Noe Valley Voice June 2002

Family Adventures: Looking for Mr. Dangerous At the Berkeley Adventure Playground

By Janis Cooke Newman

The Berkeley Adventure Playground isn't so much a park as a hippie commune populated by an industrious collective of people under four feet tall. The moment my son Alex and I pass through the gate of this bayside playground, we're surrounded by the hammering of kids nailing together the sides and tops of enough wooden shacks to house an entire utopian community.

Near a homemade picnic table, a little girl with a sun hat floating atop her Afro is drawing a peace sign on the side of a ramshackle clubhouse. Beside a makeshift bench, a boy in a tie-dyed T-shirt is painting the front of a lopsided fort a psychedelic mix of lavender and blue. Everywhere we look, kids with hammers and paint are busy creating their version of the ideal playground.

The Berkeley Adventure Playground features no ergonomically designed monkey bars, no safety-tested climbing structures. Instead, it's filled with drunken docks, staircases that lead nowhere, wooden platforms with splintery risers, and a true sense of anarchy--which isn't surprising in a playground that was built by kids, not lawyers.

"Grownups assemble the bones of these structures," explains Denise Brown, the playground's supervisor, "and the kids put on the skins." It's an idea that was born in the '70s, when playground designers noticed that kids would rather play in the rubble left over from building new playgrounds than in the playgrounds themselves.

"What the kids liked was being able to change their environment by building things," says Brown.

During that less-litigious decade, designers took this idea and built adventure playgrounds all over Europe and America -- playgrounds that gave kids hammers, nails, and the opportunity to alter their environment as much as they wanted. The Berkeley Adventure Playground, built in 1978, is one of the last of these kid utopias left in the U.S.

"I want a hammer," Alex tells me. "How do I get some paint?"

Like any good communal model, the Adventure Playground encourages a collective sense of responsibility. Kids get hammers and paint and nails by searching the playground and turning in either 10 nails, five wood splinters, five pieces of trash, or one Mr. Dangerous.

"What's a Mr. Dangerous?" I ask one of the playground employees, a man wearing overalls and a Vietnamese straw hat.

"This," he says, holding up a piece of wood with the sharp end of a nail sticking out of it.

Alex collects five cellophane wrappings from juice-box straws and heads off with a hammer and a can of chartreuse paint, while I wander the playground.

The Adventure Playground is not just about building things. There are also plenty of structures that are pure play: a fat-roped spider web, a climbing wall made from suspended tires, a rope bridge, a tire swing, even a 15-foot scalable piling cushioned with tires.

And then there's the Trolley, a speedy zip line that whizzes riders from a six-foot-high platform to a less-than-graceful landing in a small mountain of sand.

"You always wind up with sand in your underwear," Alex informs me.

Kids have to be at least 6 years old to ride the Trolley, but there's no upper age limit. And while I stand watching, a mom climbs onto the Trolley's wooden seat, tucks her sari demurely around her legs, and flies through the air, her gold-threaded scarf sailing out behind her.

But no matter how much time kids spend tightrope-walking across the rope bridge or pretending to be Spider-Man on the giant web, eventually they all seem to find their way to a hammer and a piece of wood.

Near the back fence, I watch a girl with a head full of braids nail what looks like a wooden pepperoni pizza above a doorway, oblivious to her grandmother turning the pages of a wig catalog behind her. Over by a patch of seaside daisies, I spot a small boy covering a wood horse with blue paint, ignoring his mother who sits on a beached boat holding his forgotten balloon.

"Look at this!" Alex is holding a nailed-together piece of wood that could qualify as a Mr. Dangerous.

"It's terrific," I say. "What is it?"

"Frankenstein's head. I'm going to paint it purple."

"The Adventure Playground is always changing," Denise Brown tells me. "We're always taking apart the old things, and the kids are always building something new. Every time you come back, it's a whole different scene."

What could be more '70s than that?

Janis Cooke Newman's memoir, The Russian Word for Snow, is available in paperback at Cover to Cover Booksellers on 24th Street.

Go Play in Berkeley

The Berkeley Adventure Playground is open Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays during the school year, and every day in the summer. Admission is free for kids with adults. For a $5 fee, parents can leave children 7 and older in the playground without an adult for up to three hours. This summer, the playground is offering special staff-supervised activities that include fishing, magic shows, sandcastle building, and of course, tie-dyeing. For more information, call 510-644-8623 or visit the web site marinaexp/adventplgd.html.

Getting There: In Berkeley, take University Avenue west into the Marina, bearing left where the road forks. The playground is at the west end of the parking lot.

Lunch: Just outside the playground are picnic tables where you can sit and watch the windsurfers flit across the bay. On your way to the playground, be sure to stop at Seabreeze Market (598 University Avenue), where they sell everything from lattés and smoothies to catfish sandwiches and steamed garlic crab.

A Bonus Adventure

In 1993, great blue herons began nesting in the trees around Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. On June 1, 8, and 15, families can join Nancy DeStefanis, director of San Francisco Nature Education, for a Saturday morning walk around the lake to visit the nests and see the baby herons.

Be at the Stow Lake boathouse by 11:30 a.m. and follow the signs to the explainer's station. If you miss the walk, you can still see the herons. DeStefanis will have a high-powered spotting scope trained on a heron nest near the boathouse from 10:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. The walk and the viewing are free.