Natural play spaces
What is a natural play space?
Physical and creative freedom providing learning through landscapes for children
A natural play space allows children to explore their immediate world through being together and playing together in a naturalised setting: a play landscape where plants and trees provide the background for physical and creative challenges and fun.
Lack of access to wilder places and a generation of ‘latchkey’ children, have created a vacuum where many traditional outdoor games and exploratory ramblings have largely disappeared - replaced with amusements usually taking place inside the home.
These natural earth mounds, above, with forts and bridges create multiple play opportunities for all ages. We have created similar features in many parks, reserves and schools and the result is always hugely popular.
Fixed play equipment is also part of the natural playspace, particularly if it is sensitively designed with other bespoke features. At Worcester Woods Country Park, above 2010, we used equipment that specifically encouraged group play: 2 different basket swings and the awesome supernova roundabout. Natural play is about children playing together, and our parks and reserves need to encourage that extra dimension.
These trees were formerly inaccessible to the young children due to mud and bare earth underneath them. The addition of an exterior carpet eliminates the objection - allowing the children to get close to natural things and as such, a potato masher and an old baking tray come with added play value. Natural play is about creating a sense of place rather than just using natural materials.
Ultimately however, you can have all the play equipment, logs, rocks, boulders etc you like, but natural play and creativity in children is sparked by free access to the natural world. Get the plants in, relax and wait for the beauty to emerge!
Natural play spaces differ for different ages
For the 7 to 12 year old child a natural play space will be a few well chosen items of equipment….linked with grassy mounds, paths, forts, beds of bushes and trees, and so on. For the toddler and young child, a more benign landscape with swings, sand and digging, balancing and climbing, rolling etc can be placed among a well designed landscape/garden that encourages community members to linger in the same space. Ownership and better community relations are part of the spirit of the place.
The wet pour playground
The rigid formality of the wet pour playground is very useful in a restricted urban environment and offers great opportunities for physical challenges...but that is all. This playground is essentially a place where children are taken by their parents/guardians for 20-30 minutes, where the majority of children do not know each other. As capital investment, the wet pour space is largely past its sell by date after 10 years.
The natural play space
The natural play space is designed for children who know each other, to play together. Swings, slides, see saws, merry-go-rounds and their modern equivalents are all necessary parts of the natural play area as are running and chasing games, wrestling, hiding, role play...etc. Of course, the space must be well designed and it is up to the designer and/or provider to have an affinity with community planning and deliver a product that will encourage this enriching play space to become an important part of our local landscape.
Encouraging a sense of place and beauty
The natural play space encourages a sense of place and beauty; is connected to the local landscape; and provides a green backdrop to play. Access to the natural world is the spark that fires the child’s creative imagination, and all positive associations with the natural world are formed in the early years. By mixing items of play equipment into a coherent maturing landscape, the child still has all the physical challenges, but now they are blending with the beauty of the naturalised world and the possibility of imaginative freedom is also entering the play space. Does a tree, a bush, a grassy mound have a sell by date? The various items of play equipment can be replaced with time, other play opportunities can evolve....but the underlying sense of place continues to provide growing value to the local community.
Evolve? Yes, the play space is no different from any landscape or garden. Trees grow and change shape, the ambiance also changes, a sense of responsibility comes with a maturing landscape - that this is something to be cherished and enjoyed...and so the features also grow and change: water play, sand, mud, dens, carving, digging, and your choice here.
By Guy Redmond
Leaves of Green 2010
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