Tag Archives: adventure playground

Adventure Playground on Mercer Island

[This is a post from 2017. Note for 2019 – the adventure playground will not be open this year, but they are offering an Adventure Playground Summer Camp!]


At Deane Children’s Park on Mercer Island (part of Island Crest Park – 5801 Island Crest Way) there’s an Adventure playground, where children are given hammers and nails, and encouraged to go build, play, explore, and discover. Here’s how Red Tricycle describes it:

an ever-changing carpentry wonderland that’s completely kid-built, poised to capture the imagination… What’s been created so far will surely inspire your lil’ builder to add her own touches or modify a current design. In fact, the organic, continually-evolving nature of this park is part of its cool-appeal. Each day the park is open, new structures pop up simply by adding, removing or connecting to the existing forts, bridges, ladders, ramps and swings.

This is a land where children build their own playground! They build tree forts, add makeshift slides and swings, and add in fun imaginative details like mailboxes and chairs. When they tire of building, they explore other structures, climbing up high on rickety bridges, ducking low into hideouts, and clambering across the hillside. It’s very fun!!!

There are lots of things I LOVE about the Adventure Playground, which I’ll share below. But, there are some definite safety risks there, and it’s not for a parent who is faint of heart. And it’s NOT appropriate for kids under 4. Be sure to read the cautions below.

When to Go

This Tuesday and Wednesday (Aug 30 & 31), they’re open 1 – 4 pm. Then they’re open on Sundays 9/11, 9/18, and 9/25 from 1 – 4 pm. Admission is free, but please donate! (JayMarc Homes is sponsoring the playground this year, but support from participants is important to showing Mercer Island parks that we appreciate this opportunity!) It can be closed for inclement weather.

What to Expect

It’s ESSENTIAL to wear good, solid, closed toe shoes with sturdy soles!! There are nails and other hazards everywhere you step. It would be best to wear long pants, probably – we were there on a high 80’s day but it’s very wooded, so it doesn’t get very hot. Bringing a water bottle would also be a good idea and many parents bring snacks.

When you arrive, the parent must sign a waiver. You’re given a copy of the rules: basically keep track of your tools, respect others, do not take down existing structures, be safe, and report injuries or emergencies. Kids 12 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

Then they check out a toolbox to your child. It contains items like a kid size hammer, a screwdriver, a level, safety glasses, nails, screws, a big pencil. and a measuring tape. Some might have a saw. You can also pick up a construction helmet. Wood scraps are scattered everywhere on the ground – you scavenge around for what you need. Occasionally there are specialty items: deck railings, bed frames, playground slides. When I went in 2015, I wished there were rope, because it really increases the building possibilities.  In 2016, we found some ropes we were able to use to make a swing.

In the future, I plan to bring an adult size hammer – sometimes we needed more leverage to pound or pull a nail than you can get with a kid size hammer. We could have also used a pocket knife to cut a rope with.


What you’ll Find

The playground opened July 5th, so at this point in the season, you’ll find lots of established structures that have been built by the kids who came before you. The photos below are from 2015 and 2016. Click on any photo for a larger view.

Some of the existing structures are quite impressive: solid, stable, serious pieces of construction:

stable1 stable2 stable3

Some are a little more rickety and haphazard.

rickety4 rickety3 rickety2 rickety1

Some kids have added warning signs, some label their creations, and some create whimsical details:

sign2 sign1

My son loves running around and exploring what’s there – just like any playground he goes to, the first things he wants to do are: climb ladders, run up ramps, slide down slides, get as high up as he can, and swing on the swing. He was having a fabulous time just playing and exploring till we got to the swing… The existing swing he found was really a disappointment – it didn’t hang straight, and didn’t swing well. So, it was time to start building! We worked together to build a swing. (See a video of the swing here.)

ramp slide high swing installation

The Inspiration

The playground is inspired by free play advocates, and advocates for the benefits of risk-taking for kids and the benefits of allowing kids to tinker and build real things with their hands and real tools. There are several adventure playgrounds in England and Europe and the trend is moving to America. Learn more about the movement here:

What Kids Learn

There is so much to be learned in this environment!!

  • Creativity. As a child plays and explores what is already there, they learn about the range of possibilities, and start creating their own vision of what they would like to see in this world, and then set about making that vision a reality.
  • Construction skills. Kids learn about hammers, nails, saws. They learn about measuring, rope tying, adding in shims to stabilize something. So many skills that they discover the need for in the moment of building.
  • Safety assessment. They learn to test their work to see if it’s stable and safe, and re-build as needed.
  • Failure and trying again in a new way. Not everything they attempt works! I was watching a mom and daughter try to fit a bed railing in between two existing uprights. It kept tipping backwards, so they added support boards behind it. But then it was tipping forwards, so they added more boards, and it still tipped, so they had to figure out how to build a better stabilizer to hold it in place.
  • Teamwork. When installing an 8 foot long plank on a 4 foot tall platform, you need help. You can’t do it alone. So, you ask for help, you explain what you’re trying to do. You work together with someone. If they have different ideas, you might need to learn some conflict resolution skills.
  • Satisfaction in a job well done. The kids had just even more fun playing here than they would in any regular playground, but beyond that, they had a whole other layer of pride, sense of competence, and boosted confidence. They all left the playground bragging about what they had created together.

Read more about what kids learn here, where I share more photos, and stories from our trip.

Safety Issues

There are definite safety issues. Many of the ramps are shaky, there are lots of high platforms without rails, and narrow wobbly bridges several feet in the air. There’s lots of potential for falls. Also, the kids are working with hammers, nails, and saws. Some have clearly gotten safety coaching. Others have clearly not.


When I was there in 2015, if my memory is correct, most of the wood was stacked up in a wood pile near the front gate. This year, the wood was randomly scattered EVERYWHERE across the site. This made it much easier to build… when you had an inspiration, you just searched the ground nearby and you’d find a board you needed, or a branch or a rope. But this means you better pay close attention when you walk! And if you fell, you’d be as likely to land on a board as on the soft ground of the woods. And most boards on the ground have nails sticking up out of them. (Remember those sturdy shoes!)

boards2 boards1 nails2

There were also LOTS of loose nails on the ground. This is what I picked up just from under the platform where we built our handrail and swing.


Another issue is that there’s LOTS of places where kids pounded a 3 – 4 inch nail through a 1 – 2 inch thick board, and that means there’s a section of nail sticking out on the other side… so watch out for protruding nails on the backs of ladders and on the bottoms of platforms.

I believe kids can stay safe there, but only if you emphasize to your child the importance of caution. An article in Seattle’s Child says that there have been few injuries, and most of those have been adults, because the kids are being more cautious.

I certainly taught my child how to be careful there!  I let him explore, but I made sure he knew to watch the ground when he walked (no running), test to be sure something is stable before going on it, check to be sure there’s no nails poking out before you put your hand there, and so on.

I LOVE the free play aspect of this playground, but I also think that with great freedom should come great responsibility. I wish that all parents would give their kids some basic education on the way in, not just about how to move safely through the playground and how to use tools safely, but how to be responsible for keeping it safe for others. I wish they were taught to be sure their structures were as stable as possible before walking away and leaving them for other kids to play on. I wish kids were encouraged to stack all their scrap wood in tidy piles, near worksites, but not directly in the range or where someone could fall. I wish they were encouraged to pick up any nails they drop, and to also scan their worksite for any hazards before leaving for the day. I wish that when kids or parents noticed nails sticking out on the back of a handrail, they take out their hammer and quickly pound it down to keep others safe.

I’m definitely a product of a girl scout / boy scout childhood, and have firmly engrained the idea of “leave the site cleaner than you found it.” I feel the users of the playground could use that message, though maybe here it’s “leave the playground safer than you found it.”

Age Guidelines

I personally would not take any child under the age of four here. I think it would be hard to keep them safe. If you have a little one, it’s much better to stick to the traditional safety-tested playground and Deane park has four fabulous play areas not counting the adventure playground! (Read my full review here.)

I took my son last year when he was four. (And I should note, we spend LOTS of time at playgrounds and hiking outdoors and climbing rocks and climbing trees, so he has a lot of physical skills and learned caution from those environments.) I kept a very close eye on him the whole time as he played, and actively educated him about how to stay safe and we didn’t attempt to build anything because I didn’t want to get distracted. We did carry a hammer around with us, and did pound in some loose nails we found.

This year, he’s five, and my husband came too, so we had two sets of eyes to make sure he was safe. So, this year we were able to balance building and supervising him. But I didn’t really have any “sit down and relax” time.

We observed other parents and grandparents with a range of ages, and definitely the 6 – 9 year olds had an adult working closely with them. For the 10-12 year olds, a few parents would sit on a log and read while keeping a vague eye on the kids and calling out suggestions. There weren’t any kids there alone that I noticed, but 12 and ups are allowed to be there without an adult.

If you’d like a building adventure, check it out soon! They’ll dismantle this year’s constructions on September 25th.


Letting Your Child Take Risks

merryOn the one hand, it’s a parent’s job to protect a child from harm. On the other hand, children need to independently explore their world in order to understand their world. If we over-protect, we limit their ability to learn, we may teach them to be timid and fearful, and we may actually put them at greater risk. “If we round every corner, and eliminate every pokey bit, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything not made of round plastic, they’ll hurt themselves.”(Ted Talk by Gever Tulley)

If we allow them to take small, manageable risks with us there to supervise and coach them through, they learn more about life, they tend to feel bold and empowered, and they’ll have an internal sense of when a situation carries a potential risk and will know they need to be more cautious to stay safe.

Differentiating level of risk

When deciding about safety issues, what needs to be child-proofed, and what boundaries to set, think about the level of possible risk involved.

If the situation could turn from safe to life-threatening in one unsupervised moment (what I call “red light” issues), then you need to either remove the hazards (e.g. don’t leave poisonous items or guns out), block them off (e.g. fences around swimming pools, window locks that prevent the second-story window from opening all the way) or closely supervise the child at all times (e.g. if your child is playing with a ball in a park near a busy road). Rules about these sorts of situations should be clearly explained, non-negotiable and followed every time.

If the situation could cause a significant injury, that’s what I call an orange light. When a child is around these situations (like a campfire or the sharp knives in the kitchen), you model safe behavior for the child, you talk to them about the need for caution, and when the time is right, you teach them how to interact with those things safely. You do not leave your child unsupervised.

If a situation has some risk, but really the worst that can happen is minor damage to person (bump or bruise) or property (mess that needs to be cleaned up or non-valuable item broken), then consider whether this situation needs to be child-proofed or left as a low-risk learning experience.

Darel Hammond, CEO of KaBOOM! says “There’s a difference between an accident and an injury. Accidents happen – kids fall and skin their knees… And as tragic as it is in that moment, it’s through that experience that they’re learning perseverance, they’re learning determination. They dust themselves off and go try something again and they can overcome it.”

Or, as Tom Mullarkey, Chief Executive, Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said “We must try to make life as safe as necessary. Not as safe as possible.”

Learn more about levels of safety / risk and how to teach safety skills to kids here.

Kid’s Favorite Risky Behaviors

No matter what we do to safety-proof, “Kids are always going to figure out how to do the most dangerous thing they can.” (Gever Tulley) Ellen Sandseter has developed these categories of risky play that seem to especially appeal to kids in play.

  • Great heights: Climbing trees, furniture, anything else to get that “king of the mountain” thrill.
  • Rapid speeds: Swings, merry-go-rounds, slides, bikes, roller coasters. Anything fast.
  • Dangerous tools and dangerous elements: Fire, hammers, knives, guns, power tools, chemicals.
  • Rough and tumble: Wrestling, play-fighting, chasing, pushing, pinching.
  • Disappearing / getting lost: Games like peek-a-boo, then hide and seek fulfill some of this desire, but there’s also little ones trying to wander outside their boundaries, older kids staying out past curfew.

For each, the child has a sense of possible risk, and feeling just barely in control, but managing to stay in control through that challenge. This gives a thrill, and also a sense of power and competence.

Children with a more passive temperament want these risks, but if they don’t have them, they may give up. For example, if the “safe” playgrounds in the neighborhood no longer offer a thrill to an eight year old, she may just choose to stay inside and play video games for a vicarious thrill. (Some people have argued that part of the American obesity epidemic in kids is due to their parents keeping them inside where it’s safe, and them not being physically challenged when they do leave the house.)

But other kids can’t resist their inner thrill seeker. If they don’t have approved opportunities in their environment that “push these buttons” then they will find a way to make them happen. Some of their inventions may be much riskier than we would wish. (A friend told a story from his teens of how he and his friends had filled a trash bag with some flammable gas, then lit it on fire. His line was “The first time we did it, it blew all the windows out of the garage.” The women who heard this story all said incredulously “the first time?? That means you did it more than once??” The men in the group all said “Well, yeah – the windows were already gone – nothing left to damage by doing it again.”)  You may want to start thinking now about how to offer options for positive risk-taking for your child…

As a parent of a young one, think about each of these categories of risks that kids seek, and consider whether you are offering your child access to these thrills in a safe, controlled environment where you can coach them as needed to learn new skills for how to do it well. Have you let your child climb to a “great height” this week – the big slide at the playground? A good climbing tree? A steep hill on a trail? Have they experienced great speeds – riding in a bike trailer? Being pushed high on a swing? Spinning in an office chair? “Dangerous tools” at this age is about using tools they see mommy or daddy using – a metal fork instead of a soft plastic spoon? A table knife to cut a banana with? The TV remote? For rough-and-tumble, toddlers love wrestling, or holding hands between parents and being swung up high in the air, or chase games. For “getting lost”, nothing beats hide and seek. They may also like getting a long distance away from you – when you’re outdoors in a place where it’s safe to do so, give them some space.

Benefits of Risky Play

It’s easy to look at risky play and think of it as “stupid.” Why do children do risky things, even when they “know better”? (One of my favorite lines was from a group of middle school boys after an accident led to a broken arm for one: the principal asked them why they did something – “didn’t you realize someone could get hurt??” They shuffled their feet a little, looked at the wall, and eventually said “well, yeah, of course. We just didn’t think anyone would get hurt that badly.”)

There’s clearly an evolutionary benefit to play, since young animals of every species learn by playing, and often by playing in rough and tumble ways that can lead to injury. What are the benefits?

  • Learning skills they’ll need as an adult: At some point, kids need to learn to use dangerous tools.
  • Persistence / overcoming challenges: “Risk teaches children how to fail and try again, test their limits and boundaries, become resilient and acquire coping skills” (Hammond)
  • Responsibility: “Childhood is the time when children take more responsibility for themselves, for their safety and for their actions. We actually do children a dis-service by trying to eliminate risk from their lives as they grow up. It’s a good thing for children to be exposed to the possibility that things might go wrong because that’s how they learn to cope with challenges.” Tom Gill, author of No Fear.
  • Emotion regulation: It helps children “regulate fear and anger… youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their head while experiencing fear. In rough and tumble play, they may experience anger, but to continue the fun, they must overcome it.” (Gray)

Questions to Ask Yourself

If you have young children at home, you are, of course, going to safety-proof all the potentially life-threatening risks. You will, or course, teach your child safety skills that help reduce injuries.

But can you also view risk as a learning opportunity? Can you sit back and let your child experience a few bumps and bruises as they explore their world? Can you tolerate some messiness in your life, and occasional damage to your possessions if it allows your child to discover new ideas and new skills?


photo credit: xiaming via photopin cc

Recommended for more info:

Read: Risky Play – Why Children Love It and Need It, Peter Gray in Psychology Today. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201404/risky-play-why-children-love-it-and-need-it

Read: The Overprotected Kid by Hanna Rosin. The Atlantic, March 2014.
(It’s a long article. If you’d prefer to listen to an interview with the author that covers the same ground, go to www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/parents-let-kids-take-risks/)

Read: Can a Playground be too safe? By John Tierney. www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/science/19tierney.html

Watch: The Benefits of Risk in Children’s Play www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRn1a82tdHM and
Ted Talk by Gever Tulley: 5 Dangerous Things You should Let Your Kids Do. www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn_awAPYlGc

Listen to: The Land by Erin Davis: www.prx.org/pieces/100288-of-kith-and-kids#description

On Facebook, like: Play Free Movie – they post lots of great links on these topics!