Pedagogues and developmental psychologists point out that “forbidden spaces” like abandoned industrial land are playing sites preferred by children (e. g. Nolda 1990; Gebhard 1994). They argue that these areas are as fascinating for children today as rubble sites were for post-war children. This “no man’s land” represents a “playable environment” (Bochnig and Mayer 1989) and is relatively close to nature.
This study confirms that the numerous structures on industrial fallow land attract many children and young people and stimulate them to different uses (Table 1). Obviously, wild urban woodlands meet a child’s need for free, uncontrolled activities and for environments that may be adapted through play.
What do children do in these areas? The normal outside children’s games such as ball-catching, hiding, and building tree houses were all observed, but most of the games were specially developed by the children in response to the structure of the area. For example, the games of two ten – year-old boys whom the author met on different sites within the area one afternoon included:
• Climbing the bunker at the east dump
• Repeatedly climbing the east dump and sliding down the slope with cries ofjoy and pain (“Ouch, seems like Formula 1 here…”)
• Catching butterflies and grasshoppers in the meadows
• Racing chariots with old found pushcarts
• Playing with fire on broken-off branches at the east dump
• Exploring the old fire-brigade building
Table 1. Activities in the “Industriewald Rheinelbe” (results of 120 hours of observations and mappings over 24 days carried out in Gelsenkirchen in the summer of 1997)
These areas give children a feeling of free movement. They can enjoy their needs without the control and influence of adults. They experience “wildlife” and adventure and feel relatively safe at the same time. Both the freedom of movement and the lack of control are the decisive criteria of these areas for children. Normally they are not aware of the nature that contributes a lot to this wild atmosphere. However, during the games there is unintentional but intense contact and adventure with nature which would not be possible at all, or would be rare at other places in the town. These findings suggest that these areas contribute to the physical and psychological development of children and young people in a positive way.
The use of these areas by children was viewed positively by the adults as well. One of the interviewees, a resident in the vicinity of the Land – schaftspark Duisburg-Nord, recalls, misty-eyed, his own childhood:
“They can play and live there in a way which is scarcely possible today. When I think back to my childhood, I remember that there were open spaces close to every residential area where we could romp about, playing all kinds of scouting games like cops and robbers, Indians or the like.”
However, in the further course of the interview, the worried father also commented critically on possible dangers.
Previous studies have shown, however, that there are no dangerous risks to children or others from waste on the former industrial areas developed as the IBA Emscher Park. Where necessary, restoration measures were taken. However, dangers potentially arising from the wild and uncontrolled character of the areas should not be removed as this free and rough character allows children to independently adapt and change the areas. Here, urban children can learn to estimate risks and calculate them properly. It should be mentioned that traffic, which is the biggest source of danger for urban children, does not exist in these areas.
In summary, the following thesis for children can be proposed: abandoned industrial land and woodlands in the urban fringe are important inner-urban adventure sites for children. They often have the characteristics and potential of places for experiencing nature (see also Frey 1993; Reidl et al. 2003).