Introducing Adventure Playgrounds

Former camp director Doug Saul gave an informative session about adventure playgrounds at the ACA Annual Conference. He helped design and build the only adventure playground in Alberta, which is at YMCA Camp Chief Hector.

With busy schedules and increased screen time, kids are getting less and less unstructured, independent play time. Kids need more of the kind of play they enjoy so much that they lose track of time. The kind of play that they do for their own sake with little concern of what they’ll get out of it. At camp, we need to introduce activities for kids that if all the adults just quietly left, the kids would not notice and continue to remained focused and totally engaged in that activity.

The nature of this kind of play is initiated and controlled by the children. It results in social competence and have been linked to the development of resiliency in children and youth, especially with youth at risk. Undirected play allows kids to learn how to work collaboratively, share, resolve conflicts, make decisions, explore and engage in new passions. 

Adventure Playgrounds


Photo courtesy of Berkeley Adventure Playground

In the early 1940s a Danish landscape architect noticed that children seemed to prefer to play everywhere but in the playgrounds he built. He concluded that children really wanted to control their play environment and saw the need to start making ‘loose parts’ playgrounds where kids can have more options to control their playtime. He imagined a “junk playground in which children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality.”

The first junk playground opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1943. In 1946, Lady Allen of Hurtwood visited Emdrup from England and was impressed with "junk playgrounds." She brought the idea to London. Since then they have become known as adventure playgrounds. Now there are about 1,000 adventure playgrounds with most being in Europe. There are also two in California and one in Alberta at YMCA Camp Chief Hector.

At these playgrounds children can build structures and forts, play on previously kid-designed and built structures and forts, ride zip-lines, learn to hammer, saw and even paint. They low-risk, hands-on activities create opportunities for kids to learn cooperation, meet physical challenges and gain self confidence. 

Learn more about adventure playgrounds and view photos at: 

Building an Adventure Playground at your Camp

At camp, we feel happy and that an activity is successful when we see:

  • camper satisfaction
  • quality research validation
  • sustainable staff qualifications
  • sustainable cost
  • risk management (fits with vision and mission)
  • adaptability

YMCA Camp Chief Hector has built their own adventure playground. They had a large area landscaped, installed large wooden poles, a simple zip-line and a shed to store tools like hammers, saws and nails. The children build with wood, construction material and paint mostly donated from construction sites and companies.

When the kids arrive at the activity they are given a set of construction site rules to abide by at the adventure playground so they understand what they can and cannot do. They are also given instructions on how to properly use the tools and some simple skills like properly joining boards with two nails, etc. Tools and materials are handed out and the kids start building things!

The activity is well-staffed. The staff makes sure that what the kids are doing and building is safe. This prevents having to tear down unsafe structures at the end of the activity, which no kid likes to see! Staff can also give tips and help the kids learn how to use tools and build things that are strong and safe.

At the end of the activity everyone helps to clean up. Boards with sharp edges or nails can go in one pile, safe boards and materials go in another. Staff are there to supervise, pull nails and make sure that all the tools are returned to the shed for locked storage.

YMCA Camp Chief Hector spent about $10,000 to build their adventure playground and most of that cost was landscaping. Camps can start small and build it up as they go. They can also have most of the construction materials donated as construction waste is huge and most of it goes to a landfill. You can ask for donated tools or stock up at your local thrift store like Goodwill or Salvation Army.

 If you have questions or would like to see the adventure playground at Camp Chief Hector, please contact them!

Categories: Aca Annual Conference, Activities, Camp Resources, Programs