ANNIE MYGIND, who wrote in ANARCHY 6 about her film Circus at Clopton Hall, here describes her experiences in starting an adventure playground in a New Town. Her cousin Erik Mygind began the 'Cave City' playground at Virum near Copenhagen, after witnessing the success of the famous Emdrup 'junk playground' in that city.
New Town Adventure
ON MY FIRST RETURN TO DENMARK after the war, my cousin Erik invited me to come and see a playground a friend of his had started. "It's a very special idea," he said, is to give town children the opportunity to play as children can in the country, and have bonfires, build huts and caves and muck around in safety; they need to be able to do these things without getting in the way of adults."
This sounded exciting, and Erik's enthusiasm was infectious – but although the answers he gave to my questions gradually built up a picture, I found something more in the Emdrup Playground. This was a sense of freedom – a recognition that children must play and work at their own pace, without the setting of adult standards of achievement. John Bertelsen, who had initiated the idea was there in daily charge. He was a young seaman with a nursery school teacher's training (fantastic and unique combination!), and there is no doubt that he made the playground, not just organisationally, in acquiring the scrap materials and tools, and in negotiating with the authorities, etc., but in the sense that his unsentimental love and egalitarian attitude to children set the atmosphere, and allowed the children to be themselves while they were in the playground. It was a sort of children's republic, so many yards square, fenced off from the outside world by a tall dyke; but set in the "kingdom" of a co-operative housing estate just outside Copenhagen.
There was the rub: John in fact was doing a sort of Jesus Christ act – taking all the sins and conflicts of contemporary society upon his shoulders through the children. When he left, as he did a short while later, the playground changed radically. The rule of law took over:
it was no longer a children's republic, but an extension of the housing estate.
But his example and vision inspired others – there were many visitors from abroad. Eight years later I saw the opportunity of starting such a playground in an English New Town. Among the neat, ordered rows of front gardens with their rosebushes and little lawns there were a small number of children who rebelled against the hire-purchase-washing-machine culture with unfortunate results for the rosebushes. Surely if their energies could be canalised in the right setting, i.e. a playground without adult rosebushes where they could dig and splash and build and make bonfires to their heart's content, the parents would be able to cultivate their gardens in peace and the children would be happy?
It took a year's hard work by a small band of enthusiasts to explain the idea of the playground, negotiate with the authorities, collect money from those who were willing to give, scout out tools from remote surplus stores, and find a playground leader, a site, scrap materials, get lavatories built, fencing and a hut. The support of Lady Allen of Hurtwood (who charmed us all when she came to give a lecture to the Community Association), as well as that of the National Playing Fields Association, was a great help, and the playground was opened in 1955.
The children flocked in, and the site, which was rough grassland, in a short while looked like a peacefield battlefield; earth dug up enthusiastically; houses built (the best of them by a gang with the reputation for smashing lamp-standards); potatoes roasted on bonfires; and they came back again and again. It was difficult to gauge local reactions – there were pictures and reports in the local press, polite and very mildly appreciative. But also "cartoons" depicting vicious behaviour and vandalism. (One child in fact did start to hack the bark off a venerable tree. The explanation that this would kill the tree satisfied him sufficiently to make him stop). Some mothers would say "This is a good idea, the children like it. They should have started one years ago"(!) Others wouldn't let their kids come because they were afraid they'd get hurt or dirty or both.
On balance though, there was a sense of achievement: it was worth while – in spite of press attacks, snobbery and minor crises.
But the small achievement highlighted the social disease around us. Much support was given for its prestige value. There was very little direct help except from a small band of devoted people. There was not enough money. The playground leader, who was no Jesus Christ, was underpaid and only lasted one season.
The children, although purposefully active, did not find that sense of easy freedom that we saw at Emdrup. One saw in fact that this was only a very ragged plaster on one social wound – the negative attitude to our children.