Fairytale Town site in south Sacramento gives children space to play

At the Sacramento Adventure Playground, drawing on the walls and breaking things isn’t just allowed – it’s encouraged.

The new free form play space at the Maple Neighborhood Center in south Sacramento is every child’s fantasy: a cross between a junkyard and a magic kingdom where kids make the rules and grownups stay on the sidelines. It’s a project of Fairytale Town, the nonprofit behind the popular park near the Sacramento Zoo, and an effort to make playtime a little more old-school.

At the adventure playground, designed for children age 7 through 15, visitors can be creative with scrap metal, spare lumber, cardboard, paint or musical instruments. There are bicycle parts strewn across the blacktop and craft supplies in the playroom. A shipping container serves as a canvas, and a two-story “happy house” offers the foundation for a constantly evolving construction project. The mud pit is a crowd favorite.

The idea is to get children away from technology and make them use their imaginations, said Kathy Fleming, executive director for Fairytale Town. It’s a type of fun that she and other self-described play advocates say has been lost in the age of helicopter parenting and “Pokémon Go.”

She studied adventure playgrounds in Europe while plotting a local version. There are only a handful of them in the United States, including one in Berkeley.

“This is old-fashioned play, like you used to do in a vacant lot or a garage, that has sort of disappeared from neighborhoods,” she said. It’s a way to engage in that messy, dirty and sometimes risky play that they don’t really get anymore.”

The new adventure playground was built with Fairytale Town funding and a Sacramento Region Community Foundation grant, and will take about $100,000 a year to maintain and staff, Fleming said. Most of the lumber and other supplies were donated, and the group is accepting donated odds and ends from community members.

On a recent morning at the playground, which is open on Saturdays and three days after school at no charge, a group of boys collaborated to build a three-wheeled cart with help from play manager Steve Caudle, while another duo worked on affixing a length of rubber tubing to the happy house.

The play philosophy is more about the process than the product, Caudle said.

“I’m not sure what they’re doing,” he said while overseeing the happy house renovation. “I don’t think they’re sure what they’re doing. But they’re having a good time.”

Laura Delgado watched her son Angel Delgado, 8, hammer a nail into a cardboard fortress he’d started building a few days before. She has been bringing Angel to the playground every day since it opened Tuesday.

Newly arrived to south Sacramento from Texas, the two have been living in an apartment complex without much of a yard, Delgado said. The playground occupies Angel for hours, and it’s even helped him lose some weight.

“He wants to learn more and more every day,” she said. “He loves being here.”

The playground is the newest addition to the center, which grew out of the Maple Elementary School on 37th Avenue when it closed three years ago.

When the school shut down, the kids had nowhere to play and the parents had nowhere to gather, said Rachel Rios of La Familia Counseling Center, the anchor tenant on the campus. She wanted to bring programming into the neighborhood that would keep kids healthy and engaged while offering services and classes to adults.

Also on the campus is 916 Ink, a nonprofit writing group that helps children put their stories and poetry into self-published literary magazines.

“This was a hub of information for families and we didn’t want it to be abandoned,” said Rios of the school grounds. “This is what has been missing in this community.”

Martin Aguirre, who visited with Angel and Laura Delgado on Saturday, said the space isn’t a revolution in play – it’s a nod to the past.

“This is what we did as kids,” he said. “If we couldn’t find a toy to play with, we made it up. This was all we had – our parents’ junk.”

For more information about the playground, call 916-222-3831.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola