As a medieval archaeologist, I am often exposed to child’s play as an integral part of the heritage experience of visiting museums, ancient and historic monuments, country houses, parks and gardens. It is so easy to be snobby and roll one’s eyes at this phenomenon. In addition to all manner of special events, gift shops filled with figures, toy swords, bows and arrows, Roman coins and you name it, are an integral part of visiting these sites.
Actually I celebrate play as a medium of engagement with heritage sites. I don’t see why these locations need to be quiet and play cannot take place in and around them, whether it is hide-and-seek among standing stones or clambering over ruins. I accept and support that play – on a variety of scales, involving children and adults, and involving all manner of caricatures and historically inaccurate dimensions from dragons to horned helmets – is an important part of the heritage industry and heritage experience. I see it as integral to learning and appreciating past cultures, their own past realities and past imaginations, as much as more sobre engagements with architectures and material cultures from past times.
Playing with Heritage
I confess I haven’t really thought about as much about the flip-side: how children’s playgrounds, including those disconnected from any heritage site or museum, can sometimes take quasi-historical and fantastical themes.
On reflection, I have noticed elements of this before. For example, when I visited Täby, Uppland, Sweden, I visited the fabulous rune-stones at Jarlebanke’s Bridge. Beside them in a children’s play area was a striking ‘Viking’ ship amidst other educational displays.
Likewise, many heritage sites have toys for kids to play with. Recently, my medieval sprog-army invaded Chirk Castle and ransacked the toys in the tower.
None of this comes close to a recent playground I visited at the Plassey Holiday Village near Bangor-on-Dee, Wrexham, whilst taking my kids to swimming lessons. The scale of the mock-medievalism is so extreme, it demands a post, especially as the site itself, whilst historic in other regards, has no demonstrable and investigated medieval associations for the visitor to engage with.
Check out these pictures and I challenge anyone to share any that trump this, whether they take a prehistoric, Roman, medieval or early modern theme at their core! My kids loved it incidentally, but for the activities and for the dragon by the entrance. Crucially and somewhat critically, while this is all good and fun, I don’t think any kids saw a connection between the medieval embellishments and any heritage sites they had visited.