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Play in the Capital

Rhys Aleksandric

My anecdotal experience is that Canberrans remember the playgrounds of their youth with great fondness. Faces change and eyes light up at the thought of the makeshift forts, the hidden cities and treetop cubbies we’d hurl toward on our BMXs, free from the tight grip of the family household.

A couple of themes often emerge in these conversations. The first relates to the poor quality of these older play structures from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and early 90s. The metal sheet slides that reach extreme temperatures in summer, exposed areas of concrete, and rickety climbing structures all rate a mention.

The second theme that crops up is of the memories of play amongst the parkland and reserve spaces with limited to no adult supervision.

The link between poor-quality play structures and unsupervised play is that they are both anathema to the philosophy of our modern day playspaces. The very adults who wax lyrical over their own youth playing in ramshackle spaces without supervision are the same who are creating and preferring these somewhat anodyne playspaces for their children.

The Maze at Weston Park in the early 1980s. Image courtesy of the Canberra Times.

The Maze at Weston Park in the early 1980s. Image courtesy of the Canberra Times.

Societial playspace values, and the spaces themselves, have significantly changed in the last two decades. Independent play around neighbourhoods is in substantial decline. Social expectations of ‘good parenting’ and the changing mindset of what is considered safe in a risk-averse society are large contributors. On a worldwide scale it also doesn’t help that open space is decreasing, traffic is increasing and children’s screen based activity is eating more and more into daily routines and influencing physical fitness.

All of these behavioural changes lead to less time spent playing outdoors and hence less connectedness with nature. There are countless studies that show the negative effects this can have on children’s wellbeing and cognitive development.

For me, the most negative behavioural change is that children are now predominantly taken to parks and playspaces by adults. Ultimately this limits play opportunities for children and alters how they play. It results in missed opportunities to learn and develop those cognitive connections that we hear about all too often.

Image courtesy of the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

Image courtesy of the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

When I look back on my childhood, my happiest memories are my friends and I taking ourselves to the local playgrounds, parks and reserves for endless play. Roaming freely about our neighbourhood was the main act of play in itself. We could discover more of who we were and challenge ourselves all the while having bucketloads of (unsupervised) fun. It is these experiences that have had a strong influence on my abilities, values and who I am today. I am pro – play in all stages of life and I believe nature play has an important role in modern society, particularly in the context of the ACT.

Currently there are over 500 playspaces in the ACT. Of these, only a handful are public ‘formalised’ nature playspaces. Although this number is low, the ACT government recognises the value of nature play and is actively educating and conducting marketing programs across the ACT to increase the use of existing nature playspaces which includes reserves.

Nature play at Centennial Park, Sydney

Nature play at Centennial Park, Sydney

There is an increased interest from the community in improving the play value and diversity of public playspaces in the ACT.  The ACT Government acknowledges this and through the Better Suburbs Play Spaces Forum has allocated $1.9 million in expenditure on playspaces. The Forum has also developed a priorities framework for playspaces, and made recommendations on how the community and the ACT Government can work together in decision making about playspaces.

This is a big step in the right direction. Consideration needs to be given to introducing nature play into not only ‘central neighbourhood’ and ‘district’ playgrounds, but into local playgrounds. 

It is in the local playgrounds where real change to values can be affected. They are the lifeblood of neighbourhoods. It is the more easily accessible playgrounds where children are taken to more often without the need for a car and where parents are most comfortable letting their children take themselves off to. If one of the acknowledged issues for children is lack of unsupervised play, what better way to address this than to introduce nature play into our local playgrounds as parents are more comfortable with children’s safety in these types of spaces.

Kids will play anywhere, and with anything; it’s the classic ‘discard the toy and play with the packaging’ scenario. The more opportunity they have to engage their imagination and build worlds, solutions and narratives while relating to the natural environment does them good. This is an intuitive truth, something that I’d argue makes common sense. As parents and guardians as well as planners, we can do better by loosening the reins, by heading outside, getting some dirt under the fingernails, and giving our kids a taste of the good times we had when we were their age. 

Rhys Aleksandric is an Associate and a Senior Landscape Architect at Tait Network. He has recently received his Level 3 CPSIA Comprehensive Playground Inspector accreditation and remains a Canberra playground aficionado, now using his son as an excuse to hit the swings and monkey bars.