Playground Design

Changes in playground design

By Rob Waddell

Significant changes have been happening in playground design over the last few years due to greater recognition around the health and cognitive benefits of play, a strong desire to get children active and outside, and modifications to playground safety standards that acknowledge the benefit of graduated challenges which teach children how to manage risk.

Out of all of the changes, we have found three key trends are emerging, and these are influencing the design of playgrounds both nationally and internationally.

1. Unlocking imagination through theming

Photography by Scott Burrows

Photography by Scott Burrows

With the introduction of video games and tablets, there is no question that the way a child plays and interacts with the world has changed.

Twenty years ago outdoor play was a way of life for us; we would disappear for hours on end building forts, riding bikes and playing sports. But now, with so much entertainment and stimulation available indoors, greater incentive to switch from screen time to green time is needed.

This has seen a rise in playground themes to evoke the imaginations of children, allowing spaces to be interpreted and used in a number of different ways to create a unique play experience for each child.

One example of this is the Frew Park Arena Play Structure Guymer Bailey Landscape designed. Built on the grounds where the iconic Milton tennis stadium once stood in Brisbane, its theme ‘deconstruction’ honours the history of the site with play precincts that reflect stadium spaces.

The grandstand is brought to life with large precast concrete panels of varying heights and angles, and it even features a commentary box – a steel-mesh box suspended eight metres above the ground, to offer greater thrill to playground goers.

2. Getting back to nature

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With many children experiencing nature deficit disorder not being able to play in the creek, squish mud in between their fingers and toes, climb trees and get dirty in play, there is a growing demand to create this experience within the playground environment.

This is particularly important for kindy children who benefit from the sensory experience nature play can produce.

From mud pits and water play to sitting on logs around a fire pit, roasting marshmallows for story time, nature play experiences allow children to enjoy the beauty and simplicity of nature, and hopefully inspire a deep love for the outdoors.

The key to nature play is to make it authentic using as many raw materials as possible. There are many plastic replicas available, but they do not create the same experience for children. Nature play areas should also be flexible, allowing for a wide variety of activities, sensory experiences and individual play interpretations – such as logs that can be used for sitting, standing or balancing on.

3. Creating a call to adventure

Photography by Scott Burrows

Photography by Scott Burrows

While as children we were quite adventurous in our play, as a society in recent years we have been more cautious, preventing children from taking the same risks as we did. While these intentions are noble, in that we don’t want children hurt, what we have failed to realise is that we are preventing children from learning key life lessons through play.

Research has proven time and time again that there are significant benefits when children are exposed to risk.

Adventurous or more challenging play allows children to identify their strengths and limitations, manage risk and fear and develop courage and confidence in their abilities – all fundamental life skills that are needed into adulthood.

These findings have resulted in modifications to the Australian playground safety standards that allow playground designs to greater challenge children and expose them to managed risk, where previous standards were inhibiting their form of play.

Challenges at height including climbing walls, nets, ropes, tunnels, barriers, slopes, sliding poles, swings and flying foxes can all create greater playground challenges for children that allow them to get a better sense of risk and themselves. By being more adventurous in playground design while also keeping in mind age and ability, we can provide children with greater life skills.

Does your kindy, school or community playground need an upgrade to create more imaginative and challenging play? Talk to our specialist playground designers today on 07 3870 9700 (Brisbane) or 03 8547 5000 (Melbourne).

About the Author

Rob Waddell is the Principal Landscape Architect at Guymer Bailey Architects. With extensive experience in designing landscape architecture for the community and education sectors, Rob has a proven track record of designing award-winning outdoor areas that capture the hearts and imaginations of children and enrich the experiences of the local community. With a keen interest in exploring the relationship between natural and built environments, Rob develops high-quality design outcomes that prioritise placemaking and people-centred design that works in harmony with the natural environment.

The importance of nature play in childcare

By Rob Waddell

There are many health benefits connected to nature play from cognitive, social and emotional development, to the building of resilience and creativity. But nature play is still not incorporated as much as it should be in childcare playground design.

If you’re yet to incorporate nature play in your childcare centre or kindy play area, here are five reasons why you should reconsider your approach.

1. Unscripted play increases imagination

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Children from a young age can experience a lot of structure to their lives, and while an element of structure and routine is needed for their happiness and wellbeing, too much structure, particularly around play, can stifle creativity.

Without being given prompts or recognisable play equipment, children are able to activate their imaginations, create stories, and be more likely to explore their environment.

At Guymer Bailey Landscape we believe in increasing the opportunities for children to enjoy more unstructured play outdoors and in nature, and were recently given the opportunity to bring this philosophy to life through the design of the new nature play space at Bellbowrie Kindy.

“In a world where children are constantly being told what to do, here was an opportunity to provide an unscripted play space that would foster imagination, creative thinking, and investigation.”
— Pam Niven, Kindergarten Teacher and Coordinator at Bellbowrie Kindy

Our team, in partnership with kindergarten teacher and coordinator, Pam Niven, and in consultation with parents and children at the Bellbowrie Kindy, created a space that consists of a number of features to encourage hours of unscripted play. These include:

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  • A natural watercourse fuelled by a water pump to allow kids to control the flow of water down the creek

  • Mudpits and digging mounds

  • Barefoot garden paths around a forest of natural totem poles

  • Log bridges, balance beams and stepping stones,

  • Scented and flowering native plants

  • Pottery garden

  • Yarning circle centred on a fire pit to introduce to children the indigenous concept of storytelling in an organic way

2. Getting dirty leads to happy exploration

Children need to be active and have the opportunity to run around and be happy playing outside. Worrying about stains and getting dirty only limits their play and can lead to guilt around activities that they find are fun and exciting.

Children who are given the time and opportunity to get dirty and explore, discover their world, and how things work. This exploration boosts their social, physical and creative skills, which can be well worth the extra washing.

3. Challenges teach resilience and risk management

“Children need the opportunity to develop their resilience through challenges”
— Pam Niven, Kindergarten Teacher and Coordinator at Bellbowrie Kindy
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The single-minded focus on injury prevention through risk elimination that the playground industry has had in recent decades, has been found to be detrimental to children by ignoring their need to learn how to manage risk themselves.

Changes to the Australian Standards last year reflected this shifting emphasis and recognised that the downsides of risks should be balanced against the very real benefits of incorporating meaningful graduated challenges for children to explore and test their capacities and limitations.

The Bellbowrie Kindy nature play space embraces this realisation, in the hope that even at the kindergarten age, we can set a course for stronger, better-equipped and more resilient future citizens.

4. Enlivening sensory experiences

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Nature play is a great way to engage all seven senses being sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste, vestibular (sense of balance) and proprioception (sense of body awareness in space). This is incredibly important when you consider sensory play has been proven to support fine and gross motor skills, cognitive growth, problem-solving skills and language and social development.

The design of the Bellbowrie Kindy nature play space has created an environment that enhances and enlivens the children’s sensory experience and importantly, at the same time, provides inclusion and engagement for those experiencing sensory impairment or disability.

5. Creating environmental awareness

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“We want to develop a love of nature that will help carry them through the rest of their lives”
— Pam Niven, Kindergarten Teacher and Coordinator at Bellbowrie Kindy

Perhaps one of the most underrated benefits of nature play is that it can also develop an environmental awareness and appreciation, which can create a concept of stewardship later in life. A legacy worth leaving our children.

Could your kindy or childcare centre benefit from more nature play? Talk to our specialist playground designers today on 07 3870 9700 (Brisbane) or 03 8547 5000 (Melbourne).

About the Author

Rob Waddell is the Principal Landscape Architect at Guymer Bailey Architects. With extensive experience in designing landscape architecture for the community and education sectors, Rob has a proven track record of designing award-winning outdoor areas that capture the hearts and imaginations of children and enrich the experiences of the local community. With a keen interest in exploring the relationship between natural and built environments, Rob develops high-quality design outcomes that prioritise placemaking and people-centred design and work in harmony with the natural environment.