Local filmmaker shows kids taking risks in adventure playground

MIDDLEBURY — Erin Davis has fond, vivid memories about how she and her neighborhood playmates used to regularly meet up for imaginative play and games in their native Ohio.
“I was never on a soccer team or a baseball team; I didn’t have a lot of scheduled activities — and neither did my friends at the time,” said Davis, now a Middlebury resident and a teacher of radio documentary at Middlebury College. “We had a lot of free time together to do all sorts of weird, goofy stuff.”
It was that nostalgic feeling of youthful insouciance, coupled with a desire to challenge one of the prevailing stereotypes of today’s youth as video gamers and junk food eaters, that prompted Davis to make her first-ever film. It’s a 22-minute documentary called “The Land,” which chronicles the nature of play, risk and hazard in a children’s “adventure playground” in Wales.
Davis in recent years has become intrigued with adventure playgrounds. First conceived in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1943, adventure playgrounds are outdoor spaces containing what Davis referred to as a lot of “loose parts.” These parts might include hammers, nails, saws, wood pallets, cardboard, old tires, paint, water hoses, rope, old rowboats, discarded playground equipment and broken-down bicycles. Children, ages 5 to around 15, are largely left to their own devices in deciding how to use the adventure park material. Some kids might be content to step off to the side and paint pictures; others might gravitate toward the tools to hammer together a makeshift fireplace in which to burn their own fire.
These adventure playgrounds, of which there are hundreds throughout Europe, stand in sharp contrast to the conventional wooden, plastic or metal play structures that are bolted into the ground and often closely supervised by grownups, Davis noted.
“Some adult has decided how you use the materials,” Davis said of most playgrounds in the United States. “You go up the ladder and down the slide. You swing back and forth on the swing. But once you start climbing the swing, somebody tells you to get down.”
Not so at adventure parks, such as the one located in a community called Wrexham, in Wales. Davis spent three weeks in 2013 filming activities at that playground — dubbed “The Land” — where she watched children of all ages engage in a style of play limited only by their own imaginations and some decidedly hands-off oversight by hired adults known as “playworkers.”
Davis on Monday held the second in two days of screenings of her film for children at Middlebury Union Middle School. She explained her filmmaking process and asked seventh-graders for feedback on what they saw and how they might fill adventure playgrounds of their own.
The film begins with some 1971 news footage of Lady Allen of Hurtwood, an English landscape architect who is credited with importing the adventure playground concept from Denmark.
“Better a broken bone than a broken spirit,” Lady Allen says candidly as young British children scurry around a debris-filled play space filmed in black-and-white. “Children go looking for the risks they need.”
Davis next transports us to 21st-century Wales and The Land. There, we are introduced to a handful of adventurous children who have become regulars. Some are introverted, solitary and self-directed in their play; others are more clannish and mischievous in their merriment, engaging in the playful use of items ranging from a rope swing to a headless, armless store mannequin.
Wrexham is a blue collar neighborhood with families at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Davis explained that The Land was made possible through governmental subsidies and grants that help pay for materials and the hiring of adult playworkers, who engage in largely hands-off monitoring of the children on a Spartan landscape strewn with orphaned objects of all kinds.
Families allow their kids to play in The Land knowing the risks.
“Our job is to remove things that could cause (the children) harm,” one playworker says, referring to rusty nails as an example. “You work with children in the most spontaneous setting. Your job is to (consider) the development of that child and their safety, and constantly weigh them up in your mind.”
In some cases, the children are walking the metaphorical high wire without a net.
For example, one child climbs up onto a tree limb that is easily 20 feet off the ground. The playmaker looks up at the child and says, rather calmly, “A thicker (limb) than that snapped on me the other day; I thought I’d share that with you.”
Then there’s a small group of kids who set a small fire inside a homemade, makeshift playhouse. The children keep feeding in firewood, to the point where it looks like it might get out of control. One child even jokes about pouring some oil on the blaze. Another blurts out, while coughing, “I will regret not putting in a chimney.”
Meanwhile, a playworker is unobtrusively watching the children and the fire. At one point he coughs and announces he’s clearing out, hoping the kids will take his cue. He stands in silent vigil until the children move out on their own accord, then later makes sure the smoking embers are doused with water.
“He is there, without being there, at the same time,” Davis would later explain of the playworker’s strategy.
In another scene, a playworker is seen adjusting a large, tubular swinging device that is tethered quite a ways off the ground.
“I’m not sure how they’ll get in, but they’ll find a way,” he says, a statement that coincidentally sums up the basic philosophy of “The Land.”
When the film ended at Monday’s viewing, Davis took questions from the MUMS students, who were fascinated by what they had seen.
“It looks like a merry place where people can do anything they want,” student Drew Gill said.
“It shows how creative a kid can get,” said fellow student Tom Nevins.
ERIN DAVIS OF Middlebury meets with Middlebury Union Middle School students after a screening Monday of her award-winning short documentary “The Land.”
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Davis revealed that no children have become seriously injured in “The Land” in spite of its laissez faire atmosphere. And the children seem to know better than to let The Land surrender to total anarchy.
“The kids are smart,” Davis said. “They don’t want their playground to get shut down.”
While adventure playgrounds are abundant in Europe, they have yet to catch on in the United States. Here in the U.S., there are five “Imagination Parks” featuring less dangerous loose parts and more extensive adult supervision, Davis noted.
“The Land” has gotten very good reviews and was screened at more than a dozen regional film festivals, in New York and San Francisco, and at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival this past summer. It can be viewed online at thelanddocumentary.com.
While Davis does not have another documentary in the works quite yet, she will have no problem keeping busy. She studied documentary at The New School and The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Her radio work has aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” WNYC’s “Studio 360,” WBEZ’s “Re:Sound,” ABC Radio National in Australia, and elsewhere.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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