Discovery Park owners Cindy Farmer and Steve Andrews

Unstructured play without adult interference: Do the benefits outweigh the risk?

By Brittany Noble Charek

Playgrounds are great, but have you ever tried an adventure playground?

Cindy Farmer and Steve Andrews of Earth Song Farm in Lodi recently opened Discovery Park, which they describe as “an awesome unstructured playground adventure” to provide a safe learning environment that offers opportunities for children to learn cooperation, develop critical thinking and creativity, meet physical challenges and gain self-confidence.

Reflecting on the hours upon hours I spent in the woods and ravine behind my grandparent’s house with my brother and cousins in what is now the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, it dawns on me that my own children lead a much more supervised life than I did at their age.

Read more:

Then again, if my cousin or I broke a leg while venturing out a mile and a half away on the other side of a hill and across a ravine, what would we have done? If it was just the two of us, would we have split up to go get help? Would a 10-year-old girl be stuck by herself in the middle of the woods? There were no cell phones. And even if there had been, would my parents or grandparents get in trouble for child endangerment if we called 9-1-1?

When I first arrived at Discovery Park with my 4-year-old, we seemed to be the only ones there. 

The park has several different play areas: a pedal car village, a shallow pond to splash around in, a “Jammin’ Tree” with genuine and make-shift musical instruments, a mud-pie bakery, a sandbox equipped with Tonka trucks, a zipline, spinning swings, and fun little places for kids to hang out and make their own play. According to Discovery Park’s website, “Free, unstructured play is vital for children and offers an antidote to the hurried lifestyles, digital distractions and overprotective parents that can leave children few opportunities to really just be kids.”

As the mother of an incredibly active 4-year-old who sometimes doesn’t know his own strength, I was a bit nervous to just let my son loose at Discovery Park, but amazingly enough, I saw him approach each new discovery area with caution. He spent ages in the sandbox — certainly the biggest one either of us has ever seen, and he loved the pedal train. I found myself repeatedly offering to push him, but E loved that he was powering it himself, and it was a good reminder that we all need to slow down and go at our own pace sometimes.

While on the pedal train, we were approached by Ollie, a very sweet and talkative genderless wildling child who explained that this isn’t their family’s house, but they live here right now. Ollie offered to get us a hammer and nails to pound into some old two-by-fours, which I politely declined while trying to remember if E has had his tetanus shot yet. Ollie went on to demonstrate how to push a large plastic drain pipe up a hill and get in it to ride down the hill, which E enjoyed very much several times.

Right now Discovery Park has a play-at-your-own risk policy in place, but they hope to employ “Play-Rangers” to facilitate (but not interfere!) when they reopen in the spring. Parents are allowed in all sections but are encouraged to keep their distance. There are areas all over the grounds where parents can sit to talk with other parents or to read and let their children play freely, discover, problem-solve and create on their own.

“We’ve had over 500 children in just this first month,” said Andrews, referring to Discovery Park’s soft opening on Sept. 1. “It’s been good to see how the children interact with the different areas. I might change a few things over the winter.” 

He’s going to adjust plans for the yet-to-be-built pedal car village, and add more pedal trains — each that will be operated in a different way — and possibly more tracks since it’s been so popular.

What about parents who are concerned about safety? “Kids might get hurt,” said Andrews, “but kids can get hurt anywhere. Studies find that children are more likely to get hurt at a traditional playground where they see everything covered with soft padding. Here, they tend to use caution.” 

He did admit that out of the hundreds of children who visited, he knew of a girl who fell and ended up with a bloody nose.

“I don’t think it was broken,” he said, “But if it was, I’m sure Mom took care of it.”

The Devil Strip is a not-for-profit, community-owned news cooperative. We rely on your financial support to make it possible for us to provide coverage of Akron’s artists, musicians, nonprofits and small businesses. As a member, you can help shape the direction of The Devil Strip and of the city.

This idea isn’t new. During the German occupation of Copenhagen in the 1940s,  Carl Theodor Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect, noticed that children preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds that he designed. In 1931, inspired by the sight of children playing in a construction site, he imagined “a junk playground in which children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality” and created the Emdrup Junk Playground in Emdrup, Denmark. Shortly thereafter, English landscape architect and child welfare advocate Marjory Allen wrote an article about the Emdrup Adventure playground titled “Why Not Use Our Bomb Sites Like This?” in the Picture Post in 1946, which influenced a movement of pop-up adventure parks all over Europe, and eventually led to the construction of The Yard in Minneapolis in 1949, sponsored by McCall’s Magazine and the United Way. Allen went on to establish Triangle Adventure Playground in 1957, which still operates in south London, monitored by “playworkers,” similar to Discovery Park’s idea of Play Rangers.

Popular parks in the United States include Adventure Playground in Berkeley, CA, and the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone in Ithica, NY, established in 1979 and 2012, respectively.

So will I go back to Discovery Park when they reopen? Despite joking to my husband that the park reminded me of Class Action Park, an HBO documentary that I’m obsessed with which chronicles a popular (and super dangerous) New Jersey water park, yeah, I think I will — once this pandemic is under control and it’s safe for my children to go to play around other kids again. 

Discovery Park is part of Earth Song Discovery Farm, located at 7634 Lafayette Road. They are open by donation every day from 10 am – 6 pm every day except Wednesdays, and plan to continue that way until the weather gets too cold for outdoor play. Visit their website at or call them at 330-948-2672 for more information.

Brittany Noble Charek is a writer, educator, and mama bear with a lot of feelings. She no longer gets embarrassed when caught talking (or singing!) to her dogs and/or houseplants.

Photos: All provided by Brittany Nobel Charek