When I was a kid we’d have these kinds of places. We called them “outside.”
When the heavy gate finally swings open, Dylan, the boys, and about a dozen other children race directly to their favorite spots, although it’s hard to see how they navigate so expertly amid the chaos. “Is this a junkyard?” asks my 5-year-old son, Gideon, who has come with me to visit. “Not exactly,” I tell him, although it’s inspired by one. The Land is a playground that takes up nearly an acre at the far end of a quiet housing development in North Wales. It’s only two years old but has no marks of newness and could just as well have been here for decades. The ground is muddy in spots and, at one end, slopes down steeply to a creek where a big, faded plastic boat that most people would have thrown away is wedged into the bank. The center of the playground is dominated by a high pile of tires that is growing ever smaller as a redheaded girl and her friend roll them down the hill and into the creek. “Why are you rolling tires into the water?” my son asks. “Because we are,” the girl replies.
A playground where children regularly build fires. No. Really.
If a 10-year-old lit a fire at an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling. At the Land, spontaneous fires are a frequent occurrence. The park is staffed by professionally trained “playworkers,” who keep a close eye on the kids but don’t intervene all that much. Claire Griffiths, the manager of the Land, describes her job as “loitering with intent.” Although the playworkers almost never stop the kids from what they’re doing, before the playground had even opened they’d filled binders with “risk benefits assessments” for nearly every activity. (In the two years since it opened, no one has been injured outside of the occasional scraped knee.)
I used to ride my bike down a ramp and then up another, yanking up on the monkey bar handlebars at exactly the right moment to fly, Evil Knievel style, momentarily. I don’t suggest this, of course. I’m a dad, and I know dental work can be expensive.
I used to ride that same bike 1/4 of a mile to a store when I was only 12. Alone. Without a phone. No helmet. Mom had a vague idea when I’d be home.
I also dismantled a lot of old electronics, and put 9v batteries on my tongue, just to feel the buzz.
Good article. My granddaughter will never play somewhere with kids starting fires.