From the Junkyard to the Playground

In this series of blog posts I have discussed some of the pioneers in the development of the children’s playground. What they all seem to have had in common is an approach that focused on a more freestyle form of play. A famous Dutch landscape architect, Carl Theodor Sorensen, took things a step further, and he did in Copenhagen in 1943, a city that was suffering from Nazi occupation.

Sorenson developed a number of landmark parks in Denmark and in Norway during his career, but what he is best known for is the world’s first “junk playground,”  The Skrammellegepladen Endrup, in a neighborhood of Copenhagen, opened in 1943. It quickly caught the world’s attention, at first in England. This article from the Birmingham Weekly Post (Feb. 17, 1950), describes Sorenen’s creation:

“Mr C T Sorensen, a landscape gardener who has laid out many Copenhagen playgrounds, had observed during his work that the children stole onto the building sites and had grand games with the many objects lying about. It gave him an idea for a new kind of playground. In 1931 he suggested laying out a site where the children could create their own form of playground using old building material and other junk.

“On the Initiative of the Workers’ Co-operative Housing Association a junk playground was laid out in Copenhagen in 1943. It is a grass site of 7,000 square yards surrounded by a six-foot earthen bank planted with wild roses forming both a hedge and a windscreen. The junk playground was opened at a difficult time. It was in the middle of the war and Denmark was occupied. Restrictions and prohibitions dominated everything and it was not easy to get the materials on which the very existence of the idea depended.

“Now the playground is visited dally by 200 children on an average. In order to approach most nearly to the ideal children’s playground everything which may serve to remind the children of authority is excluded. They are not subject to direct education, there is no compulsion.”

Bauspielplatz Wilder Westen, Leipzig, Germany
Bauspielplatz Wilder Westen, Leipzig, Germany (image by Andreas Wolf)

It was a British landscape architect, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, who is credited with popularizing the idea of building junk playgrounds on World War II bomb sites. One of the first was in Morden, near London. The Ontario, Canada, paper, the North Bay Nugget, apparently unaware of the Danish roots of the junk playground, offered this description of the Morden playground:

“Britain has come up with something novel — a ‘junk playground.’ It’s a piece of waste land and a heap of builders’ junk and it means a thrilling play park to the children of Morden near London. And it means even more than that. It’s an answer to the people who are worried about children playing in the streets dodging traffic and perhaps drifting into the juvenile courts. 

“Morden’s ‘junk playground’ is full of bricks, stones, odd planks, sheets of metal and an old automobile. To this are added spades and tools and a grownup who can help but won’t boss. The rest is up to the children. The youngsters start by digging holes and taking things to bits. Then they get used to the tools and the building really starts.

“The result in Morden is the house in the trees and the wall where the children are building themselves a pavilion. They take real pride in their handiwork and it is even said they find it more satisfying than organized clubs or sport “

Junk playground in UK
Junk playground in UK (image by Bill Nichols)

Some bloke writing under the name of Mr. Leicester (Leicester Mercury, Oct. 25, 1950) advocated for such a playground in his city. He had this to say:

“These junk playgrounds are a veritable paradise for an active and adventurous child, although I daresay a too tidy mind will have plenty of opportunity for shuddering and complaining. Bits of wood and plenty of nails, bricks and sand, and water laid on —these are the basic materials of happiness and contentment to be handled and worked on with tools that a child can use with comparative ease and safety tunnels and dug-outs, houses and kitchens, bridges and house furniture, all can be contrived for the joy and delight of the playgrounds inhabitants. Supervision of a sort, but discreet and helpful, merely guiding and advising and seeing fair play. Above all, no rigid control.”

For some of those ‘too tidy’ minds, junk playgrounds also went under the name of ‘adventure playgrounds.’

America was a bit behind in catching on to this trend, but one advocate was Eleanor Roosevelt. After a visit to Denmark, she wrote (Boston Globe, June 20, 1950):

“They also took me to a junk playground. We have one in Minneapolis, patterned after this one in Copenhagen, but I marveled at the number of children playing here under the direction of one young woman. She told me that the children are taught the use of tools very carefully before they are allowed to use them, and that nearly all children wanted first to build a house. There are old boats, old motor cars, old bicycles, every kind of scrap that a child could want to play with in this enclosed playground, and it seems to be a most useful educational project.”

Today there are more than 1,000 junk playgrounds in Europe. They are also popular in Japan. The Minneapolis playground that Eleanor Roosevelt referred to is The Yard, which opened in 1949 and was America’s first. Wikipedia lists nine in the U.S., five of which are in California.

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4 Responses to From the Junkyard to the Playground

  1. Kelly MacKay says:

    yikes looks like a splinter fest

    Liked by 1 person

  2. retrosimba says:

    Marvelous read about a marvelous concept. How joyful and wonderful for children to be given the chance to use their creativity and imaginations to turn junk into something useful. If only that concept that could carry over to more adults…….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never heard of these, but it does look like an injury waiting to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Donna Janke says:

    I’ve never heard of these. Looking at the picture of the playground in Leipzig, I see all kinds of accidents waiting to happen. But on the other hand, I know my 7-year-old grandson would think it was the coolest thing and have a grand time.

    Liked by 1 person

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