On a trip to Japan’s Hanegi Playpark, or “Savage Park,” Amy Fusselman found herself surrounded by “structures that looked like what remained when my sons decided to build an airport out of Legos and then abandoned the project halfway through.” She reflects on the history of such free-wheeling “adventure parks”:
A very good resource for someone who is interested in going to a playpark and picking up a hammer and nails and pounding away at scraps of crap to make something is the work of the 19th-century British writer John Ruskin. In Ruskin’s On Art andLife, a contemporary repackaging of two of his essays, “The Nature of Gothic” and “The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art, and Policy,” he offers a moving plea for allowing men—in particular, the men who built the Gothic cathedrals of the age—to be, as he says, “fully men” and not mere tools of the architect; to be allowed to use their imaginations in their work, to be allowed to make mistakes.
Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try and do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: But out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him. And whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.
In this, written more than a 150 years ago, he articulated why my modern-day love of Savage Park was so immediate. It wasn’t just that the children were flying in the air there, it wasn’t just that they were making insanely great structures, it wasn’t just that the playpark hut was a junk lover’s dream. It was because the place existed at all for just this reason: the full and complete allowance of a self, including all the ineptness, failure, and possibility of death—because it is understood that only with this allowance do we have the capacity to be great.
(Photo of Hanegi Park’s “Play at your own risk” area by Driscoll Reid & Bonnie McElfresh)