What would you think of a playground where there was nails, hammers, saws, paint, and wood lying around for the kids to add and build the playground. Wild idea right? Seems like a liability nightmare.
But I was just at such an adventure playground. I was a little astonished to walk in and see little kids some who looked 5 or 6, with saws, cutting wood in the corner. The kids (and adults too) are invited to paint and shape the wood, and then nail it to the climbing apparatuses, and various playground equipment.
In order to get the hammers, saws and paint you first have to go around looking for loose nails lying around, trash, spinters of wood, or nails that are coming out of the playground equipment in dangerous ways. The staff there then give you tools to create stuff with. So there is a self-organizing way (in addition to the staff cleaning up) to which the playground manages to clean up after itself.
The playground was a lot more exciting than normal playgrounds in part because of the variety of equipment, the flying foxes, the rope equipment, old pianos, old boats, and because everything looked a lot wilder with boards being nailed to equipment in a variety of ways, creating interesting patterns, and because everything was handpainted in crazy ways by the kids.
There is a much more vibrant feeling to the place because it feels very participatory, its being created by the people who come. You feel a lot more a part of the playground. It wasn’t just created by these anonymous contractors, it's being created by your fellow peers and you. You can come back another day and see what it is that you have created still up in the playground. It's similar to Wikipedia, open source software, and Burning Man in its spirit of not having only the experts create the content, but allowing everyone to create the experience. The playground is an open collaboration. I personally loved the chance to paint wood, and had a thrill nailing pieces of board to a climbing apparatus.
And the liability issue? The liability issue was handled by a sign at the entrance, saying that by coming in, you understand the dangers, and agree not to sue the city.
And the dangers? I don’t think its nearly as dangerous as people think for little kids to use saws and hammers, and to build the playground, as long as adults are looking on, and staff are making sure things being built are not too unsafe. Our American culture is so used to making things ‘safe’ that we lose some of the vitality that can come with fully engaging in life.