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Made in White City

Play and Its Traces

Eroded by traffic and the fear of stranger danger, places for children to roam have been disappearing from urban environments for decades. Enter compensatory spaces: playgrounds without an agenda, which allow for the open-ended exploration that once happened on street corners. 

We visited White City Adventure Playground to talk swordplay and ziplines with team leader Joel Seath, and to photograph 'play marks', the clues these activities left behind.

WORDS - Victoria Watts
PHOTOS - Alexander Christie

Coffee cups may come marked, “Beware, hot contents inside,” and every plastic bag carry a suffocation warning. But across the globe there are small revolutions taking place. People are reclaiming the freedom of their own youth and offering spaces where children can play with fire, experiment with tools and do the sorts of things that might make your eyes widen.

White City Adventure Playground has been around since the 1970s, taking on different faces throughout the years. Today it’s a place that promotes children’s right to play in the way they need to, rather than the way that adults want them to. This idea is a central tenet of 'playwork', a method that is embraced by the site's manager, Joel Seath.

“Play for play’s sake is, to me, page one of the book of playwork,” says Joel. “Everybody working with children has got a particular agenda. Early-years professionals tend to be focused on an educational process through play. Social workers have got another agenda for children. Parents and grandparents have another, and teachers too. Playworkers are the only people in the children's sector that are coming from the children’s point of view.”

White City Adventure Playground

White City Adventure PlaygroundLeft: Totem; right: Tardis; bottom: Tyre Wall. These and the following names were given to the structures by children and playworkers.

When Joel first set foot here in 2012, it was a very different place. He says, “It’d just come out of a phase of being more of a traditional childcare club. The wood chips on the ground were that sort of beige colour, pristine. And the grass was neatly trimmed. There was no building stuff or paint anywhere.”

Nowadays, the playground is somewhat scruffy and ramshackle, not out of neglect, but because that’s place the children have created. There are recognisable elements—slides, swings, monkey bars, nets—but all around those are disordered structures. To a passer-by, they look like junky climbing frames or huts, but to Joel and the children who use them, these are endless opportunities for play. Much of it has been built to the children’s designs, sometimes by the children themselves.

Most striking are the odds and ends that cover the floor—'loose parts', as they're called in playwork. Joel says, “To the untrained eye, it looks like crap. But it’s good quality crap. We’ve got tyres lying around, old water cooler bottles, planks of wood, old tubes. There’s even the inside of an old piano. Children pick these things up and you never know what’s going to happen with them.” He explains how recently a TV was donated that the children took apart, discovering how it worked and what was inside. Other donated goods are simply smashed.

White City Adventure Playground

White City Adventure PlaygroundAbove: Top of the Shard.

Look closely, and you'll see scuff marks beneath a swing where children have swept their feet, or hand prints on the wall. These are play marks, the residue of children’s play. Looking at them, Joel can get a sense of the play that’s happened: “The playground is the palimpsest. It’s sacred ground to children, so it should be sacred ground to us as well. As adults, we don’t see or cherish sacred ground. We don’t believe in what’s important to children. Play marks to me say: play has happened here; this is important.”

One of the leading lights of the playwork movement is Bob Hughes. His A Playworker's Taxonomy of Play Types categorises play into 16 different types: role play, fantasy play, socio-dramatic play and many more. One of the most interesting is deep play which, put simply, is where children test their limits and boundaries of mortality. It's not always as extreme as it sounds: “You can go into deep play if you’re whizzing down the zipline, and feeling the wind in your hair.”

Every day is different. Currently, the children are into sword play. It started when one boy found a piece of metal he wanted to turn into a sword. There's a fire pit and, with adult help, he turned the pit into a blacksmithing area and beat the metal into the shape he wanted. It’s this type of play that sometimes raises eyebrows. But Joel explains that, although bumps and bruises do happen, this is a safe environment. He says, “Health and safety is still a part of the whole process. But it’s not health and safety like in factories. We’ve got an eye on what could go wrong, but our risk-benefit assessment is the positive spin on it. We think about what could go right in the children’s heads.”

White City Adventure Playground

White City Adventure PlaygroundAbove: New Treehouse; below: trail.

Risk-benefit assessment is a dynamic process that takes into account factors such as the particular child, how comfortable the playworker is with the situation, and the likelihood of something going wrong. It’s about observing the situation and assessing it within the moment. “It’s not part of the worldview of ‘our role as adults is to protect children no matter what,’ which I can see the logic of. But from a playworker’s side of things, we know from experience that children aren’t going to stick their hands in the fire. If you’ve got a hammer and you bang your finger, I’m pretty sure you’re not going to do that the same way again. I hesitate to use the word learning because learning and playwork, for me, are not comfortable bedfellows. But there is a process of understanding what certain objects can do and how to use them. And you can’t get that unless you actually use them.”

This type of thinking has been spreading across the globe. A popular TED Talk by Gever Tulley in the USA advocates five dangerous things you should allow your kids to do, including playing with fire, owning a pen knife and taking apart a household appliance. In the UK, a headteacher in Eastbourne has implemented practical classes where children learn to use tools ranging from sharp knives to air rifles. And Joel talks of a trip to Sweden where children were whittling wood in the forest.

White City Adventure Playground

White City Adventure Playground
Left: view from The Shard; right: Carrie's room; below: Is the Best.

Their proponents may not call these activities playwork, but they fit the paradigm of allowing children more freedom. And the popularity of this is fuelled by the reported benefits. Joel even cites a study of young murderers in America that found play deprivation had been a factor in their crimes. On a lesser scale, play has been linked to improved mental and physical health, stimulating the brain to increase problem-solving abilities, and helping children to better adapt to the world’s challenges. Shouting and screaming aren't allowed in school, but White City Adventure Playground gives children the space to scream if that’s what they need.

Traffic and changes to the built environment are two elements of modern life that have interfered with children’s play. Playgrounds are compensatory spaces, made to rectify that changing environment. Joel wishes children could play beyond that. He laments the UK government’s lack of play policy, as well as the mainstream media’s tendency to sensationalise emotive stories about subjects such as child abduction, leading parents to an ever more protective stance. Combined with adults’ agendas for children, Joel sees these as threats to children’s play: “Children deserve protection, but they also deserve freedoms and the ability to express themselves. If we don't accept that children need to play for the sake of their own play rather than to gain skills, or to learn things to pass their exams, then we are missing out on something amazing in children’s lives.”

White City Adventure Playground

White City Adventure PlaygroundAbove: Waterslide - Old Treehouse; below: The Big Slide.

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