Protected by an eight-foot-high privacy fence and sitting atop a small hill in northern Wales is a radical adventure playground where the children are in charge.
At the entrance is a sign reading: "The Land. A space full of possibilities." Inside, children construct their own play spaces from discarded lumber, old tires, rope and all sorts of junk. Depending on the day, children might be playing with an old rowboat, shopping carts, bicycle parts or a discarded piano. Kids use saws and hammers, and even build fires to burn cardboard just for the fun of it.
The Land opened in 2012 as the result of efforts by Claire Griffiths, a mother of two teenagers and a former child-care worker. It’s also the subject of a forthcoming 2015 documentary by filmmaker Erin Davis, who spent a month filming there last spring.
"There’s so much chaos at The Land," Davis said. "Everything is unfamiliar, untidy and spontaneous. It’s electric."
Adventure playgrounds like The Land are designed to foster free play, an activity that experts say is important to a child’s development. Free play is a process of self-discovery, giving children a chance to develop their unique abilities along with a sense of mastery and the capacity to negotiate risk.
"When there is a serious lack of developmentally appropriate play in a child, the child will not look to their own inner self to determine who they are and what they are," said Dr. Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play and one of the founding figures in play science. "Who I am becomes what somebody approves of … not what really gives me a sense of motivation, passion and joy."
Unique play styles
Brown says most people don’t appreciate the role of play in child development.
"Play behavior itself is much underrated and not very understood. It’s often considered to be trivial, which it’s not," he said.
Brown views play as a process of self-discovery. Parents can foster this development or impede it, depending on how sensitive they are to the child’s cues.
Given the opportunity, Brown said, a child will explore different types of play. Parents should pay attention to the natural play tendencies of the child. Different children may enjoy social play, object-oriented play or bodily motion.
Brown gave an example of a 6-month-old infant lying on a blanket, playing with a brightly colored handkerchief. The child may get a lot of joy from playing with the handkerchief, a form of object-oriented play. But if the parents insist that the child pay attention to their faces instead, they could accidentally prevent the baby from developing as an individual.
When children are allowed to direct their own play, "they’re making choices," says play advocate Tom Norquist. "They’re planning their activities, which is cognitive development. All the time they’re doing that, it’s causing them to move, which is physical development."
Norquist is a playground designer, board member for the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association and professor at Auburn University.
"Our society might often make the mistake of thinking that play is frivolous and a waste of time," he said. "But as humans, we’re wired for play. It’s just as natural as eating, sleeping and exercise."
Mastery through risk
The trained staff at adventure playgrounds distinguish between risk and hazard, according to Davis. A risk is something a child chooses to do, while a hazard is a hidden danger. Play workers remove hazards, such as nails and broken glass, but allow children to take appropriate risks, like climbing trees, in an overall safe environment.
"Play workers are trained to take a step back before they take a step forward," said Erin Marteal, executive director of the Ithaca Children’s Garden in New York. The garden is home to one of the few adventure playgrounds in the United States, The Anarchy Zone.
The Anarchy Zone offers big piles of mulch and soil, along with straw bales kids can use for construction. Children devise forts and playhouses with pallets, rope and fabric, and sometimes roll themselves down hills inside giant tractor tires.
Norquist talked about the sense of mastery when children take appropriate risks, such as pushing a playground swing to its limits. When children use a swing, they "learn how to control their body, and make a graceful swinging motion, and then take it beyond that to where they’re experiencing gravity, and that snap of the chain — that’s just huge in terms of a child’s development," he said. Mastery on the playground gives a child the confidence to try other things.
"Nature plays this amazing trick on us," said Norquist. "What we learn in free play, and what it does to our bodies, and the wiring of our brains, it’s profound. Later on, when we require a higher level of thinking, it’s there because it’s been programmed through free play."
Play in any environment
Norquist loves adventure playgrounds, but he admits they’re not always practical. "I think the whole concept of having a staffed adventure playground … as long as it’s a supervised activity, it’s fantastic," he said.
He pointed out that not all communities will allocate the resources to operate a fully staffed adventure playground. But similarly rich play experiences are available in all kinds of environments, whether that’s in nature, a well-designed urban playground, or even an indoor play space.
"The perfect playground is in nature," Norquist said. "But often we aren’t afforded the availability to take children out in nature every day to play. So in a play environment, we try to replicate a lot of things that children would experience developmentally in nature, like climbing, sliding, hide and seek, cubbyholes and other experiences."
Running, jumping, sliding, swinging and other play activities benefit children in any environment, according to Norquist.
"The social, the cognitive, the physical and the emotional development are natural phenomena that occur when children are at play," he said.
The spirit of play
Davis, a nanny to three boys, says her experiences at The Land helped her learn to appreciate the role of play in child development and to say no less often when interacting with children.
"Even when we’re making cookies," she said, "and they want to make a huge blob of a cookie, instead of teaspoon-sized cookies, I’m like, 'Why not?’ ”
Spending a month at The Land taught Davis that "we can create more enriching play environments and play experiences for children. It can exist. It does exist. And you can draw from this idea. You don’t have to fill up your backyard with pallets and a fire pit, but you can say yes more often to a child."
Norquist, who describes himself as "the youngest 55-year-old you’ll ever meet," wants adults to remember that the need for play doesn’t end with childhood.
"If you can be playful throughout your life, you’ll be much more nimble when sudden change hits you," he said. Norquist believes that play makes adults "more positive and optimistic."
"If you’re having a bad day, if you’re stressed out," Norquist said, "go do something playful."
Marsha Maxwell is an online journalist, writing teacher and Ph.D. student at the University of Utah. She can be reached at email@example.com.