“I like everything here, but this swing makes me sick.” Leire, seven, has a smile on her face as she shoves her friends Romeo and Gabriel. Despite the cold, the three of them rushed straight to the Grove adventure playground in their school uniforms to start playing.
Walk down a quiet side street in Brixton, south London, and the Grove adventure playground appears in a riot of red, yellow and blue against the gray skyline. “When a kid comes in, they know they’re in a special place,” says Nick Lewis, who helped save the playground from closure a few years ago.
Here, kids, some of whom live in apartments with little or no outdoor space, can climb rickety wooden towers, light fires in the communal fireplace, and jump in puddles.
But even though the doors are open, a “Save our Playground” sign hangs in the trees. The Grove clings to survival, its constant struggle to fund part of a broader adventure games crisis, a vigorous philosophy born in the years following World War II and inspired by activists who saw how happily children were playing at bomb sites .
“This is a play space,” says game director Ashlee Aderele. “We connect kids here with nature, but they don’t even realize it – it’s just here in every corner – the fire, the mud, the wood – they’re part of it without realizing it because they’re playing.
“But there is no funding just to have fun. We can get funding from Lambeth City Council for projects like feeding the children or providing sessions for special needs children and we survive, but there is very little money just to play with.”
Play England figures, exclusively made available to the Guardian, show that at least 21 adventure playgrounds have been lost across England since 2017. Their research found 126 locations that matched the description of manned outdoor games that were free for children to visit. This is down from 147 in 2017. Many more have lost direct funding from the Council or have had their hours or staffing levels severely reduced.
In Crawley, East Sussex, they have closed all four of the town’s adventure playgrounds despite a local campaign to save them. “It’s heartbreaking,” says playworker and photographer Jeff Pitcher, who was involved with the campaign but was fired when the playgrounds closed. “I went over today to look through the fence on Creasys Drive. The play equipment – which only required minor repairs – has been removed and it is now just a cordoned off area.”
Pitcher says kids need the spaces more than ever. “These playgrounds were built in the 1960s as part of Crawley’s ‘New Town’ dream. They were sanctuaries where children could learn how to rub together and play healthy outside. Last summer we had 300 families a day in their last days at the two most popular locations.”
The Guardian spoke to local parents who said the playgrounds were a huge loss. The council says it has “mothballed” two of the sites “pending an investigation into future use” and insists they have reached the end of their useful lives. The other two locations will open as “fixed, unsupervised” play areas later this year.
Crawley Council argues that the playgrounds were expensive at around £30 a head at the time they closed; a figure that Pitcher denies.
Anita Grant, Head of Play England, says static playgrounds cannot replace the magic of well-run adventure playgrounds.
“The loss of 21 adventure playgrounds is 15% of supply, a significant and worrying trend away from the hope the Blair government created with its generous gaming funding in the early 21st century.
“These simply cannot be compared to ‘fixed’ playgrounds in parks; They are communal spaces where attentive staff help children engage with nature and play with other children of different ages – an experience we are losing in society at large.”
Other local authorities face difficult decisions as budgets are cut. Play England are seeing closures or reduced services in Lewisham, Oxford, Bath, Southampton and Southwark.
There are models of good practice. In Islington, Grant operates six thriving adventure playgrounds with a 15 year funding commitment from the Council. The first was founded by local mothers in the 1950s.
At the Grove, they keep occasional charitable grants alive, particularly by paying staff costs. At the heart of the playground is a philosophy of healthy risk. A comical plaque honors a spot where a child broke a bone while playing.
Aderele watches as Romeo and Gabriel prepare to jump.
“They often worry about this swing. I take it very slowly. I say, ‘Come on, I’ll hold you.’ Progress to jump from higher points can take weeks. They’re so proud they’re like, ‘Oh, can I bring my mom to see how high I’ve climbed?’ Helping children face their fears in nature is really fun. I have a job where I just play all the time.”