Savage Park, A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans who are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die explores the dangers of America’s obsession with safety and discovers that the desire for a risk-free life to insulate from pain also insulates from real joy. Part memoir and part manifesto, the book was written by Amy Fusselman and was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015. Amy is also the author of The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, has written a parenting column, and has had other writings appear in several magazines, including New York Times Magazine, Ms., Hairpin, and ARTnews.
Living in New York City, Amy’s world is surprisingly challenged by her friend Yelena who invited her and her family for an extended visit to her home in Japan. Amy sees her friend as one who is a bit eccentric, who sees life very differently than she does, and who is at home wherever she finds herself. This causes Amy to rethink how she perceives the spaces she inhabits, and she realizes that rather than focusing on people and things as she passes through life, she should stop to appreciate the spaces and be present in the moment. This experiment in broadening her view was aided by the fact that everyone around her spoke a language that she could not understand while in Japan, which helped her focus on experiencing her surroundings in a new light.
Amy’s concept of safety for children was greatly challenged by the playgrounds of Japan. As a reference to her experience with how children are allowed to play in America, Amy gives an illustration of the heightened extent for safety measures at a swimming camp in New York City. The pool had eight lifeguards seated around the pool with each assigned to watch a group of six to eight children while another eight lifeguards were paired with them who were in the water as teachers. There were also sixteen helpers who were in the pool assigned to watch the children. The children were then paired with their assigned buddy and counted before entering the pool.
Yelena introduced the fantastic playgrounds of Tokyo first going to what she called the Junk Playground. Haginaka Park was filled with old vehicles and equipment for the children to climb on and pretend play in whatever way they wished. An old steam engine, a bulldozer, a fire truck, a backhoe, a steamroller, boats and discarded tires kept the children engaged for hours. The playground did not have the safety surfacing and sterile environment that risk-free Americans have deemed necessary for their children’s safety.
After visiting several other play areas, the park they called Savage Park, Hanegi Playpark, was the most astounding to Amy. Filled with makeshift structures, open fires, ropes, scraps of wood, paint, and tools, children were engaged in making structures, climbing trees, leaping onto a pile of old mattresses, and playing with the fires. Their unstructured free play in this adventure playground was infectious, and it caused Amy to investigate people’s fear of risky situations and death and how it squashed children’s play and creativity.
She discovered from reading Roger Caillois’ book, Man, Play, and Games, that play is defined as free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and make-believe. Further study lead her to believe that play is not something that we do; it is something that we are; that play is ultimately less of a what and more of a how. Adults generally think of play as an activity for children or for them when not at work. She came to the conclusion that living playfully throughout life is the most courageous, generous, and fully human way to live life.
Months after her initial trip to Japan, Amy contacted the head playworker at Hanegi Playpark and arranged to spend a week with her shadowing her work with the children. Noriko worked from morning until often late at night at the park with her job description appearing to be along the lines of social worker, handyman, diplomat, nurse, and groundskeeper. Her role tended to be more like a gardener ensuring that everything and everyone are nurtured together in a continual, low-key way.
Hanegi Playpark was founded in 1975 and modeled after the first adventure playground created by landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen in Emdrup, Copenhagen, Denmark in 1943. The town was under German occupation at the time, and a vacant lot was filled with scrap materials, tools, and a single adult supervisor. The adventure playground concept expanded to Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s because of a playground advocate, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, who had seen the playground in Copenhagen. The adventure playground movement grew to approximately 1,000 adventure playgrounds in Europe.
The playground movement in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s expanded with the work of the Playground Association of America, but had a brief decline during the Great Depression and World War II. As safety issues became important and commercial playgrounds were forced to adhere to strict safety standards, Lady Allen of Hurtwood remarked in 1965 after touring American playgrounds that they were “an administrator’s heaven and a child’s hell.”
America’s first and still-operating adventure playground, Berkeley Marina Adventure Park, was opened in 1979. Berkeley Marina is intended primarily for children seven and older, and every child who enters must have his parent sign a liability waiver for any injuries that might occur there. In contrast, Hanegi Playpark simply posts a sign at one entrance to “play freely at your own risk.” Another difference is that Hanegi invites people of all ages to enjoy the park, which enriches the experience of children with multi-generational play.
While spending the week with Noriko, Amy was also introduced to the concept of pop-up adventure playgrounds. With a group of volunteers they traveled to a run-down park where they used a few loose parts, ropes, and cut logs to create the opportunity for the children who came to use in any way they imagined.
Amy came to the conclusion that making a play environment too safe actually makes children less safe. She implores Americans to consider “allowing babies, children, and young adults to spend as much time as possible with the lowest interference in the highest-quality environment we can provide for them – that is, an environment that we have not engineered ourselves and do not completely control, an environment we don’t fully understand”1 as the most beneficial for children.
Trying to counteract America’s excessive fear of danger, Amy asks for a reasonable view of risk. “Above all, do not hurt the child, of course. But also, do not deny the possibility that your child may be hurt beyond your ability to make her better and finally do not do the opposite of denying the possibility, which is being obsessed with it. There has to be some middle ground.” She goes on to suggest that “the idea that we and our children are never really safe is hard to live with. But we also don’t have to live with the opposite idea that we are always unsafe.”2