Amsterdam's Wild West: Nature Play at Woeste Westen
Woeste Westen is an exceptional natural ‘playscape’ a short bike journey west of Amsterdam City Centre. Natural playgrounds are not uncommon in the country however this is one of the few that has the psychical presence of an organisation to support it.
Considering the country's unique geography it is perhaps unsurprising that water features quite heavily in park. To be honest, it's the main feature. The site was once harvested for peat leaving a series of manmade waterways which have been bridged, dammed, pumped and... eh... rafted? That is, there is a water pump and a raft.
There are also any number or den building, climbing and balancing opportunities; bonfire sites; and animal habitats both natural and man made... /child made. This amazing (and it is amazing, look at the pictures) natural playscape is supported by the weekly run Adventure Club and onsite clubhouse/ parents cafe.
This place is a truly inclusive landscape offering challenges and opportunities for all ages and abilities. A series of crossing points present different challenges to span the water with varying degrees of difficulty. Rope bridges, felled trees, wobbly bridges, rafts, stepping stones and shallows ensure that the body and mind are continually tested without being forced to encounter unmanageable risks. This is a land and water-scape to invite and excite all.
The abundance of water and wildlife not only provides play value but is a soothing and calming influence. Although chaotic, Woeste Westen is peaceful and pleasant in a manner rarely achieved through other designed "Nature" playgrounds.
Our arrival coincided with the rain. We witnessed the Adventure Club dress in waterproofs building fires and making popcorn showing that this is an all weather experience.
At Woeste Westen we met founder Martin Hup a former biology and environmental education teacher.
Martin discovered this publicly owned piece of land around 8 years ago not much different from what it is now, as a playground with the raft and bridges, but it was rarely used. Although only a few minutes from the bustling city it was still in the middle of nowhere; children/families had no need to pass by and therefore it was not used.
Martin - as a self confessed adventurer, former Boy Scout and expert in environmental education but with no vision of continuing to be a teacher - saw an opportunity to exploit an underused resource to promote environmental education and facilitate outdoor play. He sought funding from the local government to install a hub with a cafe, toilets and office, to create a perimeter fence and to form the Adventure Club. He says 'This lets parents feel it is safe, they know there is usually someone here and it has a secure gate - of course it is not "safe" it is about risky play! - but the perception is different.'
Still he insists he is not a play worker, he/they programme events and are 'facilitators'. The playground, although now fenced, is still public property but without their presence - running the Adventure Club and serving "fine coffee" - no one would use it.
Martin knows his stuff, and he knows that even with Amsterdam’s abundance of playgrounds that free play is on the decline and that parents are to blame. 'They are scared of cars and the "dangerous man" that wants to harm their children. In fact, there is no more danger than in the 70's.'
Concerned, if not dismayed, by reports of schools in the Netherlands removing skipping ropes and balls from pupils due to parent complaints of injury, Martin and the Adventure Club warn that they actively seek risks in their sessions.
Many new parents and even children visiting the park show the same nerves we commonly see in our risk averse time; many concerned by how often their child might climb a tree - God forbid they should get a scratch or a bruise! In Woeste Westen you may well break a leg... But *shrugs* "so what?". Although it might surprise you to learn that with 57,000 visits per year they still haven't had any serious injuries.
Martin describes that when children visit, despite initial reservations, they are somewhat set free. They can run and explore and experience the joy of discovering nature for themselves but also they experience a certain 'Je ne sais quoi ' - in a rare moment of broken English described as like "touching their inner Neanderthal" they are wild again.