Meriden Adventure Playground Chelmsley Wood: My Interview With MAPA Chair Ali Wood by Mike Prochaska
Ali Wood is the chair of the Meriden Adventure Playground Association (MAPA) trustees. I talked to Ali recently about the Meriden Adventure Playground Chelmsley Wood in Birmingham, U.K.
Q. Why did you open your adventure playground?
“Meriden Adventure Playground grew out of Children’s Plan central government funding in 2008, which originally provided three items of fixed equipment and part-time play rangers in the surrounding park. Due to demand and the nature of the area, it was decided to erect a fence and develop a self-build adventure playground within. The community group MAPA began some years later (in 2012), to enhance and support the original facility, and they now employ five playworkers and play-scheme staff, as well as raising funds for site maintenance and development.
“The surrounding community is a 1960’s out-of-town dormitory development, with all the attendant design issues, and nowhere specific for children and young people to go and much public space has become dilapidated or colonized by social problems. The area has current high unemployment, street crime and drug dealing. The ‘town centre,’ a concrete shopping mall, has a large supermarket, lots of pound shops and fast food outlets. Kids had nowhere to play where they felt safe and able to be themselves.”
Q. What is child-directed play and why is it important?
“Play is nature’s way of finding out about oneself, others and the world and thereby growing up and developing physically, socially and emotionally. Most adults tend to be over-protective and convinced that children can only learn anything if we teach them – this means that children’s ‘free time’ is dominated by adults telling them what they should play and how, when and where. This stifles natural discovery which requires a sense of freedom and possibility.”
Q. What are adventure playgrounds?
“An adventure playground can be described as a space dedicated solely to children’s play, where skilled playworkers enable and facilitate the ownership, development and design – physically, socially and culturally – by the children playing there. It is enclosed by a boundary to signal that the space within is dedicated to children’s play and to enable and encourage activities not usually condoned in other spaces where children play, such as digging, making fires or building and demolishing dens and other constructions.
“It is a place where children can engage in a full range of play behaviors. The children and playworkers continually create and adapt challenging and exciting play structures and features to make a place that children feel belongs to them and where anything is possible.”
Q. What are the benefits of adventure playgrounds?
“Children and young people can be themselves, be heard, be valued, test things out and feel in control rather than being controlled – essential ingredients for healthy childhood.”
Q. Do children use real tools at adventure playgrounds? What would you tell the critics who are afraid kids will get hurt?
“Yes, they do. They are far more capable and competent that most adults think ... That adult fear is ultimately making children less safe, because without freedom and risk-taking, children never learn to keep themselves and each other safe. Taking risks is part of everyday life and it should be part of children’s too as they grow up – some minor bumps and setbacks are the way they become resilient. There is a massive amount of evidence to show that over-protection is harmful.”
Q. Why is play important for children?
“Children themselves tell us that playing is hugely important to them – they are the experts here and we should listen!”
Q. What are the advantages of allowing children to do risky things?
“They become resilient, gain empathy, learn by experience, build up a sense of self, gain confidence, find out first-hand a lot of science (gravity, motion, physicality), increased co-operation and that’s just the start!”