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A Magazine for Sheffield

Adventure Play: Assembling The Bits

As artist-in-residence at Pitsmoor Adventure Playground, I'm constantly reminded how brilliant it is to be a child. Play is a human right and, like art, it's should be defined as something that is for itself.

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Pearl Street Playground in Sheffield, 197(?).

Even very young children should not be confined to the playground but should climb out of the sandbox and into the city.

Colin Ward, The Child and the City

Lucky Lucky Lucky

I'm lucky for all sorts of reasons. The main one is that, as artist-in-residence at Pitsmoor Adventure Playground, I get the chance to play again or, as a kid I met called Robbie describes it, 'mess about'. I'm constantly reminded how brilliant it is to be a child.

The adventure play movement emerged in Britain just after the Second World War. Between 1947 and the early 1970s, 500 playgrounds were established. Urban children who had grown used to playing in the rubble of bombsites were encouraged to build equipment, change their space, and learn how to measure and manage risk.

What makes adventure play special is that its ethos is based on the belief that, given the chance, children will spontaneously organise to achieve their own goals. As an artist used to doing lots of work in schools to help deliver the statutory curriculum, hanging out at The Venture is a tonic for the soul.

What the kids have taught me

Educationally, it seems obvious that children should manage their own risks and work through the problems this inevitably causes. It's only when you actually see this happening that you recognise how rarely adults allow children's play to flow freely. Grown-ups often step in when things go a bit Lord of the Flies. In fact, usually from the start, they have hold of the conch shell.

Play is a human right. Like art, it's defined as something that is for itself. It's not about learning or achieving a goal. It can make money, generate social capital or address problems, but that is never the point of it. Play and art do not invest in the future; they hold us in the present. They afford a time, however short, which is ours to become ourselves and to be present within the moment.

The kids have taught me to daydream, to turn a stick into a piano, to build a tower that wasn't meant to be climbed, climb it and twist an ankle. They've told me that narwhals are fake news made up by Google and that unicorns are real.

Why are adventure playgrounds so important?

Pitsmoor Adventure Playground does a lot of great things. It provides a safe place to play, it helps a sense of pride, and every day it celebrates the richness of our community.

For me, working there as an artist, it recharges my creative batteries and it's a reminder that we don't need to intervene or try to make kids have something that we decide they lack. From its inception the adventure play movement understood that kids and therefore people are inherently joyful and ready to live through experience. Kids are not there to be corrected and education should not be about fitting the round pegs of childhood into the square holes of adulthood.

Set up with nothing in the early 1970s by a few parents with pieces of discarded timber and an idea to make something for the kids, Pitsmoor Adventure Playground has persisted for nearly 50 years. Let's hope it remains a vibrant ethos-driven place to play, open to the possibilities of childhood, creating a sense of community pride; existing not to meet any targets or tackle any issues, but for its own sake.

Learn more

A special thanks to Peter Furniss for letting us use his images.

Assembling The Bits is a one-year project funded by Arts Council England.

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