C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect, noticed that children preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds that he built. In 1931, he imagined "A junk playground in which children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality." Why not give children in the city the same chances for play as those in the country? His initial ideas started the adventure playground movement.

The first adventure playground opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1943, during World War II. In 1946, Lady Allen of Hurtwood visited Emdrup from England and was impressed with "junk playgrounds." She brought the idea to London. These "junk playgrounds" became known as "adventure playgrounds."

From then on the movement grew to provide adventure playgrounds for children with disabilities and included the formation of the Handicapped Adventure Playground Association, currently known as Kidsactive. Adventure playgrounds spread throughout Europe, particularly to Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Germany. In Switzerland, the first two playgrounds opened in 1955, and in Germany in 1967.

Currently, about 1,000 adventure playgrounds exist in Europe, largely in Denmark, Switzerland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, and in England. In Germany alone there are some 400 adventure playgrounds. Japan has a significant number of adventure playgrounds as well.

In the U.S. there are currently two adventure playgrounds, in Berkeley, California and in Huntington Beach, California. The Adventure Playground in Berkeley celebrated its 25th birthday in 2004. The adventure playground in Huntington Beach was one of the first adventure playgrounds in the U.S. and has been around since the 1970s. Up until this year there were three adventure playgrounds in Houston, Texas as well as a Houston Adventure Play Association. They closed due to a loss of funding. Many of the adventure playgrounds that existed in the U.S. closed for similar reasons, either loss of funding or loss of the lease on the land.

In 1999, Berlin hosted a worldwide conference entitled Anima21: Adventure Playgrounds and City Farms for the 21st century. The conference included workshops on working with animals, children as experts, diversity training, and local activities including felting, basket making, solar toys, wind games, creative wood work, and sound sculpture. The documentation of the conference is available online, with the link in the appendix.

Many people are working to make adventure playgrounds an available space for young people and still others have already integrated adventure play ideas into their existing playgrounds and community centers.