architect or planner. In a 1971 article in Landscape Architecture, British architect Simon Nicholson argues that we “can discern a natural evolution from the creative play and participation with wood, hammers, ropes, nails, and fire, to creative play and participation with the total process of design and planning of regions of cities.”

So to develop a more courageous, resilient, and design-conscious adult population, we must find a way to advocate opportunities for this kind of risk-based play and spatial learning for our children. If the Savage Park model is too extreme, then a hybrid version combining adventure- and architect-designed playgrounds could provide an alternative to the ultra-safe, formulaic variety. “The next best thing to a playground designed entirely by children is a playground designed by an adult but incorporating the possibility for children to create their own places within it,” Dattner argues in Design for Play (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969).

Today, there is growing interest in the Hanegi Playpark and the adventure playground–model, as evidenced by a higher frequency of articles such as the 2016 New York Times story, “The Anti-Helicopter Parent’s Plea: Let the Kids Play!” Yet difficult regulatory and cultural hurdles remain. As Fusselman implores: “Americans, I beseech you, it is not impossible as it seems. We may have an ocean on the east and west, we may have our borders on the north and south, but we are not an island; we are in the world. There is no escaping it: we have been born, we are going to die. Americans, I beg you: Recognize! We are already in Savage Park!”