7 reasons why Canada needs more adventure playgrounds

Just coming up with the right headline for this blog post was a struggle because, if you want to get picky about it, Canada doesn’t really have any adventure playgrounds—at least not permanent ones.

Some are branded as such, but don’t adhere to the actual definition of what an adventure playground is: A space dedicated to children, usually created by children themselves, where they are free to build and wreck stuff, use real tools, test the limits of their bodies and imaginations, get covered in mud, and generally do what they please (while being supervised by trained playworkers). We used to have adventure playgrounds in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in bigger cities such as Montreal and Toronto, but they all disappeared.

Now, there is a rapidly growing movement of adventure play advocates who are pushing to bring them back—and make them even better. Earth Day Canada is one of the organizations leading the charge, which is why we’ve just launched a national crowdfunding campaign called Pledge4PLAY, with the goal to raise $25,000; this money will go toward supporting adventure playgrounds across the country.

If you want to know why we’re so obsessed with this cause, here are seven reasons:

1. Adventure playgrounds make our kids healthier and happier.

Watch any child in an adventure playground and this will become immediately obvious—the health benefits of using one’s body for climbing, swinging and jumping along with fine-motor skills such as hammering a nail or making a mud pie are clear. We already know that play, in general, is crucial in boosting the wellbeing of our kids, but at a time when UNICEF is releasing report cards on Child Well-Being in Rich Countries that place Canada 24th out of 29 nations in terms of how children rank their own life satisfaction, this connection has to be taken more seriously.  

2. Adventure playgrounds allow for risky play, which cultivates a child’s resilience and sense of agency.

A recent report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that risky play—not to be confused with reckless or dangerous play—“increased play time, social interactions, creativity and resilience.” The authors also found no links between risky play and increased aggression, and no links to increased bone fractures, either. The issue of “helicopter parenting” and modern obsession with risk mitigation is leading to dire consequences for our children. Adventure playgrounds are a great way for caregivers (and even bureaucrats) to see first-hand how kids of all ages are able to take calculated risks and push their boundaries without suffering any major injuries—and how this, in turn, builds their confidence.

3. Adventure playgrounds stimulate kids for longer, which translates into playing outside for longer.

At Earth Day Canada, we often reference the 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card asking grown-ups to “get out of the way and let [kids] play,” along with the Position Statement declaring that “access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development.” Playing inside has benefits too, of course, but the outdoors offers all of these benefits plus fresh air, healthy bacteria in the soil and dirt, more space to roam around and explore, and greater variation in stimuli. In a traditional playground with fixed structures such as swings, slides and monkey bars, older kids are likely to become bored within an hour (and potentially be tempted back inside); in an adventure playground, the opportunities for discovery and creativity can keep kids of all ages engaged for hours upon hours of play (a common refrain from parents at our POP-UP adventure playgrounds is, “I can’t believe how long we’ve been here!”).

4. Adventure playgrounds offer a fun, child-centric way to connect to the environment.

An emerging field of research is now connecting the amount of time kids spend outside in nature to their motivation, later in life, to care for it. This UBC study makes the case that, while environmental programming is important (think Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, outdoor classrooms or even the forest schools in Scandinavia), it’s arguably of equal or greater value to simply let kids have positive experiences outdoors that aren’t instructor-led or even supervised—that is, much less formal, much more child-directed. Learning about nature is one thing; self-discovery in nature is another, and the next generation of environmental leaders will need both if we expect them to make a real difference.

5. Adventure playgrounds can be a low-cost (but high-value) alternative to fixed playground equipment, and don’t require much beyond open space and loose parts.

There is some variation when it comes to what constitutes an “adventure playground”—some will be permanent, staffed, include a board of directors, funders and contracted suppliers of loose parts, like play:groundNYC or the Berkeley Marina Adventure Playground in California; others will be temporary, such as Earth Day Canada’s POP-UP Adventure Playgrounds, which are co-hosted with a range of community organizations in different neighbourhoods across the Greater Toronto Area; and some may involve not much more than a few parents bringing some cardboard, ropes and duct tape to a local park. There is a misconception around the cost of enriched play—mostly because people tend to associate it with full-blown playground makeovers that require landscape designers, naturalization efforts, brand new equipment, safety testing, etc. In actual fact, upcycled or donated loose parts are incredibly cost-effective (provided there is a storage solution and a few sets of hands available to bring the parts in and out).

6. Adventure playgrounds can open up a new field of employment for youth—that of the trained play-worker.

Teenagers are often looked up to by younger kids as mentors and role models, and in the environment of an adventure playground, they can gradually start to step into a leadership role, whether it be as a teacher (how to fix a bike tire, how to construct a fort that won’t collapse, how to dig a trench) or something closer to a social worker, helping kids work through disagreements with one another or demonstrating the rewards of patience and perseverance when it comes to accomplishing a goal. Some of this work is volunteer-based, but most permanent adventure playgrounds have hired play-workers on site and provide training. Earth Day Canada has a handful of “Play Rangers” on its EarthPLAY team and is hoping to expand its EcoMentors program to focus on developing this type of work further.

7. Adventure playgrounds bring communities together.

Admittedly, this concept is usually too warm-and-fuzzy-sounding to be true, but in the case of the adventure play movement, it actually is—almost by necessity. As wonderful as these places are, they require a lot of hard work: Upkeep and maintenance, management and supply of loose parts, coordination of supervision, promotion, and outreach, along with more random logistical duties along the lines of, “We want to let the kids build a bonfire, how do we make sure this place doesn’t burn down?” What this means is that the surrounding community has to work together in order to support the adventure playground, which in turn requires building close relationships.

Still not convinced on the power of adventure playgrounds? Read on:

When Kids Create Their Own Playground

What Makes Berlin a Playground Paradise

Science to Parents: Let Your Kids Run a Little Wild

If Children Lose Contact with Nature They Won’t Fight for it