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1. A Note on Language and Definition        
2. The Context and Background of the first Adventure Playground        
3. The emergence of British Adventure Play 2. The Context and Background of the first Adventure Playground
4. How Adventure Play developed in Britain        

Although the creation of Emdrup, Skrammellegepladsen (Junk Playground), in 1943 was the brainchild of Carl Theodor Sørensen, there were a number of important factors that led to Emdrup, including:

  1. Froebel Philosophy

  2. 1930’s architectural trends

  3. The partnership between Dragehjelm and Sørensen

  4. New theories of developmental psychology

  5. Economic turmoil and the rise of right wing politics of the 1930’s

  6. Sørensen’s observations of children playing naturally

The influence of Froebel Thinking

The seeds of junk or adventure play can be seen in the first Froebel school in is Denmark. This school opened in 1854 and was led by headmaster, Soeren Soerensen. He wrote:

“Children at the ages or 4 and 5 years should not be imprisoned in a dirty airless schoolroom, at such a young age they should have play and movement, especially in the fresh air”.

Although such a quotation does not nearly describe the genius and simplicity of adventure play, it does reveal something of the Froebelian emphasis upon natural play. Sofus Bagger and Hans Dragehjelm set up the Froebel Society in Denmark in 1902 and in 1907 Dragehjelm introduced the ‘sand box’ to Denmark and the world. Rather than considering Emdrup to be a pure product of Froebel philosophy, it is more that Froebel thinking was a general influence within 1930’s landscape architecture as well as a direct influence via Hans Dragehjelm’s partnership with Carl Theodor Sørensen.

The Changing Faces of Danish Architecture of the 1930’s

Throughout his early career, Carl Theodor Sørensen was developing his own approach to landscape architecture. Influenced by a humanist approach and motivated to create better living spaces for families, Sørensen was especially interested in meeting the play and recreational needs of children (especially those living in city blocks). Coninck-Smith (1999) describes the climate of ‘the “cultural-radical’ ideology with functional and socially aware architecture”. Since 1925 Sørensen had designed and overseen six environments for public housing associations. In 1935, he described his experience and thoughts of this in the Danish Journal, Arkitektens Månedshæfte (this was based on his earlier book ‘Open Spaces for Town and Country’, 1931): 

“Finally we should probably at some point experiment with what one could call a junk playground. I am thinking in terms of an area, not too small in size, well close off from its surroundings by thick greenery, where we should gather, for the amusement of bigger children, all sorts of old scrap that the children from the apartment blocks could be allowed to work with, as the children in the countryside and in the suburbs already have. There could be branches and waste from tree polling and bushes, old cardboard boxes, planks and boards, “dead” cars, old tyres and lots of other things, which would be a joy for healthy boys to use for something. Of course it would look terrible, and of course some kind of order would have to be maintained; but I believe that things would not need to go radically wrong with that sort of situation. If there were really a lot of space, one is tempted to imagine tiny little kindergartens, keeping hens and the like, but it would at all events require an interested adult supervisor...”

The Cottage Park: Froebel Education meets Humanist Landscape Architecture

In 1937, Hans Dragehjelm and Carl Theodor Sørensen joined forces to develop a proposal for the transformation of the Cottage Park in Klampenborg, north of Copenhagen into a family and children’s park (Dyrehavens Familie- og Børnepark). It is important to note that no explanation has yet been found how or why Dragehjelm and Sørensen began to work together, how they knew each other or how long this partnership continued for.

In their proposal, Dragehjelm stated that it:

 “would be possible for parents with children of the common people, at no great expense, to spend their leisure time in safe surroundings, so that the children would find an outlet for their natural urge to be ‘children of nature’. I am thinking in particular of the chance to play in open terrain, among trees and bushes, and in close contact with small animals, to which children in big cities in particular usually have no access.”

Unfortunately Dragehjelm and Sørensen’s proposal for the Cottage Park was rejected. It is unclear from the available records why such a decision was made. Nonetheless the seeds of the junk playground concept may be found in their proposal.

The new theories of Childhood

Many of the developmental psychology theories of the day were elucidated by Danish psychologist Anne Marie Nørvig. As the writer of several books and as editor of the parents correspondence section of ‘Børn, Alle Forældres Blad’ (Children, the magazine for all parents), she communicated many of the then current psychological theories and views. At this time developmental psychology was interested in children’s natural or ordinary play – many thinkers felt that play was a basic instinct and formed an essential part of children’s natural development. As Anne Marie Nørvig wrote in her book ‘Det sunde Barn’ (The Healthy Child):

“But play is not only a preparation for the work of the adult, it is also an absolute condition of the child’s continuing to be mentally and physically healthy. A child who does not play as soon as it is possible to play is either ill or badly nurtured, and in both cases we have to find the causes preventing the child from playing and remove them, whether they are harmful to physical or mental health”. (1940).

At this time it was accepted that ‘normality’ was produced through play and that parents and society as a whole had a responsibility to offer children the best possible conditions for natural play. It was essential that those play opportunities were in “harmony with the child’s nature and promoted the desired normality.” (Coninck-Smith, 1999).

Hans Dragehjelm had written in the Cottage Park proposal that children had a natural urge to be “naturmennesker” (natural human beings) and so children need and want to build dens, climb, fight and hunt. These were also the views that the leading educationalists and psychologists of the day supported.

Although earlier in the 20th Century, society had been concerned about children’s natural urges toward destruction, this had been replaced by a faith and belief in children’s play. Anne Marie Nørvig wrote in 1940:

“The destructive urge ... could ... just as well be called constructive play”

In addition there was a popular and traditional view that nature was healthy and useful for child development. Many countries, including Denmark, had initiatives for city children to experience clean air and the countryside. Whilst this traditional view placed emphasis and value upon nature (and criticism of cities), Dragehjelm and Sørensen took an intriguing forward ‘leap of mind’. They felt that nature was not enough or adequate on its own and that children needed play equipment, preferably from nature’s own materials and ones that would appeal to children’s creativity (such as trees for climbing, sand boxes etc). However they did acknowledge that some limited ‘man-made’ play equipment was necessary – swings, see-saws, slides and roundabouts.

Economic and Social Upheaval of the 1930’s

Although the 1930’s was partly defined by economic crisis, significant funds were allocated to play projects. This was seen not only as an investment in the future but also as a way of defending against the right wing surge in Europe. Various projects, including schools, were developed and designed within a humanist or liberal philosophy – focussing upon the health and nature of children. 

It is strange that such a liberal and revolutionary concept as Emdrup started when Denmark was under German occupation. As Lady Allen of Hurtwood wrote:

“In the moral confusion of German occupation the difference between sabotage and delinquency was not obvious, and many of the children had become unruly and antisocial.”

Perhaps the creation of Emdrup was also part of a wider rebellion and resistance within Denmark, but was ultimately the culmination of Sørensen’s thinking throughout the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s.

Observing Children at Play

It is unclear precisely when, but Sørensen also observed an interesting contradiction to his earlier play design projects that forever challenged the very essence of playground design. Sorensen, along with the Workers' Co-operative Association observed children playing on bombed war sites learning how to use the construction tools and the surrounding materials to build their own playground (Eriksen, 1985). This observation had a profound effect upon Sørensen and is likely to have been a critical moment in the development of the first junk playground. He changed his position of ‘architect’ (who held the power and control regarding what play opportunities were made available to children) to facilitator (who passed his power and control to children in order that they themselves could create their own play environments). Quite literally, Sørensen enabled children to become architects and masters of their own play destinies. It is not possible to describe the radical nature and sheer courage and genius required of such a shift, especially in the context that Denmark was under Nazi occupation. 

Emdrup is born

Within World War 2, Sørensen designed the first adventure playground. It provided much needed discovery and challenge for children to control and transform their environment. In particular, children constructed their own play spaces and were able to play and manipulate the basic elements of fire, earth, wind, and water.

On 15th August 1943, Emdrup (Skrammellegepladsen) opened as part of a housing project with 719 large family households. From the beginning around 900 children attended each day (this levelled out to between 200-400 children per day). At Emdrup nothing was static or expensive. It was filled with junk - wood, rope, canvas, tires, wire, bricks, pipes, rocks, nets, logs, balls, abandoned furniture, wheels, vehicles, and an unimaginable assortment of other things.

Sørensen said of his ‘junk’ creation:

"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".

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5. From then to now