ADVENTURE PLAYGROUNDS MAY OR MAY NOT be a parable of anarchy, but to understand them properly it is necessary first to define the term, and then to examine it objectively in the light of practice as well as theory. Adventure, like freedom, is elusive, and experience in this country over something like twelve years shows that we have by no means reached agreement on its definition. It is possible to visit playgrounds where every constructive activity is banned, where creative activities are organised by adults, and where every piece of equipment is rigidly fixed in the manner deplored by contributors to ANARCHY 7.
C.W's brief survey of the movement is truly excellent. Its weakness, perhaps (and one which arises only out of a necessary brevity) lies in the fact that it does not look deeply enough at those playgrounds which made the greatest impact – and not at all on those which, for one reason or another, were regarded as failures. I do not pretend to understand anarchistic philosophy – I do understand the pressures experienced by groups attempting to establish adventure playgrounds. Such pressures, experienced by practically all groups, resulted from (1) lack of funds, (2) untrained and inexperienced leadership, (3) weak community liaison and appreciation, and (4) a general lack of knowledge relative to (a) organisation and administration, and (b) clearly defined aims and objectives. But more than anything else, recent research shows there is an urgent need for a central co-ordinating body which
JOE BENJAMIN was the project leader of the Grimsby Adventure Playground. His report on the movement as a whole is shortly to be published by the National Council of Social Service, under the title In Search of Adventure.
will help the newly active citizen to avoid making the same disheartening mistakes today that were made when the first playground was started more than twelve years ago. Children get disheartened only temporarily, and return to a problem with new ideas and greater experience. This is not always the case with adults.
Where Can They Play?
I should like to amplify some of the points made in your Playground issue (ANARCHY 7) by reference to the Housing Centre's study Two to Five in High Flats, which you mention in passing. It is assumed by architects and housing committees that in the growing number of "high" (i.e. more than five storeys) blocks of flats which are the result of the increasing pressure on urban land, families without children will occupy the upper, and those with young children the lower flats, and that play facilities for children under five will be provided within sight or earshot of their homes. But the pamphlet (which reports the findings of an enquiry into the play activities of children under school age now living in high flats, carried out by Mrs. Joan Maizels, together with an interim report by Peter Townsend and students of the LSE, on questions of play and safety, from a survey with wider terms of reference), shows that this assumption is far from correct, and that in spite of all sorts of official recommendations on the provision of play facilities, "official practice has lamentably failed to keep pace with precept".
Nearly three quarters of the mothers interviewed had some difficulty with their children's play, and wanted better playing facilities for their children more than any other possible improvements in the amenities on their estate, suggesting such facilities as nursery schools or classes (the Ministry of Education has put an absolute ban on new ones), or supervised play groups. The report points out that young children in high flats have a serious lack of opportunities to mix with other children, to play with earth and water, and for physical exercise. Perhaps the most serious deprivation is the limitation on easy mixing and playing with other children, "for only through play with others may the young child learn about co-operative social relationships. Mothers who expressed concern were sensitive to the fact that their young children are not, so far, provided with adequate opportunities for this process of discovery that adults call play."
Graphic illustration of this point comes from an article by Miss Joan Pearse who is supervisor of the nursery play-groups run by the Save the Children Fund on LCC housing estates. (The World's Children, Vol. 38, No.3). She gives this description of the effect on children of opening play groups in the tenants' club rooms on ten LCC estates:
Many of the children who attend these groups spend their first few visits in just letting off steam. It has been quite amazing to notice the change in the children – a change which seems hardly possible in such a short period as a week. One group comes very vividly to mind. When it opened, the active, eager children had no idea of any co-operative play. Supervision of the slide was a nightmare. Children were pulled backwards off the step by their hair – other children scrambled up the side and pushed the more timid child away – faces were scratched and shins kicked. The rider of a tricycle or scooter was dragged off, bricks were hurled at any other child approaching, and sand scattered about in wild abandon. But in a month – or sixteen hours of nursery time – the sense of fairness – the taking of a turn or the helping of a smaller child became apparent. Even more interesting was the gradual realisation of the fun of co-operative play – the friendships that were formed and the unity of the whole group which so recently resembled a bear garden.
It is evident that the children suffer, severely, from inadequate socialisation, and the first reaction of the reader of the report, or of Miss Pearse's article is that "they" – the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, or the Ministry of Housing, or their equivalents in the local authorities – should do something about it, since as Miss Pearse remarks, her organisation is only able to give "some temporary help to a few London children and their mothers." The second reaction however is to wonder why the people on the estate don't run their own nursery group. (The Save the Children Fund's method is to hold a meeting with the Tenants' Association which "usually agrees to be responsible for the provision of accommodation for the club, canteen facilities and a rota of voluntary helpers, while the organiser agrees on behalf of the Fund to provide trained help and the bulk of the equipment").
The answer given in Two to Five in High Flats is that "experience has shown that a purely voluntary rota for this purpose does not work well", and Mr. Macey, the Birmingham Housing Manager, at the RIBA symposium on "Family Life in High Density Housing" remarked that "Schemes for parents to co-operate together to supervise children using such amenities always seem to break down. Either it is not convenient to Mrs. Brown to carry out her voluntary turn of duty when it comes round, or she retires in a dudgeon because her child has been spoken to abruptly by a neighbour who is temporarily supervising the playground or play centre."
This in turn may lead us to reflect how far-reaching and life-long may be the "inadequate socialisation" which is the price we pay for making the Englishman's home his castle.
But to end on a more positive note, there has recently been formed a Nursery School Campaign, which is gaining support in several parts of the country, which has two aims: the first (which will probably not appeal to you), is to gather names for a petition to the Minister of Education, but the second is to encourage groups of mothers to start their own nursery schools wherever they can find suitable premises, employing trained teachers, especially those with their own small children who want only part-time jobs. The organiser is Mrs. B. Tutaev, of 4A Cavendish Mews South, London, W.l., who wants to hear from mothers and teachers who would like to create their own solutions to their problems.