MACOMB — A new kind of playground is popping up in Glenwood Park this morning from 9 a.m. to noon.
The Macomb Park District is inviting children to explore a child-driven play experience involving cast-off objects one might find in a junkyard or vacant lot. Available playthings include things like old car seats, large cable spools, non-toxic paint, lumber and more. Another notable aspect of the experience: adults are there to ensure safety, but otherwise do not intervene or give advice.
The Movement-Inspired Life Learning Pop-up Playgrounds, or adventure parks as they are commonly known elsewhere, came into existence in Europe after World War II. Children were discovered playing in the bombed-out rubble of their neighborhoods, using whatever objects were left to fuel their imaginative play after their own playgrounds had been destroyed.
Neil Armstrong, superintendent of support services at the park district, recently saw one of these adventure playgrounds in action in the Champaign-Urbana area as he researched the project.
“It’s a pretty cool concept. To watch it live was amazing,” he said.
According to recent media reports on adventure playgrounds, proponents and some childhood development experts say the unstructured play, without the direct involvement of adults, does a better job at helping kids play – and learn – than the familiar, safe environment of traditional playgrounds.
“Kids on a regular playground have a good time, but when their adventure playground came out, the kids were problem-solving, focused,” he said.
Children make the rules of the playground; plan their projects; organize and coordinate their efforts, and more. Left to their own devices, children will build things as elaborate as pirate ships and forts; then tear them down to create something new, Armstrong said. The efforts help develop teamwork.
“I think they’re learning without really learning,” he said.
He believes some things get lost with the safety and structure of a traditional playground.
“We’ve gotten safer, but we’ve forgotten how to play,” he said.
He added that playground safety regulations can become onerous. Referring to one of the manuals he encountered in his line of work, he said, “We have built our playgrounds to regulations. How much thread exposure you can have on a bolt – that’s how detailed it is.”
Armstrong said he and the winter intern at the district were tasked with checking into liability issues for the unusual playground. He said that although the risk is technically higher than traditional playgrounds, actual rates of injury are not. He said he believes this is because children confronted with real materials slow down, think about the risks more, and take greater precautions to avoid injury. He noticed this behavior while watching children in action at the Champaign playground.
“Whether they realize it or not, they slow down. They’re processing information, and learning,” he said.
If this first MILL playground experience turns out well, the district hopes to see it continue through the summer and beyond. Armstrong and other facilitators plan to get feedback from the participants, evaluate what worked well and what didn’t and retool the next experience.
In any case, the kids are in charge, he said.
“They’re going to be the owner-operators of these playgrounds. They’re going to drive it.”

Reach Michelle Langhout by email at mlanghout@mcdonoughvoice.com or find her on Facebook.