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 southeast 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.
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.
What are the key elements that make a great nature play space?
A great nature play space should be multipurpose – with constructions that offer opportunity to develop motor skills, as well as plenty of challenges in problem solving, team work, and starting points for imaginative play.
Water is one of the key things we aim to include – with handpumps, natural water channels, maybe a creek bed that children can dam up and play with. Water walls are also popular – where water runs through adjustable bamboo channels. And a sandpit is also always great to include, as is a mud kitchen.
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, a plane… dependent 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.
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.
As well, they 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 become a cubby, logs become plane seats, 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, 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!
And for the younger children, they are also used for team building and nature projects – caring for plants, diverting water, looking for caterpillars, 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 use a plastic sandpit, build a timber one that blends into the garden. This can then become a planter once it’s no longer used as a sandpit. Add an old colander, bucket, or garden hand tools to provide equipment to dig and create.
- 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.