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Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds: Parents make it happen then leave kids alone to play

Pop-up adventure playgrounds tend to last for an afternoon, and instead of wood you'll find cardboard and other recycled materials.

Suzanna Law of Pop-Up Adventure Play


The adventure playground is both a physical reality and a philosophy — these kid-friendly outdoor spaces embrace the natural environment and the promotion of child-directed play. In the UK, adventure playgrounds are more akin to junkyards than playgrounds — full of the sort of danger and wonder that American playgrounds tend to avoid. The Mercer Island Adventure Playground is one of only a handful in this country. 

'We would love to see children be able to roam their neighborhoods as freely as previous generations did, meeting other local children locally and building play communities of their own,” says Suzanna Law of Pop-Up Adventure Play. 

A nonprofit operating in the U.S. and UK, Pop-Up Adventure Play is run by Law and Morgan Leichter-Saxby. “Our work is to support and advocate for children’s self-directed play. We do this in a variety of ways, primarily by providing training in playwork practice and supporting independent organizers of pop-up adventure playgrounds,” says Law.

A pop-up adventure playground is more than just organizing a playdate. “One of the most important aspects of pop-up adventure playgrounds is their public nature,” Law says. “By bringing together lots of people in shared space, they can help to connect people. Children and adults need new friends, and playing together is a great way to accomplish that.”

Mary Alice Long is a play advocate and the owner of Play=Peace, a Port Angeles play-based practice. She has organized pop-up adventure playgrounds and helped community members structure these events. “Seattle is more urban and can get dangerous for kids to roam,” says Long. “It adds to parents’ wariness to giving kids this freedom.” The idea of spontaneous play within the context of an organized pop-up can help parents ease into the idea of letting kids play on their own.

The pop-up lends itself to urban settings — your yard, a park, a permitted blocked-off street like Seattle’s Play Streets program (seattle.gov/transportation/playstreets.htm) — all offer opportunities for play. “Instead of a destination, pop-ups are intended as a driver for long-term change at the grassroots level,” says Law.

 The tools and time needed for the adventure to unfold are simple. “Pop-up adventure playgrounds tend to last for an afternoon, and instead of wood you’ll find cardboard boxes, string, duct tape, pots and pans, fabric — all sorts of ordinary, recycled materials which children can use however they please,” Law explains. “We encourage organizers to use cheap and free scrap because it makes it easy to say ‘yes’ to children’s ideas, when you know it was all headed for the recycling bin or dumpster already.”

Parents and playworkers aren’t there to facilitate or direct the kids. “You’re supporting kids’ self-directed play. It’s hands-off unless the kids need something,” says Long. She adds that it’s not just the kids who the playworkers can help support, either. “One of the good things around having it organized is that the team can help support parents to remain hands-off.”

The hands-off aspect of play is important to Law as well. “At traditional adventure playgrounds, parents are left at the gate! Children need chances to settle their own disputes, assess their own risks, be bold and independent, experiment with language, and to feel a little bit wild,” she says. “Those can be hard to do when your mom is watching!”

Want to learn more about pop-ups or play advocacy?

Pop-Up Adventure Play has a free resource pack and guidance on hosting pop-ups: popupadventureplay.org

Play=Peace: playequalspeace.com

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