Playable environments and nature play

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Many designers, companies, organisations and educators will tell you that ‘nature play’ is the prime opportunity for children to re-connect with the natural environment and to a degree it is. But aren’t we just replacing standardised play equipment structures with other contrived structures – albeit naturally derived (making us feel more green and sustainable) such as rocks and logs?

I say with all the best intentions, yes we are. Not that it’s detrimental in any way….just a little dishonest.

My belief is that a manufactured steel balance beam actually provides the same physical experience as a log beam does. It’s really just comes down to our perception of the material. One of my favourite play images is by photographer Martha Cooper (see below) that demonstrates this most effectively. The children in the photo are appropriating a high chain mesh fence for climbing, equally as effective as any play equipment or tree would be (despite qualms from many of us that there isn’t any under surfacing, but that’s another discussion). My point is that the materials are really just secondary in this argument, rather it is the dimensions and affordance of the element itself and how children use it that is critical to its inherent value for play.

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Image courtesy of Martha Cooper

I regularly bleat on about bombsites after World War 2 and how rich they were for children’s play. Where we adults saw mess, rubble and rubbish, children saw opportunity for play, much of it quite risky.

I would therefore like to introduce the concept of ‘playable spaces or places’ that is, pre-existing found environments that offer opportunities for quality children’s play. Vacant Lot, Civic Square, Parkland, Nature Reserve, Forest, Bushland, River Bank, Pond, Lake or Beach, all offer something in their make up for play – it just has to be uncovered.

To set the record straight I don’t believe these spaces should replace any other kind of playspace either, merely that if we allow it they can complement them, a little like play streets does. A child having the chance to access and explore these is what’s critical here.

A great example of a playable place or space is the beach. An environment ready-made with acres of sand and water and other loose materials and hours and hours of engagement as a result. Nothing in this environment is placed or contrived; rather it is found and used by children, usually in amazingly creative ways. Not all play needs can be met just by the beach either, but its open-ended and manipulative nature determines much of its great value for play.

Of course not all children have the beach or wilderness areas on their doorstep and that’s where our nature playspaces have great value, the opportunity to represent some of these experiences like the beach, the forest or park, where children’s access to them is limited or non-existent.

I have recently worked with a pre-school centre in the southern suburbs of Melbourne that takes students on a ‘forest-school’ type experience regularly to their local wetlands. There the children not only learn about wetland ecology and flora and fauna, but also in walking there and back connect with their local neighbourhood. The pre-school is currently re-developing their outdoor play areas and in these will be some ‘representative’ areas for play – namely a mini-wetlands and forest. Educators at the centre are aware that this will not replace the experience of visiting the local wetlands regularly, rather it will complement the experience and allow the program to explore and extend concepts learnt further within the centre.

The mistake we make is in assuming that nature playspaces replace other play experiences. They don’t.