Family & Childhood

Makeshift Utopias

This article accompanies Ben Highmore’s article “Adventures in Lollard Street: An Experimental London Playground, 1955–60” in History Workshop Journal 97, where it is available on open access.

As the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee of the House of Commons embark on a cross-party inquiry into ‘Children, Young People and the Built Environment’, it is an opportune time to revisit the history of playgrounds and to think about alternatives to the often-sterile orthodox ‘swings and slides’ type of playground. As various UK charities point out children’s access to outdoor space for leisure is determined by economic deprivation, traffic congestion, and racial inequality. In my article in the new issue of History Workshop Journal, I ask: how might playgrounds participate in a spatial justice movement aimed at children and young people from all walks of life?

Cities can be a hostile environment for children and young people. Kids are often an afterthought for urban planners and developers. When money is tight it is often hard to make the case for something as seemingly frivolous as a playground. In Britain today playground provision seems to be mostly split between dull but safe local playgrounds and the more thrilling destination playgrounds that are expensive to build and usually commercially driven. In the years following the Second World War, for children growing up in cities, without private gardens or access to parks, the street was a natural playground. With fast moving traffic it was also a death trap. Another option was playing on bombsites, which also resulted in injury and occasionally death. And both bombsites and streets came with added peril: they might be recruiting grounds for that great modern anxiety – juvenile delinquency. The adventure playground offered an alternative – it could be a way of turning bombsites into something like a children’s public realm – a makeshift and decidedly dog-eared utopia.

Four boys and two girls standing on a field holding a sign between them that reads "Under Personal Supervision"
Notting Hill Adventure Playground in the early 1960s with kind permission from Donne Buck

How we think about children and young people, and how we think of their participation in society, is a key component of how we imagine society. In 1954 two versions of childhood jostled for attention. The more famous one is found in the pages of William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies, about a bunch of privately educated boys marooned on a tropical island who initially try to maintain social decorum but quickly descend into murderous barbarism. It reads like a Hobbesian parable: without a strong state or paternalistic authority life was going to be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Golding’s novel leaves the question of where this barbarism comes from open. Is it an essential element of human nature, one that modern civilisation is obliged to temper, or is this competitive capitalism played out – with the brakes off, so to say?

The other image of childhood and youth being floated in 1954 was much more alluring and optimistic. It was also a huge gamble. And at a time when the political right was asking for the reintroduction of flogging for wayward youth, it was a radically permissive move. What if you gave children and young people their own space? A third space that wasn’t school and wasn’t home. Somewhere not orchestrated by obedience, or by the commodity. A place where young people might have a great deal of autonomy in how they occupied the space and what they did with their time. It might be particularly attractive to those young people who didn’t want to sign-up to the social projects of organised religion and Baden-Powell’s muscular adventurism. It would be experimental, trying out different forms of adult supervision that weren’t censorious or even instructive, but supportive and generous.

A tarmac area inside a park, with a slide, a swing, and a climbing frame.
Standard static playground in Bristol. Photo by Ben Highmore.

The date of 1954 was important because it was at this point that you can see institutions like the London County Council and the National Playing Fields Association coming together to back the new adventure playground movement. The National Playing Fields Association supported two experimental playgrounds, one in Liverpool the other in London. The London playground was the flagship for the new movement. Situated on the site of an obliterated school in Lambeth it was within strolling distance of the houses of parliament and was routinely visited by politicians, journalists, and anyone concerned with the role of play in children’s development. This was the Lollard Adventure Playground that existed from 1955-1960 and is the topic of my essay.

Adventure playgrounds weren’t without problems. As others have argued there was something contradictory about their idea of free play, and the playgrounds themselves were often aimed much more at boys than girls. For the journalist and urbanist Colin Ward, though, they provided a ‘parable of anarchy’, a way that a very ordinary kind of anarchism could be realised. They can be seen as part of a longer history of progressive, child-centred education practiced by the likes of A. S. Neill at Summerhill School. But while progressive schools were often established in rural settings, adventure playgrounds were set in some of the most deprived areas of cities. The symbolism of turning bombsites into playgrounds was important – a place of damage could become a site of reparation – but even more important was the idea of building a utopia out of unwanted, waste material. In establishing these spaces of junk freedom, the adventure playground movement didn’t project utopia into some far-off space and time. They made a claim for it right now, right here, as a messy, provisional actuality. This wasn’t utopia as the rendering of a perfect society, but as a method of encouraging new human capacities and new ways of being together.

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