A History of ELHAP and Adventure Play     Related Information  

A New Way of Thinking

There are many factors that led to the birth of adventure play, but none so important as the psychological theories of childhood emerging in the 1930's. These new ideas about childhood and play entered the mainstream culture and began to affect politics, town planning and child care practices. Within this climate of innovation Carl Theodor Sørensen (a landscape designer) and Hans Dragehjelm (a school teacher) created their Family and Children's Park proposal. For several years both men had been interested in designing and building appropriate play spaces for the children of Copenhagen.

The Junk Playground

Sørensen and Dragehjelm thought that natural play was the ideal play and worked best in natural and rural surroundings. Sørensen was not an opponent of playground equipment, but he wanted it limited to see-saws, swings and sand-boxes. He had long observed that the children in his area were attracted to playing on construction sites and not on the conventional playgrounds. They appeared excited by the endless possibilities that the construction site offered them in creating their own adventures. In a journal article in 1935 Sørensen wrote:

"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 closed 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..."

Emdrup: An unimaginable assortment of things

Sørensen's junk playground eventually became the first ever adventure playground in the deprived area of Emdrup, Copenhagen. It was opened in August 1943 as part of a housing project with 719 large-family households and was an immediate success. 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.

The Urge to Be Adventurous

The first playleader of the Emdrup playground John Bertelsen wrote in an article in 1946 stating:

"The adventure playground is an attempt to give the city child a substitute for the play and development potential it has lost as the city has become a place where there is no space for the child's imagination and play. Access to all building sites is forbidden to unauthorized persons, there are no trees where the children can climb and play Tarzan. The railway station grounds and the common, where they used to be able to fight great battles and have strange adventures, do not exist any more. No! It is now not easy to be a child in the city when you feel the urge to be a caveman or a bushman".

Lady Allen of Hurtwood visits Emdrup

Lady Allen was a landscape architect and Chair of the Nursery Schools Association. She was someone who cared passionately about children and in March 1946 she visited the Emdrup playground. Lady Allen was greatly impressed by this democratic community where children's freedom was limited only by their feeling of responsibility, by the atmosphere of the place and by the care they took of other children. On her return to England she campaigned for a similar kind of project and in 1948 Britain's first junk playground was established in Camberwell, London.

Drummond Abernethy, pioneer of British Adventure Play

In 1948 Drummond Abernethy was secretary of the National Playing Fields Association Playground Committee. Drummond's energy and vision led to the establishment of other projects and played a significant role in refining Sørenson's ideas into adventure play. The name change from junk to adventure play was designed to create a more positive public image but it also marked Drummond's extension of the original philosophy. Drummond and Lady Allen together are widely viewed as the two most important figures in the development of adventure play in Britain.

Limited Resources

These early playgrounds tended to be run with extremely limited resources and to be short lived due to lack of funds, loss of site or lack of local support. Lessons were learnt and the London Adventure Playground Association (LAPA) was established. Eventually a number of playgrounds were set up on permanent sites with adequate funding. This funding was increasingly provided by the local authorities, who had come to recognize the value of such facilities. By 1973 sixty one playgrounds had been set up across the country.

An Important Group

Despite these remarkable developments adventure playgrounds were still failing to meet the needs of one important group of children -  those with disabilities. To fill this gap, a number of holiday schemes were set up in conjunction with the Cheyne Centre in Chelsea. The success of this venture fuelled enthusiasm for an adventure playground where children with disabilities could learn through free play. In February 1970 the Handicapped Adventure Playground Association (HAPA) opened its first playground in Chelsea. HAPA opened a further 5 adventure playgrounds across North, West and South London. In the 1990’s, HAPA changed its name to KidsActive and more recently merged with another charity KIDS.

1975: ELHAP is born 

Whilst working with local playgroups, Mrs Diana Casswell first had the idea that certain children she was working with would benefit from adventure play. From this idea Diana Casswell, along with her husband Reverend Peter Casswell, set about starting the first adventure playground for children with disabilities outside of inner London. From the beginning, a group of committed and experienced people joined the management committee to see the creation of ELHAP. The first major hurdle was to find a suitable site for an adventure playground and by September 1976 negotiations had been completed with the charity Barnardo's for use of this site. Work to adapt it began immediately. A workable area had to be fenced off, structures and play facilities built and pathways laid. Indoor adaptations also had to be made including additional toilet accommodation together with provision for wet weather activities. In the summer of 1977 ELHAP opened, being well used from the start and as facilities and awareness grew the playground became increasingly popular. Within a short time of opening demand was such that a timetable of use had to be created to allow all the users to regularly visit. Without the dedication and determination of the Casswells and the other founding members, ELHAP could never have existed.

ELHAP Thrives

From its first days ELHAP was fortunate in having the support of Drummond Abernethy. Drummond lived locally in Loughton and always had a particularly keen interest in ELHAP. Upon his retirement from the National Playing Fields Association in 1978 Drummond became chairman of ELHAP. This was a position he retained until ill health forced him to stand down in 1986, although he remained on the executive committee until his death. A large part of ELHAP's success is attributed to Drummond. Under his guidance ELHAP developed into a thriving playground and its unique experiences have now been enjoyed by many thousands of children with disabilities.

Since 1977 ELHAP has offered adventure play opportunities to children and young people with disabilities from the local area. It remains one of only seven specialist playgrounds in the South East of England, but is regarded by its supporters as the most unique and magical of all the adventure playgrounds. Drummond Abernethy, with his wealth of adventure play experience, used to describe ELHAP as the "very best adventure playground for children with special needs".

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