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Should “Child’s Play” Include a Little Danger?

The Progressive-era roots of the 'adventure playground' movement

Adventure playgrounds are built on the idea that kids need to play in danger-possible environments, free from rigid schedules and restrictions of modern parenting. These playscapes throw kids into industrial-like settings where hammers, saws, and drain pipes replace the see saw, slide, and swing structures of the post-World War II playground with its quality sand and rubberized pads. In its push against the helicopter parent, scheduled playdates, and the planned nature of organized sports, these new play spaces seek to address today’s social anxieties in new and innovative ways.

But how new are these anxieties and the solutions adventure playgrounds promise? In bringing danger and nature to their children’s playtime, adventure playgrounds have more in common with their Progressive Era peers than their promoters may think. At first glance, the comparison that seems most apparent would be between today’s playground movement and that of the urban reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who advocated and lobbied for structured, outdoor spaces for children to play. Overcrowded tenements, unhealthful factories, and dangers of the streets joined with moralistic calls for social justice to establish early versions of the playgrounds that today’s adventure playgrounds are upending. The work of the urban reformers of last century was important and lasting (in 1908 the State of Massachusetts passed a law requiring all towns of 10,000 or more residents to establish a playground). The more surprising parallel, however, is to the Progressive Era pioneers of the Great Camp movement.

The Adirondack Great Camps began as a business Hail Mary. In the heyday of the railroad era, Thomas Clark Durant amassed a vast fortune including a million acres in the Adirondacks as part of New York’s effort to promote development of the region. Having fallen from grace during the Credit Mobilier scandal of 1872-73 and losing his cash in the panic of 1873, Adirondack acreage was all he had left. In some ways the timing of Durant’s financial and personal crises could not have been better. In 1869, William H. Murray published Adventures in the Wilderness,which became a guidebook for wealthy New York City residents seeking a respite from the city. Durant capitalized on the enthusiasm generated by Murray’s book to spark his financial comeback.

His vision for the region included retreats for America’s elite. His son William, who he brought home from his world travels, was tasked with developing specialized living spaces that would become known as the Great Camps. Over time the Great Camps developed their defining features: specialized buildings for specific activities on a lakefront; staffs, farms, skilled craftsmen, and infrastructure that allowed them to run as self-sustaining compounds; and creative use of building construction and natural features drawn from local resources. William marketed these camps to his father’s wealthiest colleagues, including J.P. Morgan, Collis P. Huntington, and Alfred Vanderbilt.

At first glance, motivations driving the adventure playground and Great Camp movements seem disparate. Adventure playgrounds thrive on the belief that children’s exposure to danger and time away from digital devices will help them better manage themselves, spark creativity, and develop resourcefulness. The Great Camps, on the other hand, were built to provide relaxation and restoration for America’s most wealthy industrialists and financiers, seeking respite from the chaos and sterility of their urban lives. At the same time, the Great Camps were imagined as masculine spaces where the “over civilized” man tested himself against nature’s vagaries. One embraces the de-industrialized factory aesthetic, the other embraces trees, lakes, and mountains.

Such differences obscure the fundamental similarities characterizing these two movements. Both are manufactured spaces. Adventure playgrounds re-appropriate or create industrial materials to build seemingly unstructured environments. Similarly, industrialists constructed the Great Camps out of indigenous trees and field stones.

At the same time, both spaces are meant to appear “natural.” The point of the adventure play space is its unstructured appearance and use. Industrial tubes and netting are strewn about for kids to do whatever strikes them at the moment. The hidden hand of design quietly shapes the quality of children’s play in a way that would make John Dewey and his child-centered theory proud. Similarly, Great Camps appear to have emerged from the forest itself, yet in reality William West Durant directed teams of workers and skilled craftsmen to manipulate the landscape. Durant’s intension was to erase all signs of human artifice; he even instructed one of his masons to tear down an entire stone fireplace when he saw a chisel mark on one of the stones at the structure’s foundation.

These specialized landscapes were defined in opposition to people’s everyday spaces. Both required movement from one landscape into another. Traversing spaces defined the experience. Parents drive their children to adventure playgrounds, bounded spaces nestled in the heart of urban America. Travel to the Adirondacks required a greater commitment. Before the car and paved roads, travelers from New York City spent twenty-four hours on a train, a stage coach and a steam boat before arriving at their secluded Great Camp. Visitors to adventure playgrounds and the Adirondacks had to leave the comforts of home to have what they thought of as an authentic experience.

Both specialized landscapes stage and then manage risk for their participants. Adventure playgrounds appear danger-possible because of the tools and lack of structure they provide. And yet specialized supervisors (called playworkers) ensure that the uncertainty of the space and the play that occurs within its borders does not devolve into health hazards. The Great Camps similarly staged risks for guests seeking the thrill of a wilderness experience. Seasoned guides, employed by Great Camp hosts, led visiting “sports” into the forest to replenish their evaporating masculinity.

The unscripted character of both spaces allowed for a certain amount of liberation from societal expectations. Free range kids have the chance to be untethered from their parents, the internet, and the world of plastic play toys. In the Adirondacks the straight-laced businessman slept in a lean-to, fished for his dinner, and listened to his guide’s stories of adventure in the wild. Fifth avenue matrons swam in lakes and hiked the region’s mountains. At the personal level, new forms of recreation allowed individuals to re-create themselves into resourceful and resilient people.

On the surface, it seems like class identity would be a difference, separating the cultures of the two movements. Playgrounds, after all, are public spaces open to all whereas the Great Camps were the stomping grounds of the rich and famous. Yet, in fact, class privilege stamps both. Adventure camps, at least to date, have sprung up in affluent zip codes. Berkeley, California’s camp shares a shoreline with the Berkeley Yacht Club. J. P. Morgan threatened arrest to any uninvited person who made their way across his Camp Uncas gate and onto his Adirondack property. These experiences also lent themselves most readily to those with the free time and resources to access them. Faux industrial playgrounds can only be fun if industrial work or hazards are not part of one’s daily life. Choosing to play in a pseudo-junkyard is a privilege to those with choices. While the Vanderbilts spent up to two months at a time recreating at Camp Sagamore, the era’s laboring class at most had a few hours a week at a beer garden, a sporting event, or Coney Island. Commentators site current levels of economic inequality as evidence of a second Gilded Age. The popularity of the adventure playground movement suggests that the parallel goes beyond the economy to a deeper, cultural connection between the two historical periods.

Randi Storch and Kevin Sheets are Professors of History at SUNY Cortland and lead National Endowment for the Humanities summer programs for K-12 teachers on the history of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

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