Ed.’s note – Earlier this fall, PlayGroundology got a note from Kenn Munk about a temporary play space in Aarhus, Denmark. ‘The Wildness’ opened over the fall school break and was free for all who wanted to attend. The project, part of a ‘secret club‘ for kids that has been in existence for the past 10 years, was supported by Aarhus’ Børnekulturhuset, or Children’s Culture House. What follows is Kenn’s lightly edited description of ‘The Wildness’.
Setting sail for adventure in Aarhus’ Vildskaben
The playground was inspired by the original 1940s junk playgrounds in Denmark and Great Britain, but with a few twists added. In a secret club, we treat play as an art form, so our take on the junk/adventure playground would be a bit different – we never want to paint a picture that has already been painted, to stick to the art analogy. Our adventure playground was called ‘The Wildness’. (Vildskaben in Danish – with the added bonus that ‘skaben‘ can be interpreted as ‘creation’).
In our work, we often subtly hint at a story that participants then can take in any direction they want. Annabelle Nielsen and I see ourselves as artists. We are self-employed and the ‘secret club’ is our full time job. In this project, we combined the practicalities of telling people about the risks and hazards of the play space with inviting them into a magical place using a grey-clad masked guard.
The guard told them the basics they needed to know and also helped them decide on their mystic sign. This sign would be their name in Vildskaben. They would paint it on the fence around the playground. It was the first thing they did. Once the signs were created and they had familiarized themselves with some tools and materials, they could do whatever they wanted.
With all its dangers and wonders, campfire smell, old furniture and half-rotten pallets and logs, we (the adults) had envisioned The Wildness as ‘a shanty-town of magic users’. It was the story we were hinting at. We never told the participants about this vision, but they picked it up naturally from the visual clues, like the mystic symbols, and the actual magic of the camera obscura we had made from a small hut hidden in the back.
We learned how important it was to spend time on roofs and that people are perfectly capable of not getting hurt.
Once inside, the kids could pick up tools and supplies from the tool shed. Building materials were also around this area. At the tool shed, there was also additional information about how everyone was allowed to change what others had built, unless it had been marked with a black cross. A black cross meant that the builder had plans to return and continue building. The ‘black cross’ idea was abandoned as the playground equivalent of an edit war was more interesting. The tool shed was also the place were they could claim prizes from hidden tickets they would find around the area.
The grounds used to belong to the scouts, and when we went through the piles of wood, we found treasure upon treasure – oddly shaped pieces of wood and even a small cast-iron oven was found under the wood pile. The place overflowed with serendipity. We often take inspiration from psychogeography and hauntology and the grounds very much inspired the project. This wasn’t place-making, this was working with the cues the place gave us such as the found oven.
Families really took to ‘The Wildness’ and it was free for anyone to use. Some kids and families came back two or three times over the week. We only saw people whip out their phones to take pictures.
Some of the materials were already there. The rest we scavenged from the streets. We often work with found materials, not just for environmental reasons, but mostly because these things come with a history that will inform what you will be doing with them. It’s strange that old furniture, building materials and such are seen as a problem rather than as a resource.
We made it clear that destruction was allowed, kids enjoyed prying off boards from the fence. The destructive aspect of making was very, very important to us. There was no need for insurance.
We didn’t need insurance, the guard made people take responsibility for their own lives by making them sign a form – this was right before he asked them to throw wet blobs of toilet paper at a target…
The space is now closed and is slated to be turned into a park. We hope to be able to let it all grow over and fall apart for a few months and then briefly re-open in spring.
Art and play are frequent companions. Another great Danish example is Copenhagen’s Amager Ark.
Do you have a favourite play experience or play setting you’d like to share? Get in touch with PlayGroundology through the Contact page. We’d love to hear from you.