Pioneers of adventure play

Lady Allen of Hurtwood 1897-1976

Founder of the adventure playground movement in the UK. Lady Allen  is remembered for her international and interdisciplinary work around children’s rights throughout the world.

Paul Soames, trustee of The Lady Allen of Hurtwood Memorial Trust, writes.

Lady Allen (Credit OMEP) (1)

Lady Allen’s outstanding achievements lay in nursery education (she was instrumental in setting up the International Play Association (IPA) in 1961 and OMEP – an international early years based organisation in the 1950s. Her influence led to the Curtis Report and the establishment of the Children’s Act 1948. She was also a leading advocate for children’s rights as the UN was being established, and was noted for her work related to planning for play in urban areas.

Her profession as a successful landscape architect, her childhood being brought up in the countryside and her passionate interest in the welfare of children led her to become one of the pioneers in introducing adventure playgrounds to this country. Lady Allen’s immediate post-war experiences of travelling in Europe and watching children use bomb-ruined areas as play sites inspired her. Many inner city areas in the UK had suffered war damage – what better idea than clearing these sites and letting children loose to play on them!

As well as taking a lead role in setting up individual adventure playgrounds (for example Lollard Street) during the 1950s and 1960s, in the 1970s she set up what was then called the Handicapped Adventure Playground Association (HAPA). This organisation (now merged with KIDS) went on to set up five adventure playgrounds for children with additional needs as well as advising many other organisations across the world on how to set up similar play opportunities.

On her death in 1976, three organisations that Lady Allen was instrumental in setting up (IPA, OMEP and HAPA) established the Lady Allen of Hurtwood Memorial Trust to commemorate her work. The Trust has made awards each year since 1977 to people working in different play settings who wish to travel to extend their knowledge and experience to enhance the work they are doing.

For almost thirty years after the end of the Second World War Lady Allen was at the heart of the movement that started to challenge attitudes and perceptions that society had towards children. She was an early play pioneer and a passionate advocate for children. She is someone whose work should be celebrated.

Paul Soames, 2020



Lady Allen’s manifesto for adventurous play

To hear Lady Allen set out her manifesto for adventurous play, have a look at this fantastic film from the London Play YouTube archives:

(Content note: some of the language used in this documentary is outdated and inappropriate in reference to disabled people, though were standard terms in Lady Allen’s time)

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“I’ve got a feeling that you’ve got to try everything once. If it works – wonderful. If it doesn’t work – scrap it and try something else.”

Lady Allen of Hurtwood

John Bertlesen (1917-1978), the first adventure playworker

On 15th August 1943, the very first adventure playground in the world opened in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Emdrup Skrammellegepladsen opened as part of Emdrupvænge, a large housing project of over 700 households. John Bertelsen was Emdrup’s first play leader. 

Robert Dighton writes

At Emdrup, nothing was static or expensive. It was filled with reuseable junk (‘skrammell’ in Danish) – wood, rope, canvas, tires, wire, bricks, pipes, rocks, nets, logs, balls, abandoned furniture, wheels, vehicles, and an unimaginable assortment of other things. At its height, over 900 children visited per day.

John (Jonus) Bertelsen was Emdrup’s first playleader. He was a member of the Danish Resistance Movement, fighting against the Nazis, which meant that he was enormously respected by the children at Emdrup.

Lady Allen (above) was blown away by her first visit to Emdrup and its charismatic play leader:

“I was completely swept off my feet by my first visit to Emdrup playground. In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities. There was a wealth of waste material on it and no man-made fixtures. The children could dig, build houses, experiments with sand, water or fire and play games of adventure and make believe. They were fortunate, also, in their leader, John Bertelsen. A trained nursery school teacher and ex-sea-man, he was a great man, a philosopher and a poet.  His imagination, confidence and insight made the whole experiment an outstanding success.”

Bertlesen claimed that economic differences between the tenants of Emdrup didn’t impact on children’s wellbeing so much as the emotional investment of parents – it was crucial therefore for him that the playground offered an emotionally stable and nurturing environment for the kids who used it, a place where their ideas would be listened to and support given to them (if needed) to put their plans into action. Putting the responsibility in the hands of the children who played at Emdrup, aimed to promote their social skills, particularly their ability to resolve conflict peacefully and think independently.

John Bertelsen’s “Early Experience from Emdrup” in Adventure Playgrounds, p.20-1.

Bertelsen left Emdrup as Director in 1947, two years after the end of the war. One of his final acts was to participate in the demolition of a 20m-high wooden tower built by the children; no individual structure lasted for long at Emdrup, being intermittently demolished and rebuilt for different owners and to new designs, constant evolution, process rather than product. As Bertlesen put it, ‘in children’s play activities the process of construction, the completed result and the eventual pulling down are all stages of equal importance’.

Robert Dighton, 2020

“I am of course employed as a leader, but on an adventure playground this is hardly the same as the accepted idea of a leader and organiser who works, as it were, from the outside. Rather, mine is a function which arises within the actual framework of the playground where I am in a position to give the children every opportunity of putting their plans into practice. This initiative must come from the children themselves and when the necessary materials are to be had these give the children the inspiration for play.”

John Bertleman, Emdrup’s play leader

‘…Children’s play is not what the adults see, but what the child himself experiences.’


Visit our resources zone for workers or volunteers on adventure playgrounds.