Sharing Memories of Adventure Playgrounds

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A research project funded by ‘Being Human’ Research Priority Area and ‘Sport, Exercise, Health and Wellbeing’ Research Priority Area University of Gloucestershire

Tom Williams, Wendy Russell, Stuart Lester, Hilary Smith, Malcolm MacLean July 2016

School of Performing Arts and Play, University of Gloucestershire, Oxstalls Campus, Oxstalls Lane, Gloucester GL2 9HA

“It’s a familiar feeling. It’s just memories, the memories that are here, you know. Unforgettable memories that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Adventure Playgrounds are unique urban spaces. They have been around in the UK for over 60 years and were modelled on a junk playground in Copenhagen set up during the Second World War. They were places where children could use tools, build dens, light fires, and generally engage in outdoor play, making use of whatever was around, with the permissive support of playworkers. Largely developed and run by voluntary organisations, such seemingly anarchic and chaotic spaces were welcomed by the authorities as an effective response to the rise in delinquency amongst working-class boys. Adventure playgrounds have had a chequered history. At times they have been well funded because of their perceived social and economic benefits, at others less so. From an estimated 500 in operation across the UK in the 1970s, their decline to around 150 today (many of which no longer operate wholeheartedly according to the original principles) has been attributed to a number of socio-legal changes, including the Health and Safety at Work Act 1975 and the growth of the litigation culture, the Children Act 1989, the introduction of out of school childcare and now unprecedented public expenditure cuts. This could present a picture of a movement or culture on the brink of extinction.

Contemporary social policy positions children as future producing and consuming citizens, requiring measurable outcomes from evidence-based professional interventions. Yet many contemporary playworkers intuitively resist these totalising narratives; strong traces of the early ethos remain, sustaining a seam of passionate recalcitrance within the sector. These characteristics of the sector reveal the flux of change and endurance, highlighting how a linear, chronological history is only one part of the story. Our research celebrates and adds to this history through collecting people’s memories and stories at a series of events at adventure playgrounds in Bristol and Gloucester. This booklet accompanies our short film where we share examples of some of these stories with you. Each account is but one single and particular (often shared) and multi-layered story. Collectively, they show just how much these spaces mattered and continue to matter for children, staff and communities as places for play and for being a little different in and with the world and for much more besides. Working with memory is a complex and messy process. Memory is traditionally understood as an internal store of experiences, a kind of mental library of fixed events ready to be recalled or with time forgotten. We took a different approach, recognising that memory is always relational — it emerges in an ever-changing form from an embodied and embedded relationship with the world. Our minds and bodies are always mixed up in a tangled web of connections and disconnections: places, feelings, histories, the here-and-now, other people, material objects and so on.

What we did was create encounters between people and things. We worked with the playworkers at five adventure playgrounds to plan an event at each site. People came back to the playground – people who’d played, worked or volunteered there or who’d managed them. Being there, in the space, was important. Even though it had changed a lot, and in some cases even changed site, the playgrounds had particular atmospheres, provoking collective memories.

So people talked with each other, looked at old photos and responded to a number of creative prompts. And this gave rise to a whole range of shared memories and stories. We recorded these events using video, photos, audio recordings and the work of artists who listened to the stories and produced a number of works that you will see in the film and in this booklet.

“God, look at that, Jeez man, it makes me have a lump in my throat, it really does! Everyone’s all smiling in the photos. Cos it was an amazing time, like everyone had a crap life in the house but as soon as you got to the adventure it was like, it was a really good time.” “Does it take you back?” “It does, yeah!” “It was the best time of my life!” People spoke about all sorts of things, about how central the playground was to their lives, how it was a safe place to be, somewhere they could be themselves. They talked about how important the playworkers were, and the relationships with other children and adults – sometimes not so harmonious, but always significant.

White City Adventure Playground, Gloucester

Lockleaze Adventure Playground, Bristol

They talked about how the playgrounds were very different from other aspects of life, with people they wouldn’t meet anywhere else, how they could do things and experience things they couldn’t anywhere else.

They talked about activities and trips, about animals, food, community, and building the playground.

Southmead Adventure Playground, Bristol

Felix Road Adventure Playground, Bristol

Happy stories, stories of excitement and some of fear and sadness. Always moving stories of rich emotions. They were intensive and extensive – powerful, singular but connected, full of personal and collective meaning.

Overall, they were accounts of just how important the playgrounds were in their lives, often in ways that went beyond current approaches to measuring value. These adventure playgrounds were – and still are – places of safety, places of excitement, places of belonging, places of encounters, places of difference, places a bit on the edge, places of ritual, places of movement, and moving places.

St Pauls Adventure Playground, Bristol

“I couldn’t believe it was here, really, it was kind of like very much Dr Who’s tardis, that kind of doodoodoo, I’d kind of walk in and it was like WOW!”

“Adventure playground is the norm, part of my life, part of my up-growing, part of my generation, part of everyone’s generation, now I have a child myself, her being part of it and the community spirit, just having them vibes.”

“An adventure playground can be such an important part of the community, when it’s working it can be such an amazing place, essential for kids living in areas like this. They need somewhere like this.”

Adventure playgrounds are often spoken about as places of risk, excitement and, well, adventure. But what many people also talked about was how safe they felt there, how they could be themselves, how the adults were accepting and caring, and children found ways of navigating the space so they weren’t too bothered by those kids with more status and power. This highlights how important relationships were and offers up a different understanding of safety from the more traditional concerns with preventing accidents.

“Safe, it was like you were safe, it was proper safe. It was like, I keep saying my home life was crap, so I didn’t want to go back home because I knew either my mum was going to have a go at me, my stepdad’s going to have a go at me, that’s how I felt at that time. It wasn’t my parents, I was being a teenager, but it was just, I felt coming here it was like, yeah I’m going somewhere I know, I’m familiar and I know I’m going to be alright. I come in and if I want to cry, I cry, if I want to like shout and rant and rave, I can shout and rant and rave.”

“So, they were the hanging out places?” “Yeah, they were like you know the boys used to go on their bikes, BMXs or whatever they used to do, and then we’d sit on the edge of the bowls where they’re riding around. Just chatting, just chatting. You know the ramps, quarter pipes, the girls used to sit at the top when the boys were riding down the ramps, do you know what I mean. Not only the girls, boys used to sit up there as well. So that was probably our little hang out place.”

Adventure playgrounds are much more than a fenced plot of ground. They are produced through encounters and relationships between bodies, movements, sensations, things and the ways in which they get caught up together These movements produce rhythms, moods, habits, rituals and routines that enable children and adults to navigate and negotiate their way through the playground and keep a playful atmosphere alive, as the following examples show ...

“I was here in the mid 60s and it was more of a … it was supervised at times from what I remember, but it was open. You just come in. There weren’t no fences or anything. It had a structure, or a boat, which we used to call a ship. But it was just a large boat and we used to call it ‘the shipwreck’, which is just roundabout where the hump is now. And it had some types of structures and a pulley. We used to come over and have mud fights.”

“When we were building, it’s not even there anymore but there was a tall aerial runway over there and it was quite tall. It was like four or five metres to the top platform. I come in one morning and there was a kid sat on top of each one of its corners, like crows. Can you imagine? There’s about eight or ten of these big poles in the ground and there was a kid sat on each one, ‘alright, John?’ And with a fag, they were like this in the wind.”

“Is there a particular photo you’ve seen that’s triggered a particular memory?” “Yeah, Kula Crew. We’ve got a photo album over there of Kula Crew and we was in it. And we did like singing and dancing. A couple of nights a week we used to come here practising our dance routines. That’s my memories, what I remember is Kula Crew. Even though we couldn’t dance, we thought we could dance! We used to go to old people’s homes. We went to a few places…” “That was singing and dancing? (Yeah) What kind of singing and dancing?” “Anything and everything really … like Little Mermaid singing and that, whatever was around back then.” “And did you practise and rehearse those here?” “Yeah. In this hut.” “All the time.” “Yeah. We thought we was Destiny’s Child basically.” “Did you get annoyed with the other kids interrupting?” “Oh yeah. The boys especially who were always hanging round, banging on the door. If the hut was shut like and we were in here practising.”

“What’s your strongest memory?” “There are three. The zipwire, the structure and also, gosh the goats, goat droppings everywhere.” “I first became aware of it, mainly because of the geese and the hens and the chickens and the animals that would make a lot of noise and wake me up in the morning. So I didn’t always appreciate the space for what it was until suddenly I walked around the back of the house and saw all this wonderful space.” “I played here as a child, I was just … in the corner there you may be able to make out that there is a doorway, just right in the corner over there. And it’s been sealed for a while now but we used to climb over and see all around the edges that’s been there from, like I said, the 70s. That edging, see where all the bushes are at the top there we used to walk all the way around that playing touch, you know, you can see, like, how dangerous … as I say you wouldn’t have it now.”

Many of the stories showed how for the children the playground was both an enclave, a safe space set apart from the rest of their lives, and at the same time integral to it: its boundaries were porous. It was often a place on the edge, a space of difference itself. “I’ll give you an interesting story, when they were building the underpasses for the roundabout at Lawrence Hill roundabout they were stacking all the bricks and they were digging big holes. So there were these massive holes, so when it rained there were these massive puddles and there were these bricks fresh…” “Just asking…” “Just asking to be thrown in [laughter] so we’re in there ‘Bombs away, bombs away!’ And round the corner PC Plod came round, innit. “He caught you?” “Yeah, he caught us.”

“Playgrounds have got a long history of inclusion and diversity, even from when I was coming to this one in St Paul’s there's always been a big mix of cultures and the differences, and they’ll always be very inclusive for anyone who was a little bit different; they're a magnet for it. And playworkers are a magnet for people who are a little bit different, you know, even now I'm working with eccentric characters who can tune into children and can get on into their level and understand what’s going on.”

“So tell me about some of these eccentric characters.” “Yeah. Dick Turpin or Richard as we called him, cos kids would just, if it was Dick this, Dick that it would just get silly … he was bonkers in a lovely way. I tell you what so, they’d see some of the things he’d bring in, he’d have rotten veg and stuff, he’d eat anything, stuff off the floor. And the kids are like, eugh it’s nasty, I’m not eating anything he’s cooked.”

Many stories told about the rituals of the playgrounds. For some, one of the rituals was the cooking and sharing of food. “My mum, she’s cooked ridiculous amounts of pots of food for this place, so my memory isn’t so much about the eating of it, but it’s more about what I am doing in mum’s kitchen, the chopping up of the onions, I always get the onions. I get the onions, I get the cabbage and the carrots. I don’t know what they are trying to say about my cooking skills, so I always get the onions and the carrots and the chopping, and the carrying and the lifting. So it would just be carrying pots of rice from my mum’s house over to here or stacking up the car or unpacking the car, carrying stuff in and out, that’s what I am good for. But yeah, my mum cooks delicious food and so I am very happy and blessed in that way, and I guess just watching people, other many, many people enjoying what mum’s cooked and eating it and licking their fingers afterwards.”

Paddy’s story about the storm drains on his playground is another illustrations of rituals and rites of passage … “We used to go in the tunnels. There’s sewerage tunnels here from the storm water tunnels and there was like a competition who could go to the furthest manhole. You crawl in ‘em. It was like that high and then the competition was going to the most manholes or the manhole that would be like furthest away. You’d stand up and then you’d burn your name in the concrete with a candle, to prove you got there and see who could get the furthest.”

As important as the playground space was, there were also many stories of being taken out of the playground and the community, on trips, outings, camps. Many children could not afford to go on holiday and this was their only chance to go somewhere different: “Lots of times I’d take kids on camp, give them a bit of paper, a few kids come back to me and I’d say ‘what’s the matter?’ ‘Mum can’t afford it.’ I’d go straight down and I’d say ‘he’s coming, we’ll pay for him out of the tuck shop,’ know what I mean.”

Sometimes, particular trips gave rise to powerful memories and shared moments of excitement, hilarity, and even fear ...

We heard many stories like this, and also stories of more everyday events created by children, adults, things inside, outside and outside of the fence. Today, adventure playgrounds are often talked about either in terms of positive outcomes for children and communities – what interests the policy makers or the funders – or in more general terms of the benefits of play for children. These spaces are all those things and yet they are also much much more. In the SMAP project, we wanted to use a number of creative approaches to blow on the embers of memories to reignite the connections of memories, stories, people, identities and place. This was not only about capturing and recounting individual stories but was an opportunity to think about how memories, materials, movements, affects are productive of ‘value’, particularly at a time when the existence of adventure playgrounds is under threat.

One of the questions we asked people is what they might put in a time capsule that would symbolise their time at the playground. Here are some of the responses: “The van number plate.” “A video of the actual atmosphere of the place, like a good summer.” “Wood, a little piece of wood. Wood seems to be a lot to do with playgrounds. And six inch nails.” “Music cassettes, yeah, yeah.” “Clay willies. What is it about boys you put clay on the table and they make a willy. Can someone tell me? There must have been a thousand clay willies made in here.” “Ashtrays. Yeah, ashtrays.” “Anything to do with the tuckshop — ice pops!”

“There'd be some tools in there, I don’t know, a tool box I'd like, it’s like Desert Island Discs, can I take a tool box … So we’d take some tools because we've done a lot of building and of fixing and of breaking. So whether we can have some spanners and saw maybe. What else would I take? I'd need to take a rope, like a nice big soft big rope, you know, like the best things ... you know, they can be made into nets as well so we’ll have a rope.”

Memory is a strange thing. Conversations about past events are always told from the present and as such they matter now. People were animated and so were the stories – memories were made, re-made and brought to life. And so we weren’t looking for accuracy, even in the timeline we took to each event, where people talked about what had happened when, and about key people. What we were looking for were the stories, myths and legends that inevitably but unpredictably emerged from these lively encounters with memories, imaginations, emotions, artefacts - the photos, the landscape, the time-capsule, timeline and each other (both with the people who turned up and absent others).

“You leave school, and you go to adventures, and you meet up with your friends. You have that interaction, and that playing, even sometimes just watching other kids. Sometimes, there’ll be kids just watching. It’s just being together, and knowing we’re all taking part in something. Even now, it’s still here. Having that, and having my child go, is just brilliant.”

“You know, I can walk around St Paul’s now and know nearly every single family, or I’ll know someone from the family if I don’t know them, it's a very small place and people will just remember the joy from this place and I’ll get nothing but love like no one’s ... and even people who I thought was, I didn’t like you, and they’ll be, ‘remember when we did that?’ ... and I’ll be thinking, I remember when you just did my head in for about three years. And then they’ll be all like, ‘how are you doing?’ I’m like looking up at them. But you can see, they remember the joy that they got from the place and how great it was … you know, it's memories, we’re making memories.”

The final story is Amber and Damien’s. They met as children at White City Adventure Playground in Gloucester. When we held the event there, the playworkers told us that Amber and Damien were getting married and were trying to convince them to come to the playground on their wedding day to have their photo taken there.

A short while after their wedding, this photo appeared on the playground’s Facebook page … ……… Amber and Damien, sitting at the foot of the slide at White City Adventure Playground on their wedding day.

A massive thank you to the staff, management and everyone who took part in creating these stories and memories at: 

Southmead Adventure Playground, Bristol

Lockleaze Adventure Playground, Bristol

White City Adventure Playgrounds, Gloucester

Felix Road Adventure Playground, Bristol

St Paul’s Adventure Playground, Bristol

Thank you to the University of Gloucestershire for funding the project. Funds came from: The Being Human Research Priority Area The Sport, Exercise, Health and Wellbeing Research Priority Area

Research team: Tom Williams, Wendy Russell, Stuart Lester, Hilary Smith, Malcolm MacLean (University of Gloucestershire) Video production: Dylan Williams, Roger Puplett, Graham Bateman, Tom Williams, Wendy Russell Artists: Mick Conway, Tim Martin, Chris Kershaw Visit us at