Nature Play WA chief executive Griffin Longley
“Not that there is anything wrong with slides, but what kids need most is the opportunity to move their bodies and to invest their imaginations. Good nature play spaces call to children to move and to invent.”
Griffin Longley is the chief executive of Nature Play WA, an award winning journalist, a weekly columnist with The West Australian newspaper and manager of a program for at-risk kids in Perth called Night Hoops. We spoke to Griffin about nature play space design and the physical and psychological benefits for children.
How would you define nature play spaces?
There is no hard definition of a nature play space, it is more of a continuum. But the key things are that they are spaces that encourage unstructured play and afford sensory experiences of nature. The best nature play spaces are nature-rich, sensory laden spaces where the play is given room, permission, and opportunity to happen – rather than games being prescribed by adult designed ‘play equipment’.
Kids need room to move, to touch, smell, climb and make stuff up. And to make stuff ups. So sometimes the most important thing when it comes to great nature play outcomes isn’t the space itself but the willingness of adults to allow it to happen.
I have seen fantastic nature play happen on verges, in vacant lots and driveways. It’s a head space, more than a physical space.
What kind of building materials are commonly used?
When communities make the decision to design and build a nature play space they tend to move away from manufactured equipment toward natural materials.
Sand, rocks, logs, mulch and dirt are found in almost every nature play space. There are no hard rules, but as more and more children are growing up in high density living and their play time is increasingly occupied by digital entertainment. Nature play spaces can offer a much need chance to see, touch, and smell natural materials.
One of the most important elements of a good nature play space is plants. The best play spaces have mature trees and shrubs. My advice; forgo the fancy slide and bring in an extra tree.
What are the benefits to this style of playground as opposed to traditional playgrounds?
The key benefit is that kids love them. A log can be spun on the lathe of a child’s imagination to be anything. A slide is, well, a slide. Not that there is anything wrong with slides, but what kids need most is the opportunity to move their bodies and to invest their imaginations. Good nature play spaces call to children to move and to invent.
There are also significant health and wellbeing benefits from being exposed to nature. Just seeing trees helps our health and the microbes in dirt help kids’ immune systems and can have a lasting impact on their health.
What kind of physical benefits does nature play have for children?
Being active is always good, and nature play encourages that. Nature play spaces tend to be less uniform in their construction and so they encourage balance and physical engagement. Climbing over an uneven rock requires a very different kind of physical engagement than walking up a set of equidistant stairs with a handrail. The core strength that comes from balancing and climbing helps kids prepare to take part in sport, to be able to sit up straight in class, and to be capable, and safe, in an uneven world.
Do you think nature play has an impact on students learning ability in the classroom?
Yes it does. Play reduces the stress hormone cortisol, promotes attention, and helps children enter a more receptive state of mind. Learning also requires cooperation between student and teacher and between classmates. The imaginative, and cooperative element of nature play helps build that. But more than anything we don’t just want learners in our schools – we want happy learners.
It is also worth pointing out that a nature play space, can also double as an outdoor classroom.
What would you recommend to schools thinking about installing a nature play ground?
My first recommendation is to look at what you already have. Many schools have a strip of bush that has been fenced off and the grass has grown long and kids aren’t allowed in it. Look at your school with new eyes and ask yourself how nature Play can happen there.
Ask whether policies support unstructured play. Can you tweak how you use your existing space for a better outcome?
Once you’ve done that, you might consider bringing in a landscape architect to draw up a plan with you that can be built in stages. You don’t have to do it all this year. But if you have a master plan everything you do will fit in.
Try and get the parent body involved, the maintenance workers, and the teaching staff involved early. You need buy in from everyone for things to really start changing how play happens at your school.
We have lots of free information on our website www.natureplaywa.org.au if people want to dig a little further.