When a new playground opens on Governor's Island in New York City this spring, it won't have swings, or a slide, or watchful parents. Instead, it will look a little like an empty lot full of trash, with old wood, cardboard, and random other junk, painted and hacked together by the children in charge.
A nonprofit called play:ground is building the city's only adventure playground—a form of park that's common in Europe and still very uncommon in the U.S.
Here's an adventure playground in Wales, from the documentary The Land:
"We realized that there's no space for kids in New York City to play really independently," says Eve Mosher, an artist with two young children in Brooklyn. "Everywhere we go there's parents and nannies and teachers. Kids are always being scheduled and shuttled to rubberized play structures. There's nowhere to make and explore."
Mosher was talking to a fellow parent one day and they both realized they wanted to help bring an adventure playground to New York. "We were just throwing that idea around," she says. "Then by the next day we were like, we're doing this. We're going to do this." A group of others quickly joined them to start planning the project.
The city actually had five adventure playgrounds in the past, but by the 1970s, thanks to budget cuts, they were all closed down. The new playground won't be run by the city, but will be an independent nonprofit. It's helped by the fact that Governor's Island falls outside the jurisdiction of the Parks Department.
The island—which is also almost entirely car-free—also just seemed like the perfect place to give children more freedom. "It's a kind of really unique and playful space, so it totally makes sense for us to be there," says Mosher.
Like other adventure playgrounds, the new project will have staff called "play workers" who act like lifeguards, letting kids do basically whatever they want, but stepping in if things get too crazy.
"If something is risky, that's fine," she says. "If something is hazardous, that's the play worker's job to ensure that the space is not hazardous. Kids are encouraged to take known risks."
Parents will take a step back. It's a reaction against the hyper-monitored lives that most children now lead. "There are a lot of articles now that have come out about the overprotected kid—and that the kind of play experienced in previous generations allowed for more self-confidence, more of a sense of independence, more collaborative thinking," says Mosher. "And by not allowing our kids these kinds of spaces that we're really reducing their ability to function in the world."
Some research, for example, suggests that letting kids take risks young—and face fears—helps them avoid being more fearful as adults. Children who get hurt falling from a height between under the age of nine are less likely to be afraid of heights when they're 18.
The team spent the last year hosting pop-up playgrounds around New York as research, and noticed how their children became more confident. "One of the things that happens when you have parents step out of the picture is the kids start to collaborate more with one another," she says.
They don't have any sketches or drawings of the new playground, because the kids will create it themselves. "We would render an empty lot," she says. "We're going to put all this junk that we find on it and have fun."
The project is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter.