Adelaide firm Swanbury Penglase Architects has proposed a multi-million dollar natural playground for the city’s south parklands.

In a bid to counter the declining number of urban playgrounds that truly engage and challenge children, the architects submitted a project to the Adelaide City Council entitled Natural Playscape, which calls for a playground developed from natural materials.

Natural Playscape is an interactive environment encouraging children to explore climbing up trees or over rocks, using branches to draw in mud or sand pits, play hide and seek behind shrubs and any otherwise enjoy nature.

“It is about creating a play environment that is tactile, changes with the seasons, has risks and most importantly of all is not designed for adults to interfere with, modify or dilute,” explained Swanbury Penglase associate landscape architect Peter Semple.

Natural Playgrounds Benefit Social Development

Natural playgrounds benefit social development

The positive effects of natural play experiences for children include increased creativity and empathy. Natural playgrounds also generally experience less vandalism.

In his statement of intention, Semple also revealed the results from a study conducted at the University of Western Australia. The study showed that natural playgrounds:

  • Improve cognitive function
  • Increase creativity
  • Improve interaction with adults
  • Reduce attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms
  • Reduce rates of aggression

The architects have compared their design vision to Perth’s $10 million Rio Tinto Naturescape playground in the city’s Kings Park – a benchmark for natural playgrounds.

The south parklands was chosen as the preferred location due to its central accessibility. In addition, it is an already established area for local residents, giving local schools and community grounds an opportunity to utilise the playground.

Acknowledging the demise of playgrounds earlier this month, Premier Jay Weatherill announced that Adelaide City Council would invest $20 million in parklands and playgrounds for the city in a bid to increase community collaboration in these areas.

In addition, Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood also announced that a playground would be installed in every square in the city except Victoria Square, which would remain an events space and be dedicated to a water play area.

“If we want to make Adelaide livable, having equally accessible playgrounds in all our squares makes sense,” Yarwood said.”Our squares should be the centrepiece of community gatherings but there’s not too many reasons for people to use them.”

“It would be nice to have a playground in every square in five years. That’s a million dollar statement and it’s a big commitment.”

While both initiatives have been well received, Semple noted that natural playgrounds should take precedence in the plan. He said it is important to encourage children to connect to nature, adding that traditional playgrounds often have high risks, are unimaginative and/or predictable.

Semple believes playgrounds known as “post and platform” can discourage a cooperative environment, leading to more confident kids dominating the play area, which can in turn promote bullying and reduce inclusion.

Rio Tinto Naturescape, Kings Park Perth

Rio Tinto Naturescape, Kings Park Perth

“Another flaw of modern playgrounds is the requirement for every piece of equipment to be designed by an invisible field called a fall zone,” explained Semple. “You won’t notice it in the playground but it’s an imaginary offset from the equipment that indicates your field of fall.”

“The concept makes sense but they are often overdesigned and result in expansive playgrounds covered by a wilderness of expensive softfall, limiting opportunities, interest and density of playground equipment.”

While risk is also perceived to be minimal in the modern playground, associate professor David Eager of the University of Sydney said the nation has witnessed a 20 per cent increase in injury rates in playgrounds that feature softfall rubber based products.

“The case for this increase can be associated with how children manage risk, or don’t manage as they feel that the playground is too safe and lose focus,” Semple said of Eager’s findings.

There is also an environmental advantage to natural playgrounds, as materials are readily available and can be sourced locally. Structured and platform playgrounds often have materials shipped from interstate and international locations with replacement parts difficult to source. According to Semple, this can result in playground equipment being shut down for up to six weeks.

Semple also believes the installation of natural playgrounds could respond to the growing “perception of risk and danger in society” which has contributed to the demise of outdoor play.

For instance, results from a state of play report by Milo released in March 2012 revealed that 47 per cent of a child’s free time was spent wrapped up in digital technology such as television, video games and social media.

More natural outdoor play could also help reduce the alarming prediction that 65 per cent of young Australians will be overweight or obese by the year 2020 and the even more startling fact that this younger generation is predicted to have a shorter life expectancy than the previous generation.

Connecting Children With Nature

Connecting children with nature

While Europe and the United States have been rapidly adopting natural playgrounds, Semple believes Australian councils have been slow to act due to concerns of maintenance, ratepayer burdens and ultimately the possibility of litigation over perceived safety issues.

Despite these concerns, rather than having children restricted to playing atop skyscraper rooftops or in tiny pocket parks with a token swing and slide, Semple feels Nature Playscape could be a modern solution to childhood obesity which can also contribute to children’s social and mental well-being.

“The opportunities for our children to engage and play with nature are vanishing,” Semple noted. “It we can give our urbanised children a glimpse of the freedom and adventure that we used to enjoy growing up, it can only  result in a healthier and  happier community.”