"If a 10-year-old lit a fire in an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling. At the Land, spontaneous fires are a daily occurrence," Hanna Rosin writes in her cover story for this month's Atlantic. The Land, an "adventure" playground in Wales, is a radical departure from standard safety-conscious playgrounds, encouraging kids to experiment with tools, junk, and combustible materials.
Erin Davis, a filmmaker and radio producer based in Vermont, recently set out to explore this phenomenon in a documentary about the Land. She shares an excerpt (complete with fire, sharp objects, and gleeful kids) and discusses the making of the film in an interview below.
The Atlantic: What was the genesis of this project?
Erin Davis: I was fortunate to have had a very playful childhood in the American midwest. It included roaming through back yards with a crew of kids of various ages, making up our own games. Most adults I talk to have similar kinds of stories and believe that these were valuable experiences and meaningful times in their lives. I’m interested in the discrepancy between what we remember enjoying as kids, and what we tend to allow children to do once we’ve grown up—both on an individual and structural level.
How did you learn about the Land and decide to film there?
The innovative Imagination Playground sprung up in Manhattan in 2010. It was cool and exciting, and embraced the theory of “loose parts” by filling the play-space with sand, water and big beautiful foam bricks that kids could move around and build with. I worked closely with New York City kids at the time so it caught my attention. In reading about the Imagination Playground I got hooked on a detail referring to its being informed in part by, “European ‘adventure’ playgrounds,” and thought, huh.. well, what are those? You could say I fell down the rabbit hole.
What was filming like? Did anything in the course of production surprise you?
Filming was very spontaneous and exciting. There was fire, mud, snow, rain—so many rich elements. The children played outside in all conditions. The approach was observational, so we filmed with our characters through risky and playful activities that they initiated, making a point to follow the action through to its natural conclusion. It's striking to witness what children are capable of.
The children do what you'd expect them to do: build, destroy, climb, swing, hide etc. The behavior of the adult playworkers on the Land is really the most surprising thing. They don’t wear whistles around their necks or watch from the sidelines, they are integrated in the space. They are skilled and thoughtful about when and how they intervene. They take their work seriously, are passionate professionals—and they have a great time.
Why is risky play so important? Do you have a sense why Europe seems more ready to embrace it than the U.S.?