For a film about children playing, The Land, Erin Davis’s eye-opening documentary, is surprisingly anxiety-inducing. For The Land is not your average playground. Built in an abandoned lot in the middle of a working-class Welsh neighbourhood, The Land looks, at first glance, like a literal garbage dump. It’s a landscape littered with mud, broken furniture, pallets, broken playground equipment, concrete cylinders, piles of timber, more mud, a punching bag, broken toys, old tyres, a couple of shipping containers, the shell of an old speedboat and, for some reason, an armless mannequin hanging from a tree. But then you look again and you see the children, seemingly unsupervised and covered in mud, running, climbing, breaking, building and laughing their way through these piles of detritus. For those of us used to the clean, clinical world of most playgrounds, it’s a moment of high-end cognitive dissonance. Where are their parents? Someone’s going to die! Is that child … starting a fire? Yes. Yes they are.
Yet hidden behind its seemingly dangerous facade, The Land might hold the key to one of the most basic questions of childhood: What is play? And how can we ensure our kids get the most out of it?
For something so fundamental to the development of children, play holds a vexed position for the modern child. As a society, we’ve become suspicious of unstructured time and unstructured space. Safety is the overarching watchword and we fill our kids’ days with enriching activities designed to best cultivate their blooming minds. Play has become something to be monitored and shaped, from the toys we give to the games we create.
Barbara Chancellor, a Melbourne-based play researcher and academic, thinks we’re losing sight of the bigger picture. “Poor teachers and parents today are bombarded with all these things they need to be doing to ensure their child’s development. But play itself, unadorned and uninterrupted, is just as important as any other activity.” She laughs, “If you’d only just back off, they’d probably get a lot out of it.”
So, why exactly is play so important? Chancellor puts it plainly: “Any benefit you are looking for, you will find it in play: resilience, academic achievement, better behaviour, physical health. But these are just Trojan horses that justify it in the eyes of parents. Play is simply what young children do. It’s how they learn everything, really.”
But we’re only just realising how important play is for developing minds—and how wrong we often get it when we try to intervene. “Play seems like the easiest thing in the world,” Chancellor explains, “but we’re realising that the relationship between kids and play, and us and their play, is more complex than we once thought. The more we look into it and think about it and observe it, the more we realise we don’t know.”
For Davis, coming to The Land was a revelatory moment in her understanding of what it meant for children to play. “You arrive and you think, Are these kids homeless? Is this a refugee camp? But the more and more time I spent there, I just realised that this place is poetry. It’s living, breathing poetry. The very ground breathes and breeds playfulness.”
Far from a negligence lawsuit waiting to happen, The Land is a particularly eye-catching example of the adventure playground movement. Developed from the ideas of the Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen, adventure playgrounds eschew deliberate design and manufactured toys in favour of a ramshackle or junkyard aesthetic, filled with errata from the everyday. The emphasis is on unrestricted play, where children are given the opportunity to become agents in their own story.
Sørensen opened the first adventure playground in Copenhagen in 1943, and the idea quickly spread around a post-war Europe that was poor in resources but rich in debris and junk. The concept made its way to England thanks to the efforts of a landscape architect named Marjory Allen. After seeing Sørensen’s vision in action, she proposed that London’s bomb sites could be converted into playgrounds. For the next thirty years, she became a tireless advocate for the free play of children, exemplified by her rallying cry, “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” In one piece of archival footage, she explains her position: “I think children get a pretty raw deal. We give them an asphalt square with a few pieces of mechanical equipment, and they’re supposed to spend their imaginative life swinging backwards and forwards on a swing.”
Although no two adventure playgrounds are ever the same, they’re all bound together by a sense of joyful chaos. These haven’t been architecturally designed, or constructed from brand-new materials. They’re built from recognisable, real objects cobbled together with varying degrees of success. There’s old furniture, broken equipment and loose bits of wood. Paint or mud is daubed across most surfaces. Children, often filthy, hold and use tools, rarely in the way they’re intended.
In many ways, these playgrounds hark back to an earlier, simpler time. “Forty years ago, back when I was teaching kinder,” Chancellor tells me, “kids just played with old broken telephones, and plates, knives and forks. And then suddenly everything started being replaced with miniature plastic versions. But children are more than capable of playing with real stuff. They don’t actually need pretend objects.” At The Land, children can play with saws, hammers and lighters, and they do.
Of course, there is order to the seeming chaos. The very first bomb-site playgrounds were manned by “wardens”, who doled out the tools and made sure things didn’t get too out of hand. Over time these wardens evolved into playworkers, whose role is, more than anything, simply to watch and wait until they’re needed. This is the core understanding of playwork: children can play perfectly well without our intervention. The job of the playworker is simply to do whatever they can to give a child control over their own story.
“The biggest thing that I took from my time at The Land,” says Davis, “was that I learned to shut the hell up. I talk so much when I’m with kids. ‘Oh wow, that’s so interesting! How’d you do that?’ Shut up already! It taught me to look to the child for a signal. Do they need me to be there? Do they need me to talk to them? Are they inviting me into this or do I just feel like I’m entitled to be part of it because I’m an adult?”
Not to say that playworkers are inactive. At The Land, every new shipment of junk is carefully appraised and scoured for hazards. “Risks and hazards are different things,” explains one of the playworkers in the film. A risk is something that the child chooses to engage with, to appraise and work out. The playworker’s job is to remove the hazards—jutting nails, unstable surfaces—that could cause children inadvertant harm and to offer gentle advice if it looks like things might be getting out of hand.
When you’re watching Davis’s film, it’s hard not to feel a vertiginous lump in your throat as you watch a self-confident eleven-year-old climb eight metres up a tree, and then stride out onto an outstretched branch. A playworker watches it happen and offers a gentle suggestion when the boy gets to a thinner part of the branch. After a bit of banter, he backs off and then clambers down a nearby rope. It’s a textbook playworker interaction: situation defused with the child still in control.
What’s remarkable is that The Land suffers no more injuries than most regular playgrounds. Evidence suggests that when they’re given responsibility for their own safety, children tend to take it. In his book Messy, the economist Tim Harford—profiled in our last issue—points out that for all the money spent on safety-proofing the modern playground, and there is a colossal amount of money spent, there’s no real evidence that children are any safer or sustain fewer injuries. Indeed, a recent, broad-based study of supposedly ‘risky’ outdoor play—meaning activities involving great heights, high speeds, sharp tools, fire, water and fighting—showed that not only were there fewer injuries in the risky play, the children were also healthier, more social and less aggressive. In another study, a primary school in Auckland opened a junk-filled field for the kids to play in during recess. The result: fewer injuries, better classroom behaviour, increased academic engagement and the almost total disappearance of bullying.
Chancellor has seen these effects first-hand in her own research on Victoria’s Bush Kinder programs, where children are given a period of time each week to explore and play in bushland, without adult intervention. “After six months, we interviewed the teachers and parents and they all reported quite noticeable changes in their kids. They’d become much more observant and inquisitive. They’d calmed down, were less disruptive. It’s difficult to make generalisations in academia, but I think the benefit of unstructured outside play is something you can pretty safely make generalisations about.” Basically: let the children run, cuts and scrapes be damned.
Yet if there is one theme that ties together the experience of modern parenting, it is protectiveness. Not merely physical protectiveness, but also mental and emotional. It’s hardwired into us. Kids are fragile and need to be protected until they can protect themselves. But kids who don’t fight their own battles, or assess their own risks, or make their own play, never get the chance to form a sense of their own capacities and how they might one day navigate a world that’s messy and confusing and full of unexpected terrors and joys.
“What I take away from playwork and apply to parenting is this idea of observing your child and then responding to them, instead of always coming at them with your own fears or ideas,” says Davis. “And that’s hard, because you do want to be involved, and you do want to protect them, but it’s like a muscle you need to build up. You see your child struggling with something. Are they reaching to you for help, or are they just trying to work it out on their own?”
She goes on: “We tend to see struggling as bad, or struggling as failure. But struggle is fascinating. It’s how we work ourselves and the world out. Even in adulthood, reading a challenging novel, or going on a long hike, or doing a crossword is like a controlled struggle. It’s our version of play. We should give our kids the opportunity to struggle as enjoyably as we do.”
“The main thing we can do as adults is to make sure that children have time and space to play,” Chancellor says. “Kids’ play is so rich in imagination and story that it takes time to unfold. But these days kids don’t get a lot of free time. It’s not like it once was where you were chased out the back door and told to come back at dinner. Perhaps that’s something we need to try and rediscover.”