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How to create a nature play space

With its roots in the forest schools of Europe, nature play has been steadily gaining kudos across Australia. And now this trend is being assimilated into play space design, with an increasing number of childcare centres and schools across the region ditching the brightly coloured metal and plastic playground for a custom-designed nature play space.

Though it might look like a simple scenery of timbers and rocks, these progressive play spaces are incredibly well-thought out constructions, designed to blend into the environment and provide children with the maximum opportunity for natural open-ended play.

We chat to the owner George Davidson of GDL Nature Play Spaces who is leading the way in nature play space design and construction in south-east Queensland, to find out more about this essential side of early childhood and discover how you can bring a little nature play into your own backyard.

George Davidson Nature Play Space

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How to create a nature play space

What is a nature play space?

Everyone interprets it differently, but for me, a nature play space uses natural products such as rocks, timber and plants, creating a natural setting for children to explore but in a controlled environment. True nature play is out in the wild, but with urbanisation today, not all children have regular access to such free play anymore. So, a nature play space offers children a version of this natural style of play within a kindy or school environment.

Being landscaped-based, we create a play area as an entire space—with areas to explore and sensory paths that connect various nooks so everything flows. So, it’s not so much a playground as an entire natural play area. To complement this, we aim to use trees for shade rather than shade sails whenever we can, which adds a whole new dimension to the space.

What are the benefits of a nature play space?

A nature play space can be a lot more calming for children. Rather than bright colours and harsh metals, there are more soothing colours, pastels and natural textures.

A nature play space also teaches children to take more risk, with children making their own way through the equipment and finding their own way to play. And most importantly, in a nature play space, children get to see more nature, as the plants that are incorporated into the space encourage butterflies, caterpillars and all the little bugs that kids love.

Stepping Logs Part of a Nature Play Space from George Davidson

What are the key elements that make a great nature play space?

A great nature play space should be multipurpose, with constructions that offer opportunities to develop motor skills, plenty of challenges in problem-solving, teamwork, and starting points for imaginative play.

Water is one of the key things we aim to include—with handpumps, natural water channels, and maybe a creek bed that children can dam up and play with. Water walls, where water runs through adjustable bamboo channels, are also popular. A sandpit and mud kitchen are also great to include.

We also always try to build in cubbies and nooks with areas that will grow, and herbs along paths for added sensory experiences.

Yet one of the key things we incorporate in all our designs is ensuring that the space isn’t structured for one use. Instead, these spaces are a starting point for creative, imaginative play. We don’t build a boat that’s only a boat—instead, we create an area that could be a castle, a fort, or a plane… depending on what is happening that day in that child’s imagination!

How do you keep it feeling natural whilst also meeting essential safety regulations?

Our play spaces are all designed around the Playground Standard guidelines and each is assessed individually. Generally, however, what we build is below regulation height to meet soft-fall requirements. Instead of high equipment, we create challenging obstacles – with solid balance structures surrounded by plants. Garden beds and plants provide the perfect soft-fall, so we sometimes use those around climbing areas to keep everything as natural as possible whilst still always ensuring all safety requirements are met.

Cubby House Part of a Nature Play Space from Gdl

Why do you feel it is important for early childhood education spaces to have a nature play space?

A nature play space offers so much more than straightforward play!

Amidst the play, these spaces educate children about the natural environment. As the plants grow, kids learn to respect plants and take care of them.

They also offer open-ended play where everything isn’t black and white—children can create their own worlds. If the educators are on board, the kids can really have fun with some extra loose parts: a teepee covered in fabric or plants becomes a cubby, logs become plane seats, and sticks and stones can be a myriad of things!

These spaces also encourage children to work together to solve problems. How will they get the water from one end to the other, or how will they break down the ramparts of the castle?

From my experience, these natural spaces offer a much more satisfying style of play than the mainstream playgrounds ever can.

How do these spaces extend beyond play?

We’ve had a lot of feedback from schools where we’ve constructed a nature play space, and older children now use these spaces for science, maths, and problem-solving projects, which is fabulous to hear! One school even had the older children working on an engineering project, building a zip line and pulley system to get sand from A to B!

For the younger children, they are also used for team-building and nature projects—caring for plants, diverting water, looking for caterpillars, and searching for particular-coloured rocks.

We’ve also created amphitheatres, yarning circles and outdoor decks that can then be used for classes or display spaces. So, they’ve all grown to become real multifunctional learning spaces. Every space we design has something new in it; we always try to push the boundary a little and create something that can be used in many ways.

A great nature play space develops and morphs a little as it grows, adapting to fit the personality of each centre without them even realising!

 

Add a little nature play to your own backyard

  • Get the kids involved in a herb garden, Certain herbs can create little mazes; others are wonderful sensory experiences.
  • Rather than using a plastic sandpit, build a timber one that blends into the garden. Once it’s no longer used as a sandpit, it can become a planter. Add an old colander, bucket, or garden hand tools to provide equipment for digging and creating.
  • Dig out old pots, bowls, spoons, and baking tins (or pick up from the charity shop) and set aside a small area as a mud kitchen. You just need a large trough (or build it into a ‘bench’ space if you are feeling handy!), some soil and a water source.
  • Use natural materials to make games such as tic tac toe. Sticks can make the lines; rocks can make the markers.
  • Collect sticks to make a small wig-wam cubby, and cover in fabric or leaves. It doesn’t have to be permanent. (Just check it is stable before any small people climb inside!)
  • Collect large logs to make stepping stones.
  • Use bamboo to make a water wall or a marble run for small round stones.
  • Collect shells and rocks to make collages and patterns in garden beds.

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Servicing Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and beyond, Kids on the Coast is an online guide for parents with kids events, attractions & things to do with kids, schools and education, school holiday guides, health & wellbeing for families, parenting and lifestyle news located on Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast & Brisbane, QLD.

 

 

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By Claire Gilligan
WITH A FIFO HUSBAND WHO WORKS AWAY WEEKS AT A TIME, CLAIRE ENJOYS FINDING FUN, LOCAL THINGS TO DO AND PLACES TO VISIT TO OCCUPY HER AND HER TWO GIRLS' TIME. ORIGINALLY FROM SYDNEY, CLAIRE AND HER FAMILY LOVE ALL THE THINGS THE SUNSHINE COAST HAS TO OFFER AND ENJOY SHOWING IT OFF TO VISITING FAMILY AND FRIENDS. Kids on the Coast is a free family magazine whats on guide for Kids: things to do, school holiday fun and free activities for kids... Fun attractions, family food & travel, kids health & wellbeing, kids parties venues, parenting, pregnancy & babies, guide for parents. Servicing Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and beyond, Kids on the Coast is an online guide for parents with kids things to do with kids, schools and education and lifestyle news located on Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast & Brisbane, QLD.

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