Inside New York City’s adventure playground, where kids make the rules

For decades, special playgrounds in the U.K. have given children free rein. Now, the concept of “adventure play” is slowly spreading in the U.S., but these playgrounds, which look more like junk yards, will require new thinking about what play and childhood are supposed to look like.

While some kids hammered and others sawed, 11-year-old Jonah Schwarz started building an addition to the playground fort.

“And there’s a sign that says, ‘Kids do not need advice or suggestions,’ so I could just basically do whatever I want,” Jonah said.

This is play:groundNYC — 50,000 square feet of dirt where the boundaries of childhood have been redrawn.

“This is a space where children can make their own decisions about what is quote unquote ‘risky,'” Rebecca Faulkner said. 

Faulkner opened the adventure playground last summer, joining a tiny handful of spaces in the U.S. that give kids dangerous tools and invite them to make a mess.

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The staff — called “playworkers” — offer some supervision but very little direction.

Adventure playgrounds first blossomed in the U.K. after World War II thanks to a woman named Marjory Allen. She turned London bomb sites into places kids could do pretty much whatever they wanted. 

One of those was Glamis, which is still open in East London.

“Do what you want, it’s a free place. You just have loads of fun. You can’t do anything that they’ll say, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ you’re just free,” said 10-year-old Millah Callender. 

How free? Well, after taking a sledgehammer to wood pallets, kids stacked the broken boards and set them on fire. If that sounds a bit dangerous, the workers there, like Penny Wilson, say that’s the point.

“I think the risk is definitely a positive. Children are doing things that children are perfectly capable of but we as adults decide that they’re not because we feel uncomfortable with it,” Wilson said. 

But even in London, that argument has faced pushback and adventure playgrounds have been changing, or even closing, in part over safety concerns.

Boy hammers a nail at play:groundNYC

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In the U.S., 61 pages of federal playground guidelines now warn against everything from grass to rope swings. That’s why Playground: NYC isn’t actually in New York City, but on Governor’s Island, a former military base just south of Manhattan.
 
“Governor’s Island…

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