Making playgrounds great again
Like festivals? Good! Like festivals AND camping? Better! Wanna bring your kids? Camp Bestival roars into action the weekend of Thursday 25 – Monday 29 July. Set in the majestic grounds of Lulworth Castle, on Dorset’s dramatic Jurassic coastline, Camp Bestival is a wonderland of music, food, culture and family fun. And guess what? We’re going to be there! Swing by the Wonderful Workshops tent to join in with some unmissable Wonderbly storytelling fun and mischief. From storytelling yoga to creative writing workshops to craft sessions (and more!), there’s something for all ages — based on the weird and wonderful Wonderbly world!
When we’re not busy making crowns with @heartzeena or trying out creative writing tips from Wonderbly’s author-in-chief, David Cadji-Newby, we can’t wait to check out the other awesome attractions at Camp Bestival! The spectacle we are most excited about is Woodland Tribe’s groundbreaking build your own adventure playground turned Burning Man-style festival finale! Kids will use hammers, saws and nails to turn a gigantic pile of wood into a huge play structure. The theme of the structure will be “superhero mountain lair,” which on Sunday night will be transformed into a VOLCANO and BURNT DOWN as part of the festival’s closing celebrations! When we heard about this we had to know more about the team who thought it up. Who ARE these people? And what do children (and their parents) stand to gain from engaging with construction and adventure play? Founder and Co Director of Woodland Tribe Tom Williams was only so happy to tell us:
OK. So, Who are the Woodland Tribe?
Woodland Tribe are a not-for-profit organisation promoting adventure play all over the UK. Our USP is letting children build their own playgrounds with hammers, saws, and a huge quantity of wood — it really is a sight to behold! We let children do this mainly at festivals, but also in schools, art galleries and community spaces. We also support existing adventure playgrounds that are battling to survive. We want the knowledge and understanding of adventure play in the UK to be as ingrained in the national consciousness as Quentin Blake’s beautiful drawings that for us capture the essence of an adventurous, free and slightly shonky (our favourite word) childhood.
In that case, let’s start with the term adventure play. What is the Adventure Playground Movement and what are it’s aims?
The first ‘junk’ playground was started in Emdrup, just outside Copenhagen in Denmark. It was the idea of an architect called C.T. Sorenson in the 1940’s. Lady Allen of Hurtwood, a British social campaigner, brought ‘adventure’ playgrounds to the UK where they were a symbol of post war regeneration. They really took off in the UK and at one time there were over 300 adventure playgrounds in cities all over the country. This UK model of adventure playgrounds where children were free to build their own playground was exported all over the world, but particularly to Denmark, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Japan and the USA.
The Woodland Tribe model for play and playground is very different from offerings in most school grounds and neighbourhoods. What do you think we are we getting wrong about these spaces in Britain and the US at the moment?
In the last 30 years adults have become obsessed with children’s safety, wrapping children up in cotton wool for their own protection. The culture of health and safety ‘gone mad’ has meant that children have far less freedom and possibilities to play than previous generations enjoyed. Manufactured playgrounds have become predictable and boring because they offer children no chance for real excitement or imaginative play. We call them KFC playgrounds as they only offer Kit Fence and Carpet.
What does Woodland Tribe and it’s take on Adventure Play have to offer that is different from that model?
At the same time [KFC playgrounds were flourishing] we noticed that adventure playgrounds in the UK were also all looking the same, often built from big telegraph poles and featuring towers, bridges, big swings, etc. While these were still way more exciting than manufacture playgrounds, it was only when Woodland Tribe visited adventure playgrounds in Denmark and Germany and saw children still building on such a large scale that we realised the UK could have that child lead approach too. Adventure playgrounds in the UK are also tucked away in cities and difficult to find. We wanted more families to experience the magic of adventure play and saw UK festivals as a great place to start doing that.
In your “child led” model, do you think children should be allowed to take decisions about risk?
One of the most common things parents say to us is, “It’s incredible! I have never seen my child so engaged!” We try to give children a space where they are in control of their experience. Within reason they can build what ever they want. They are given responsibility to use tools, look after themselves, and look after others around them. Children are very good at making their own risk assessments, matching their own individual ability to the surroundings around them. At Woodland Tribe they have to decide: How safe is the bit that they just built? Should they change it or make safer? This dynamic approach to risk assessment is empowering and educative. It’s hands on and learning through experience.
When do you draw the line in facilitation and step in?
The sight and sound of 50 children building furiously with hammers can be equally life affirming and alarming! We believe very much in adult/child co-production — we want families to enjoy a unique experience together. This underpins our methodology. Parents know their children’s capabilities. We encourage parental supervision, but we ask parents to give their child some freedom and not to hover over them like a helicopter. We also have trained staff keeping an eye on families, supporting those who need help. Finally, we have experienced Woodland Tribe directors keeping an eye on the whole site, conducting the build like an orchestra. Families often remark that this combination of trust and responsibility is so refreshing, they are equally tired of a cotton wool culture impacting on their children.
What do parents learn from the process of building with their children?
We know from childhood research that for children it is all about playing with uncertainty, “What if we build a castle? What if there is a dragon in the castle? What if the dragon is friendly?!” We love it when families embrace our shonky Woodland Tribe vibe, living in the here and now, in a space full of possibilities, when it feels exciting for everyone. We believe society has an over reliance on permanence and that embracing the temporary is good for everyone’s emotional resilience. We also dislike perfection and love the Samuel Becket quote, “Fail once. Fail twice. Fail better.” This philosophy is important for adults as well as children when building. Although, sometimes you get a dad who wants to re-build that perfect treehouse he had as a child and that is ok too!
Tom Williams is the Founder and Co-Director of Woodland Tribe. He has spent 50 years playing on, working, building, managing, visiting, writing about and campaigning for adventure playgrounds in the UK.