As soon as I opened the ‘Adventure Play’ folder of the Elouise Edwards photograph collection I knew I wanted to write about these pictures. Although the folder also included photos of children horse riding, ice skating, river-wading and bouncy castle-jumping, the photos of the adventure playgrounds are what had me hooked. I have so many questions! Who built them? Where were they? Were they safe? Did that even matter?
The photos show enormous wooden and metal structures, usually near a large housing block or in large empty space, with children leaping, hanging and balancing on the various platforms, slides, planks and ropes – smiling for the camera as they go. It struck me just how different playtime was for children in the 70s than it is today – not a screen in sight (just dizzying heights and a couple of splinters instead).
After doing some research, I have found out that Manchester’s first adventure playground was built in Moss Side in 1969, followed by more in the 1970s in Hulme, Longsight, Wythenshawe and Cheetham Hill. The playgrounds were closely connected to youth clubs and family advice centres, which meant they became popular places for local children to meet up and have fun. From the looks of the photos they were consistently makeshift, made from building materials such as timber, scaffolding and tyres. There are a couple of shots that even show the kids adding their own improvements. In 1973 the efforts of all these communities came together to form the Manchester Adventure Playground Association. This remained a registered charity until 1998, working to improve the ‘physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing’ of children in Manchester.
Another thing this collection of photographs showed me was that when the playing came to an end, the protesting began. Due to the chaotic nature of these playgrounds and the makeshift style of their construction, many were deemed too dangerous by the council and were closed down. Protests followed, which are captured fantastically in these photos. The most-photographed protest took place on Oxford Road, which I recognised immediately as a regular cyclist down that very route.
The children’s homemade signs feature slogans such as ‘Hands off our playground’ and ‘Where do the kids play now?’ Many are directed at ‘Mr Bee’, who I have been told was an important member of Manchester city council at the time, presumably with the power to reopen the playgrounds. Even more helpfully, the placards gave me a clue to the date of these photographs, as one sign states ‘Is this too much to ask in the International Year of the Child?’ which was declared to be 1979 by UNESCO. I can’t disagree that the playgrounds look dangerous, but having seen the sheer amount of children taking part in the protests that followed the closure of them, I do feel that closing them wasn’t the right thing to do. Perhaps just a few hand rails would have done the job?
I was glad to find out that support for adventure play in Manchester still exists, but something tells me that the council-approved playgrounds of today will involve somewhat less wild, reckless fun than those of the 70s. If anyone has any memories of these playgrounds or the protests that followed their closure we would love to hear from you!