History of London’s adventure playgrounds

Adventure Playgrounds

Danish landscape architect C Th Sørensen is inspired by the sight of children playing with leftover materials on construction sites.


Large swathes of London are levelled during the Blitz. Despite the death and destruction all around, as children in war torn areas across the globe do, London's youngsters discover thrilling new playgrounds among the ruins.


During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Emdrup becomes the first city to open a playground based on Sørensen’s ideas. Filled with ‘junk’ including wood, tyres, bricks, rope and old furniture and vehicles, nothing in the playground is static or expensive. John Bertelsen is the first ‘play worker’.
"They can dream and imagine and make dreams and imagination reality, any rate a reality, which the child's mind is completely satisfied with…It is so obvious that the children thrive here and feel well, they unfold and they live. Of all the things, I have contributed to realize, the junk playgrounds the ugliest, for me, however, it is the most beautiful and best of my works". (Sørensen)


Lady Allen of Hurtwood visits Emdrup and, inspired by the concept, returns to London to begin a campaign to establish adventure playgrounds in England. Her article in the Picture Post, proposing that bombsites are utilised for this purpose, attracts significant interest and the movement is born.


The UK’s first junk playground is opened on the site of a bombed church in Camberwell, London. It survives three years before the land it occupies is sold for development (so it has ever been thus)

In response to the increased interest in the junk playground movement, Drummond Abernethy is appointed as secretary of a new Playground Committee within the National Playing Fields Association (NPFA), later to become Fields in Trust. Lady Allen suggests that junk playgrounds are renamed ‘adventure playgrounds’.


The UK’s second junk playground opens on a former bombsite in North Kensington’s Clydesdale Road. Lady Allen is a member of the committee


London Adventure Playground Network is established


Donne Buck immigrates to London from New Zealand and throws himself into the adventure play movement. Within a year he is running a new adventure playground in Shoreditch – the beginning of an involvement with adventure playgrounds spanning 50 years. More information about Donne's work can be found here


In February the Handicapped Adventure Playground Association (HAPA) opens the first adventure playground for disabled children, in Chelsea.


By now there are about 100 adventure playgrounds in London – the Sunday Times produces a colour supplement with a picture of ‘the ideal adventure playground’.


The London Adventure Playground Association is established


London Play launches the inaugural London Adventure Playground of the Year Awards – won by Dog Kennel Hill AP.


Adventure Playgrounds: an introduction is published by the National Playing Fields Association (now Fields in Trust). The first (and last) of an intended series of booklets, it is still relevant today.


London’s Olympics. A great year for the capital which saw adventure playground teams from across London converge at the inaugural Go Kart Build and Race event, which was one of the first London 2012 Olympics events under the London Inspired programme. The Go Kart build and race tournament is now a regular annual Adventure Play summer fixture, joined by the girl only version ‘Girl Kart’ each Easter holidays.


Somerford Grove Adventure Playground is opened in Haringey, north London. The first new playground to be built in London for many years.


Wandsworth Council lays waste to its adventure playgrounds – Battersea Park Adventure Playground is bulldozed and Kimber Road becomes a skate park. York Gardens is remodelled with off the shelf equipment.


As austerity bites, London Play’s Play Works project wins funding from the City Bridge Trust. Over the next three years, staff from twelve London playgrounds take part in a training and development programme to equip adventure play staff with the tools to capture the value of their work, in numbers and figures, aka the language of funders.


Brent’s Stonebridge Adventure Playground closes after a spirited campaign to save it and nearly 40 years serving the local community.


The Covid-19 pandemic closes all Adventure Playgrounds across the UK temporarily. Adventure Play workers across London respond in the most creative of ways – moving play online, devising challenges, delivering parcels of handmade games to kids, opening up one family at a time and cleaning down equipment after each visit.

For a fascinating dive into the history of Adventure Play in London, have a look at the London Play YouTube channel archives