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The post-war adventure (or "junk") playgrounds promoting autonomous play

The history of the playground is marked by an irresolvable contradiction:

On the one hand modernity has conceptualized play as a biologically inherited drive that is spontaneous, pleasurable, and free - attributed to the autonomous and individual self. Yet, on the other hand, modern societies have rationalised and shaped children’s play from the outside to advance social, educational and political goals.

Thus the 'playground' is in fact about censoring and restricting types of play deemed undesirable and displacing them from places deemed dangerous or corrupting, such as the street.

“War Games”: Photo taken by Francis Reiss to illustrate Lady Allen of Hurtwood’s essay in Picture Post, November 16, 1946 (Kozlovsky, 2007: 1).

This contradiction is embedded in the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which states that play is a universal right of the individual and, at the same time, defined it as an instrument of social policy: “The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purpose as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right” (Kozlovsky, 2007: 1). A statement, which encapsulates the paradox of the modern discourse of play.

The Lollard adventure playground on the site of a bombed school. The House of Parliament can be seen across the river (Kozlovsky, 2007: 2).

The adventure playground movement however, sought to transcend this contradiction by constituting play practices that appeared to be operating from within the subject, from the child’s own free will. It intended to enhance and encourage children’s own play rather than restrict or shape it from without (Kozlovsky, 2007: 2).

Camberwell Junk playground on the site of a bombed church. Times Educational Supplement, 5 June 1948 (Kozlovsky, 2007: 18).

Emerging after World War 2, the adventure playground has no ready made play equipment and predetermined agenda for what should take place. Rather, children introduce content and meaning to the playground through their own action - through experimenting, making and destroying (Kozlovsky, 2007: 2).

Promoters of adventure playgrounds heralded them as being more appropriate to the true nature of children and their play, as well as providing a more pleasurable and meaningful experience than the traditional playground  (Kozlovsky, 2007: 3).

The Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorenson first suggested the concept of the adventure playground following his observations of children at play in construction sites and junk yards: “perhaps we should try set up waste material playgrounds in suitable large areas where children would be able to play with old cars, boxes and timber...” (Kozlovsky, 2007:5)

Crawley Adventure Playground, 1955 (Kozlovsky, 2007: 30).

The idea was tested in 1943, during the German occupation, where Sorenson was commissioned to design a junk playground, as these playgrounds were initially named, for the Emdrupvaenge housing estate at the outskirts of Copenhagen.

Sorenson sought to design the playground according to an analysis of play activity rather than formal or compositional concerns (like Aldo van Eycks’s abstract playground designs). The idea being that to create imaginative environments, the “imagination” at play should be that of the child, not of the architect. An idea that was in accord with the pragmatism of John Dewey, who privileged the child’s present inclination over an abstract conception of what he or she should be in the future, and valued learning though experience over repetitive performance of predetermined activities imposed from without (Kozlovsky, 2007: 6).

Sorenson admits: “of all the things I have helped to realise, the junk playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works.” (Kozlovsky, 2007: 6)

Junk Playground at Emdrup, Copenhagen 1943 (Kozlovsky, 2006: 1).

Although Sorenson’s initial proposal did not require an adult play supervisor, the Workers’ Co-operative Housing Association employed one, John Bertelsen. However, Bertelson stressed that the purpose of the leader was not to govern children from the outside and direct their building activity towards a useful goal, but rather to act from within, by allowing them to pursue their own projects. He argued that “the initiative must come from the children themselves...I cannot, and indeed will not, teach the children anything.” (Kozlovsky, 2007: 8)

This type of unsupervised play allowed for the activity of play to be observed as a way of “gaining insight into the mind of the child and his various conflicts.” As well as fostering in children self-perceptions and promoting social skills such as resolving conflicts peacefully. In the words of the progressive pedagogue Inger Merete Nordentoft, it sought to make children into “democratic citizens, humans who can think independently, can be responsible and capable of showing tolerance towards others and have the courage and firmness to defend their own convictions.” (Kozlovsky, 2007: 8)

Lady Allen of Hurtwood a landscape architect from England became involved in child-centred causes during World War 2, and established the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education in 1948.

The Clydesdale Playground, 1952 (Kozlovsky, 2007: 16).

In 1946, as part of her international and pacifistic effort to constitute “early child education as the best way of creating peace-loving citizens,” Allen visited Emdrup and was “completely swept” off her feet.

Lady Allen of Hurtwood, “Why Not Use Our Bomb Sites Like This?” Picture Post, November 16, 1946 (Kozlovsky, 2006: 2).

Allan began to promote the idea in lectures, pamphlets, conferences and most influentially in a well-illustrated essay she published in the ‘Picture Post’ in 1946. The essay began with a critique of the conventional playground, arguing that it failed to attract children and remove them from the street. Allan presented Emdrup as a “revolutionary” playground that could resolve the crisis, and foster a “democratic community” for its inclusive approach of children irrespective of gender and age -thus allowing all children to participate in a play community (Kozlovsky, 2007: 11).

Commenting on the safety of these playgrounds, she was  heard to have said “Better a broken arm than a bruised spirit,” and urged New York parents to sue the city fathers “for emotional damage to their children because they failed to provide suitable and exciting playgrounds for them" (Bishop, 2007).

St. John’s Wood Adventure Playground, London (Kozlovsky, 2006: 5).

Junk playgrounds came to receive extensive press coverage, and the idea spread all over England, where they were established in blighted or blitzed neighbourhoods as a component of urban renewal; as well as in the new towns surrounding London, notably, Crawly and Welwyn, where they were integrated into Hertfordshire’s progressive, child-centred educational infrastructure (Kozlovsky, 2007: 13-14).

Beallerup Adventure Playground, Copenhagen (Kozlovsky, 2006: 10).

The temporary conversion of bombed sites into playgrounds was part of a broader debate about how to rebuild London, as well as to plan for the return of more than a million evacuated children. Allan’s ideas went against the grain of the dominant planning ideology of planning to rational and functionalist principles, whereby the place of the child is planned into self-sufficient units organised around the school and playground. Yet Allan’s truly radical proposition was that reconstruction and the adventure playgrounds should be carried out with the participation of the population (Kozlovsky, 2007: 15-16).

Via  The Junk Playground: creative destruction as antidote to delinquency, Designing Modern Childhoods: Adventure Playgrounds and Postwar Reconstruction and Structured Play.


  1. Excellent post! I'll file that one away :) It's fascinating to witness the revival of 'wild' playgrounds - although carefully packaged as 'nature play' what with the spectre of risk assessment watching intently.

    Perhaps here we are seeing the original battles between factions who wanted to control play and thus 'teach' and those who advocated for free-play? And so we still fight! Piaget vs Vygotsky (just to intellectualise it all as we like to do)

    Read anything by Tina Bruce? She has some interesting points on play - she breaks it down into a process with free-play built upon periods of failure/repetition as children acquire the skills and experience to wallow in 'possibility' - play at its highest level. It is in these foundational stages that we 'teach' via scaffolding and co-construction. Fascinating stuff!

    Nice bit of history, thank you.

    1. You're welcome ako, i'm glad you enjoyed it. No I hadn't heard of Tina Bruce, I'll be sure to look her up. Yes, it's a very interesting topic/debate - and on how we should therefore be designing environments for children that allows for those 'possibilities' for play.

  2. I love this post and especially the pictures capturing the true ethos of junk playgrounds and adventure playgrounds

  3. Hi, a little question. Do you Know when and where was published for the first time the photo The Lollard adventure playground on the site of a bombed school. The House of Parliament can be seen across the river (Kozlovsky, 2007: 2).

    1. Hi Linarejos, No I don't know the date sorry - the article referenced didn't say. Since it's post-war I'd hazard a guess that it was taken around 1948.

  4. My friends and I played on the many bomb sites around London Docklands in East Ham after the war. We scavenged shell cases and shrapnel and tried to find unexploded bombs (luckily unsuccessfully!)

    Once, about eight of us held on to a long floor board as a battering ram to hit at a standing two storey chimney stack, which started swaying.

    Luckily for us, it fell outwards with a delightful clattering and deep boom as most of the bricks fell into the house's coal hole.

    If it had fallen back towards us, tones of bricks would have made us all look like strawberry jam and bonemeal!

    We had adventurous times among the bombsites, and mostly we were constructive, as in these photos, making things like lean-to huts, seesaws, swings and tanks. But, often we were very destructive, enjoying completing Goering's work.

    1. Wow (lucky to be here it sounds!) Thanks for the comment Johnny.

    2. In 3 weeks I celebrate my 70th birthday, and am I glad to be here today? You're right Jess!

  5. Hello I think I am in the Lollards street photo, little boy with blond hair adjacent to the lad on the stilts.

    1. Wow - good spotting (and remembering!) Were they good times playing?



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