Playgrounds of our youth

I heard an interesting radio program recently on ABC radio’s Radio National ~ Life Matters (I am such a mum sometimes). Play advocate Tim Gill and play specialist Anita Bundy were interviewed about the importance of adventurous and creative playgrounds.

Where I am from – the painfully neat village of Alstonville – parks are pretty predictable. The key feature is safety, of course. The grounds are soft and springy to cushion a fall, the slides are small and painfully boring, and the sea saws – well, our little neighbouring park has the smallest see saw I have ever seen. We have one interesting feature – the red climbing net that somewhat resembles the Eiffel Tower. It is the most popular, with young children and teenagers alike. I too have been known to do the odd climb and bounce.

I have long suspected parks could be a little bit more interesting. Elka often spends a lot of time at the fringe, watching the others (bored, perhaps?). Generally, it is the bigger kids who get the most pleasure, as they tend to invent games within games, and their characters give the playgrounds a new zest.

So, when I heard this program on Radio National, I listened in.

The gist was that interesting playgrounds that allow children to invent, explore and discover have a far more impressive effect on children’s resourcefulness, ability to work together and creativity. It makes sense. Of course, councils need to take caution, and rip up all swings because children can get injured and parents can sue, but there are safe playgrounds that can also be interesting.

I was impressed, for example, by the playgrounds we visited in California. The local Kentfield park borders a tennis court, a football oval and a beautiful, rugged marsh surrounded by mountains. The park has obviously been designed to integrate with the local surrounds. There are fibre-glass ducks to be climbed on, swings that don’t injure children, a tube slide, a sand pit with a tap…and best of all, a little tiny creek that runs through, where, with the push of a button, water trickles. There are spades provided and a little tiny pool of water for children to paddle.

I was so impressed because even though the local parents are neat and perfect, with toned arms and blonde, straight hair, they very generously (and smartly), let their children get wet feet and bottoms, and paddle around. Elka was, quite literally, in heaven. On our second trip to this particular park, she bee-lined to the stream, paddled around, dug holes, caught water in her hands, and yes, got a wet bottom. If it wasn’t for my short attention span, I could have let her play there all day. She would have been content.

My park education was furthered by a visit to the Bay Area Discovery Museum, SF. There was an enormous network of a life-size ship wreck, a small cave, a boat children could climb on and prepare food, a room full of wooden trees that make music, an area with blue foam shapes that children could assemble, and a room filled with scraps of paper that children and their parents could cut up, stick together and make things with. There was a sign that read:

“In Imagination Playground, children’s creativity flows when they:

  • Explore: Ask questions, experiment, think “what if…?”
  • Discover: come up with original ideas, “ah-ha” moments that are powerful intrinsic motivators
  • Immerse: enter a state known as “flow”, which is linked with creativity
  • Imagine: transport themselves to different worlds, developing empathy
  • Connect: re-organise different experiences into a new understanding of the world.
This all made a lot of sense to me.
The playgrounds of my own youth were paddocks, gullies and dams. I look back with amazement at the trust my parents had in us as we scoured the local bush land, feral and unkempt. My favourite place was an old olive tree, which was hollowed out, and I would sit within it for hours talking to the local family of bears and the resident king. And when the olive tree grew boring, Inverell was blessed with Green Valley Farm – the most random and potentially dangerous theme park in the world. The rides were made from tin, in loving memory of a couple’s daughter who passed away but dreamed of Disney Land. I remember the terrifying experience of being jolted along on the rickety “roller-coaster” and thinking there was a good chance it was going to run off its wobbly rails anytime soon.
I am not suggesting councils sacrifice safety for adventure. But there must be some sort of compromise. Does everything need to be made of rubber? Couldn’t a bit of foliage or other natural product be inserted in there somewhere? Around my area, every park is a replica of itself. Surely, our park designers at least could be a bit more imaginative…and then, maybe our children can have an outdoor space to explore, create and interact with each other.
Do you have good parks in your area? What features do you admire?
  • We have some pretty fun parks around where we live (western Washington) – a mixture of safety features and edgy toys with springs and moving parts. My boys are continually drawn to the double see saw and the sandbox.

    • You are lucky! I think park designers are much more imaginative in the US…Thanks for your comment!

  • Ness

    Green Valley was the best! Bare skin on the hot metal, and that horrifying animal museum-let alone the monkeys!

    Although I’m not a mum, I teach with kids under 10 who have intellectual impairments. We visit parks around the Sunshine Coast almost weekly. Luckily most parks that we visit are near water, so we can explore the shore, or go for a bushwalk in the rainforest. There are 2 parks up here that are INCREDIBLE, at Landsborough and at Gympie. Both are designed with kids with disabilities in mind, with lots of sensory elements-sound, touch, smell, etc. Along with swings, monkey bars, flying fox and multiple climbing activities etc, there is water play, a kitchen, all sorts if amazing things.
    Play based learning is so important for development, and kids have so much less opportunity for use that creative side. Toys do everything for them, or they play computer games.

    Rant over 🙂

    • That sounds incredible Ness. I am glad they have parks like that where you are. Your work sounds really interesting, by the way. It’s great to know councils have acknowledged what works. I agree…play based learning all the way 🙂 Thanks for your message.

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