The Parish School Blog

More About the Spaces We Love: Adventure Play!

Written by Jill Wood, MLIS
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The Parish School is fortunate to have one of only five site-based adventure playgrounds in the United States and the only one based at a school. Adventure playgrounds are environments where children create their own worlds and build their own play space with a variety of tools and scrap material:  lumber, hammers, nails, house paint, yards of fabric, pallets, wooden crates, and plenty of time and freedom. On these sites, children are supported by adults trained in the professional practice of playwork, a unique approach that puts the child’s ideas and objectives first. Think of an adventure playground as a giant, very well stocked back yard that belongs entirely to children, but with adults around to help when needed.

As you might imagine, an area that belongs to children looks very different from a typical playground or classroom. Playworkers are trained not to clean up after children, so kids can create their own systems of organization. They are also trained not to impose their own aesthetics on the playground, so if a child wants to paint a fort every color under the sun, then write their name on it 20 times in sharpie, it is allowed. This sense of ownership, along with trained playworkers, and a rich array of scrap material provide adventure playground’s greatest asset – intrinsic motivation.

tire tower on the parish school's adventure playgroundAlso vital to an adventure playground is a playworker’s approach to risk-taking. Children who attend Adventure Play at The Parish School may climb trees, jump off culverts, battle with homemade swords, and dig in muddy ponds. The only condition is that they must do these things without hurting one another and without the physical help of adults, ensuring that they have the physical and mental strength to tackle a challenge when ready.

Originally called junk playgrounds, these spaces developed in London during the city’s rebuilding after World War II. They currently number in the hundreds in the United Kingdom and Japan. In the U.S., they are few and far between, however there is growing interest in play that provides opportunities for independence and resilience, and adventure playgrounds are coming back to the fore of U.S. conversation.[i] With 10 years of experience, the staff of The Parish School’s adventure playground is often asked about safety. With all of this stuff organized and built by children - with so much freedom, space, tools and child-directed activity, aren’t these playgrounds rife with injury?

To answer that question, Parish’s Adventure Play Director, Jill Wood, teamed with Morgan Leichter Saxby, PhD candidate in Playwork at Leeds Beckett University and Co-Founder of Pop-Up Adventure Play, to comb through The Parish School’s Daily Clinic Reports between 2010 and 2015 and make the statistics public: Comparing Injury Rates on the elementary recess playground to the adventure playground at The Parish School is the result.

While both playgrounds are very safe, Adventure Play at The Parish School had 4.3 fewer incidents requiring outside medical attention over the 5-year period. This statistic is particularly important to those who equate the appearance of adventure playgrounds with injury.

It is commonly understood among playworkers that adventure playgrounds are safer than conventional playgrounds for several reasons: [ii] 

  1. Adventure playgrounds are staffed by playworkers, who follow a child’s lead and differentiate between hazard and risk. A hazard is something that a child is unaware of and might cause injury, i.e. a weak branch in a tree, a nail sticking out of a floorboard, a fort without proper structural integrity. The playworker’s job is to eradicate hazard through daily inspections and maintenance. Risk is a challenge that an individual chooses to take on and is weighed against benefit. By definition, risks are different for every person. An individual who is made nervous by new situations may find it risky to play a game of tag with unfamiliar rules or new kids. A capable climber may choose to scale a 10-foot wall after trying shorter challenges and needing something more demanding.

  2. Children build adventure playgrounds themselves, so they are made to a child’s physical scale and very familiar. Children simply aren’t capable of building large structures without footholds or reliable ways to climb up. The ceilings of structures are lower, the building methods are slow and incremental, and the makers of the space know every inch of it very well.

  3. The appearance of adventure playgrounds alert children to being more attentive and active participants. Conventional playgrounds look very similar to one another, leading children to enter them without hesitation or heightened awareness. Adventure playgrounds are play spaces that require children to explore and figure them out. The demands of a constantly changing environment lead to a process of assessment that empowers children.

  4. Adventure playgrounds are ever-evolving and adaptable, making them stimulating and challenging. By design, schoolyard and public park playgrounds purchased from catalogs are made to be unchanging. When children become bored, they create challenge. Fixed equipment playgrounds cannot accommodate that need for change, so children will use the equipment in ways it was not designed to be used. On an adventure playground, children may and can build what they need, when they need it.

The study is made public on Pop-Up Adventure Play’s site free of charge, so people may gain a better understanding of adventure playgrounds and their unique set of strengths.

For more on Adventure Play at The Parish School, visit


mixing potions on the parish school adventure playground


[i] Resources about growing interest in children, risk, and resilience:


[ii] Resources related to risk, safety, and health through child-directed play:

  • Almon, J. (2013) Adventure: The Value of Risk in Children's Play, Alliance for Childhood USA
  • Ball, D. (2002) Playgrounds: Risks, Benefits and Choices. Middlesex University, London
  • Ball, D, Gill, T, and Spiegal, B.(2013) Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide. Play England
  • Brown, F. (2013) Play Deprivation: impact consequences and potential of playwork. Play Wales
  • Brussoni, M,. L. Olsen, I. Pike, D. Sleet (2012) Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. September 9. 3134-3148
  • Brussoni, M. et al. (2015) “What is the Relationship between Risky Outdoor Play and Health in Children? A Systematic Review”. In the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Jun; 12(6): 6423–6454.
  • Conway, M. (2009). Developing an Adventure Playground: The Essential Elements, National Children’s Bureau, London
  • Else, P. (2014) Making Sense of Play. McGraw-Hill
  • Gill, T. (2007) No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
  • Fusselman, A. (2015) Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die. Mariner Books
  • Sandseter, E. (2010) Scaryfunny: A Qualitative Study of Risky Play Among Preschool Children. PhD Thesis, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  • Slovic, P. (1987) “Perception of Risk”. In Science, New Series, Volume 236, Issue 4799, April 17, 280-285
  • Woolley, H. (2011) Exploring the Relationship between Design Approach and Play