Tag Archives: free play

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.


Problem Solving at the Adventure Playground

In a separate post, I told all about the Adventure Playground on Mercer Island. In this post, I want to share a few stories from our trip there to illustrate some of the learning opportunities it presents.

Responsibility for Others

We visited with our son, who is five. He saw this slide in the distance.


He immediately ran over to play on it. There was an older boy there – maybe 10 – 12. He warned my son – “be careful, it’s not stable.”

The boy had started to remove the nails that were supporting the slide, because his family wanted to move it over to a more stable platform that they were working on.


My son was very sad about not being able to use the slide. The older boy told him he’d fix it – he pounded back in the nails he had just pulled so my son could use the slide. I told my son I wasn’t sure it was safe, because the bottom of the slide was propped precariously on a couple boards, with some loose boards just beyond the slide. I asked him to slow himself down on the first time down the slide, and once we knew it was reasonably stable, we cleared away the loose wood, and let him take 3 full speed slides, then we moved on so they boy could return to his work of re-locating the slide.

I thought this was a great example of a tween who was paying attention to and looking out for younger children. He knew that with the joy of risky play that the playground offers, we also have responsibility to keep others safe. And he knew that in a communal space, sometimes you change or pause your plan to make sure other kids are having fun too.

Risk Assessment

At a typical playground with mass produced equipment, it’s all been carefully designed and tested to be as safe as possible. That’s not the case at the adventure playground! This stuff was all knocked together by kids! It was a good opportunity for my 5 year old to learn how to watch out for hidden dangers: he learned to test for wobbly boards before going onto a platform, to be careful to stay in the center of high platforms without railings, and to look for protruding nails before going under something (note the third picture below, which has a random cluster of nails poking down in the middle of a board, for no real reason… this is at about head height for an adult.)


My son found one “balance beam” catwalk he really wanted to cross. It was about 6 – 8 inches wide, which would normally be easy for him. But it was also 5 feet up in the air. He was wise enough to realize this was not a good thing for him to attempt.

no rail

Problem-Solving / Engineering

My son wanted to make the “bridge” wider so it was safer to cross. But, we looked at the support platforms at each end, and there was just no way to make it work.

I suggested a hand rail, which he could use to stabilize himself, and he liked that idea. But this was a long span (8 feet?). We searched around and realized it was longer than any of the planks that were available. We thought about a rope handrail, but didn’t think it would provide enough stability. Then we looked around on the ground and found a really long branch. Perfect!

My husband, my son and I worked together to lift the branch up high. We were able to brace it in multiple places on tree branches. Then we scavenged for some ropes to tie it in place.


Then, my husband tested it, then made some minor adjustments, and then my son got his chance to cross the bridge – it’s a success!


This was a fabulous example of the engineering process in action: find a problem, brainstorm solutions, test available materials, build a prototype, test it, refine it – the problem is solved! My son learned a lot in the process, and was very satisfied with the results. The idea that he could help build something big and real that other kids could use was very empowering to him.

Taking Ideas and Improving Them

We walked around and played on other people’s structures for a while, and my son found this swing:

floppy swing

He is a huge swing fan, so couldn’t wait to try it. But it was a big disappointment. Instead of hanging flat, it tended to tilt up to 45 degrees forward and basically dump you off of it. It also didn’t have much of a swing radius.

We decided to build our own swing. We went back to the platform where we’d added the handrail. The handrail branch was so long that about 3 – 4 feet of it hung off over the end of the platform, at the perfect location and height for a swing support!

But, we’d installed it with the skinny end of the branch at that end. So, we uninstalled our handrail, flipped it over (tricky to do with a branch that must have been 15 feet long or more) and re-installed it with the fat end hanging over the end.

We found rope and a board for the seat, and started to build a swing. The board had four nails pounded through it, near each of the four corners – I started to take them out, but then realized that we could use them to stabilize the swing. So, as I tied the rope around the board, I poked the nails through it, then pounded them down to hold them in place.

board nails

Stringing the swing up was a little tricky, because we didn’t have any scissors, knife, or anything to cut the rope with, so it had to be one continuous loop. Once it was installed, again, my husband tested first, figuring if the swing could hold his weight, it was safe for kids. The branch support wobbled back and forth a bit as he swung, so we found some straps to tie it down better, then my son got to test it. Another building success!

swing installation  swing test

Because my son is such a huge fan of swings, he was so excited that we had built a swing together! He shouted to the kids who were working nearby to look at it. He ran over to some other kids to invite them to come try it out. But they were busy working and didn’t come, so he came back and tested it more. A grandma who was supervising those kids came over and checked it out and shared my son’s excitement with his creation.

Competence and Empowerment

We saw similar excitement throughout the adventure playground, and lots of kids who were glowing with the empowered satisfaction of having BUILT SOMETHING.


Modern American kids don’t get a lot of experience with making real things, although they may do virtual building in Minecraft for hours.

These kids all built real structures that they could climb on and play on, and they felt competent, powerful, creative, bold. That sense of accomplishment is the best thing about the adventure playground, I think. And it’s something they carry out of the playground to increase their confidence at taking on other tasks.