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Forts, Fun, Filth for Suburbia's Huck Finns

July 21, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

In parts of the universe where children routinely wear Ralph Lauren clothes, speak without contractions and prefer croissants to Big Macs, there are surely no Adventure Playgrounds.

In our corner of the cosmos, however, where the attraction of kids to dirt is a precept of physical law, the Adventure Playground is every child's natural habitat. It's a kind of grimy candy store, a shrine to play in some of its purest forms.

There are two Adventure Playgrounds in Orange County, in Huntington Beach and Irvine, and both owe their existence to World War II. Following the German occupation in Europe, T.C. Sorensen, a Danish landscape architect, noticed that the parks and playgrounds he and others were designing and building in the bombed-out areas of cities were not attracting children. Instead, he found, the kids preferred to invent their games in the still-existing rubble heaps, happily playing among the broken timbers, wrecked plumbing and piles of stones.

Sorensen took the hint and came up with the idea of a playground where children could be as free and inventive as they were in the bomb wreckage, a place that recognized children's natural instincts to improvise with anything handy, as well as their delight in experimenting in dirt.

Orange County's Adventure Playgrounds are modern versions of Sorensen's invention, places where Tom Sawyer would have been perfectly content. In fact, Bob Werth, the senior recreation supervisor in charge of the Huntington Beach Adventure Playground, called it "a kind of Huckleberry Finn experience."

"Too many things for kids are really structured. It used to be that when you were a kid and you wanted to play outdoors, you could hike out to a vacant lot and play with whatever was there. But those opportunities are becoming more and more limited."

Not that the Adventure Playground is exactly vacant. At Huntington Beach, there is a small, shallow pond on which children can pole their way along on tiny wooden rafts, a kind of pulley-and-cable slide in which the kids slide down a cable while hanging from an old tire, climbing nets and a rope bridge and a plastic-lined water slide and a mud pit for use in games of tug of war--or simply for jumping in.

At the Irvine playground, the mud pits are scheduled to be replaced by an area featuring rope and net-climbing apparatus, but otherwise the main attraction is the same as at Huntington Beach.

That attraction is wood--specifically, wood with which to build the types of forts that were so dear to the European children of the 1940s. At both the Irvine and Huntington Beach playgrounds, wood donated by builders and others is made available to children, who can band together to plan and build a "fort."

The playgrounds provide nails, hammers, saws and supervision, but the design and construction is entirely up to the children.

At Irvine, the children must submit a rough design before starting, to ensure that the structure will hold together when finished, said community services leader Karen Pocock. If the playground staff finds defects after construction has begun, they present the builders with a "notice to fix." Children must also pass a short building safety course offered each morning.

About a half-dozen such forts are under construction at any one time. At Irvine, said Pocock, the forts are generally left standing until the end of the summer. At Huntington Beach, the same rule applies, but Werth said if the builders abandon their fort for three consecutive days, "it's fair game."

Werth said the Huntington Beach playground, which opened in 1974, was the first of its kind in the United States. The Irvine playground opened two years later, closed in 1984 and reopened this year.

"It's not structured at all," Werth said, "and that scares a lot of cities away from the idea. They say, 'Hammers? Nails? Wood? Water?'

"But we've had no major injuries here in the 10 years I've been here. Although sometimes kids will come out of here just head to toe in mud. They love it."


Where: Huntington Beach--Off Talbert Avenue just east of Golden West Street, behind Huntington Central Park library. Irvine--1 Beech Tree Lane, just north of University Drive.

Hours: Huntington Beach--10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Open from mid-June through the end of August. Irvine--10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mon.-Fri. Open year-round.

Admission: Huntington Beach--$1. Irvine--Free.

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