Adventure playgrounds: new exhibition shows how they are more than just a place to play

Children at play in Hackney Marsh Adventure Playground. Pic: Young Hackney

An exhibition in Hackney Museum hopes to highlight the value of adventure playgrounds for local children’s mental and physical well-being.

While the words ‘adventure playground’ may paint a picture of big structures and bustling activity, Andrea Dumbrell, from Hackney Museum, told Eastlondonlines that in it is quite the opposite:“…It’s not all about the sort of like the big structures, but it can be about the quiet moments; sometimes people think that adventure playgrounds are all about the big structures, the noise and the busyness…actually, a lot of what goes on at adventure playgrounds is quieter…”

Sianead Crawford, the Senior Adventure Playground Manager at Homerton Grove adventure playground described what an adventure playground is, and what her role as a playworker: ”The role of a playworker is to support children in creating a space where they can play… we facilitate play for its own sake not as a tool to achieve other outcomes…playwork has no other agenda…If a playworker isn’t doing much, it means that the play space is working perfectly!”

Dumbrell told ELL that the Hackney Adventure Playground exhibition came about ‘organically’ through the contribution of local residents and playworkers, including Alan Rossiter one of the first playworkers at the Hackney Marsh adventure playground in the 70s:“… [Last] June, I was running some memory sessions where people could come and discuss their experiences and stories of Hackney in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and one of the themes was adventure playgrounds…quite a lot of people came along to that, and then it just…it grew into an exhibition…it started just as people coming along talking about their experiences of going to adventure playgrounds, working in adventure playgrounds…its a fascinating topic.”

Hackney Adventure Playgrounds Exhibit. Pic: Elishah Luke 

Adventure playgrounds have a unique history that dates back into the 50s, and some of the first adventure playgrounds were on bomb sites.

Dumbrell told ELL that research into some of that history played a massive part in creating the exhibit, and that her background in research which also included teaching history, literature, and religious studies at Open University and Sussex University helped.
Originally adventure playgrounds were seasonal, and it was only in the 70s that most of them became more permanent: “…Most of the adventure playgrounds have been here for at least 50 years…They’re sort of celebrating their 50th anniversary…”

One important figure in that history is Donne Buck. Buck was a playleader, archivist, and advocate for children’s right to play for over 60 years till his death last year.

Dumbrell told ELL: “… [Donne Buck] came from New Zealand originally, and his first ever job in the UK in the late 50s was [as a playworker at] Shoreditch Adventure Playground (one of the first…he donated a lot of his papers and photographs to the V&A [who] gave me access to the Donne Buck archive…”

The exhibition was also driven by creative ideas from Hackney’s local children, and adventure playground children, who participated in some of the planning, creation, design, and compilation of some of the exhibition pieces.

A local child expresses their love for adventure playgrounds. Pic: Elishah Luke

Dumbrell told ELL: “[What] was really nice…was that current playworkers were looking and seeing what the kids had made and taking inspiration from there as well…children help(ed) to choose some of the stuff that went into the cabinet…they made so much stuff that it didn’t all go in the exhibition…that to me…was very important that people can contribute to the exhibition as an ongoing process.”

Some of Hackney children’s contributions and creations for Hackney’s adventure playground exhibit. Pic: Elishah Luke 

Crawford also agrees on the importance of children’s involvement in adventure playgrounds: “… [When] it comes to play, children are the experts, and it is from them that we learn…we…understand that play is something to be freely chosen by children not something led by adults…play is a right, and a biological necessity.”

Another unique component of the exhibition was the recycling and reusing of items such as nails, tires, ropes, wood palletes, and items from previous exhibitions. Dumbrell told ELL that most of the items in the exhibit were from recycled material extracted from various adventure playgrounds in Hackney:

The seven adventure playgrounds in Hackney. Pic: Elishah Luke 

Recycling plays a major role in the exhibition. Pic: Hackney Museum

“There’s a lot of connection to recycling as well, and reusing, and that is one of things we have done in this exhibition…”

Dumbrell is also part of the 2023-2024 planning phase for ‘reimagining’ and transforming Hackney Museum, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and this exhibition was one part of that planning.

Asked about the future of adventure playgrounds in the local community, and what she hopes that Hackney’s residents would take from the exhibition, Dumbrell told Eastlondonlines: “…I want them to know about adventure playgrounds themselves…adventure playgrounds…have a past, a present, and a …strong…future.” “…Children can do lots of things in adventure playgrounds…[and] they still have a really important role to play in the lives of children…The more people that are aware of them, the better, and it will be really nice to see them continue…build on their history and carry on.”

The Hackney Adventure Playground exhibition is set to run till June 1.

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