Adventure Playground draws curious kids outside

Kids enjoy the chance to get dirty at a recent Adventure Playground afternoon. The Adventure Park is located at Island Crest Park. - Jenny Manning/Staff Photo
Kids enjoy the chance to get dirty at a recent Adventure Playground afternoon. The Adventure Park is located at Island Crest Park.
— image credit: Jenny Manning/Staff Photo

Islanders of all ages are going gangbusters over a free-form play experience called the “Adventure Playground.”

Children ages 4 through 13, parents and volunteers are wild over the concept, said Adventure Park coordinator Ann Grabler.

On average, 50 kids show up to the two-acre park, which is open from 1 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays through Oct. 28. The program may run beyond the scariest month of the year, said Grabler, who would like to keep the program open as late into the year as possible.

Adventure Parks are nothing new.

Danish Landscape Architect C. Th. Sørensen thought of the concept around 1931 when he noticed that children often played in areas other than structured playgrounds. By 1943 the first adventure playground, also known as a “junk playground,” opened in Emdrup, Denmark.

Although there are only four Adventure Playgrounds in the United States — the newest one on Mercer Island, and three in California — there used to be many more, Grabler said.

“Due to liability and budget, they’ve been on the decline,” she said.

The Mercer Island Adventure Park is insured through the city, she said. Parents and guardians must sign a release form each time they drop off their child, although injury really isn’t an issue.

In the first three weeks, Grabler has handed out only three Band-Aids for a couple of scrapped knees and notes the low injury rate at a former Houston Adventure Playground, which has since closed due to budget cuts.

“In Houston, 15,000 kids visited the playground over four months and they logged a .043 percent injury rate,” she said.

The idea is simple, yet there aren’t a whole lot of places where kids can get this kind of experience, she said.

The Adventure Playground offers open space, tools, various materials including wood, saws, hammers, nails, shovels ... you name it. Anything that can be used to create imaginary play space is there or welcomed as a donation to the park.

“It’s a place to grow and explore curiosity, and it lets them step outside their norms and bounds,” she said.

In mid-September, the playground will offer outdoor environmental education classes with a nature focus, taught by Grabler and contracted outdoor educators.

“It’s needed,” she said. “Kids are kind of bubble-wrapped today.”

First-time visitors are often cautious about the new outdoor environment, the unfamiliar tools and unexplored material options, she said.

Many of the kids don’t know what to do and ask for direction, she said, adding that the beauty of the program is that it allows children to use their imagination to create anything they can think up.

Registration is not required; however, all first-time participants must have a parent sign a waiver before participating. Mercer Island residents may participate in the Adventure Playground for free. A drop-in fee of $2 applies to non-residents, beginning Aug. 10.

The Parks and Recreation Department is requesting donations of building materials for the Adventure Playground, including unpainted lumber, bricks, hand tools, fasteners and other materials that may be useful for creating forts and climbers. Call (206) 275-7891 if you have materials to donate.

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