My children and I discovered a new playground the other day. Well, not new, but new to us…Tim Neville Arboretum playground in Ferntree Gully. A friend suggested to meet up at this playground and it seemed like others had the same idea too because by the time we got there at 10:30 am, the parking near the playground was already full! And judging from the all-abilities playground, I am not surprised. The playground is a children’s recreational paradise which is well-designed not just for active play, but also for imaginative play. It had a medieval theme complete with castle, moat, scary dragon, fairy queen, goblin, etc. Some of the play equipment in the fenced play area included an elevated sandpit for accessible sand play, fish rockers, timber drawbridge, rubber crocodile in moat, cubby houses, flagpoles, sword in the stone, balance pads to go across the moat, berth timber swings, disc swing, accessible roundabout connected to pathway, Fibonacci balance beam, distorting mirror, rope climbing net, tactile panels with Auslan and Braille symbols, stepping stone maze and double flying fox.
Outside of the fence there was an open space grassed picnic area with barbeque facilities and picnic tables and benches; two ponds; and pathways for walking, jogging, scootering or biking. My children thoroughly enjoyed themselves scootering around the site with their friends and I had a relaxing chin-wagging time with my friends. The only thing that wasn’t perfect was the drop in temperature and cold wind on that day. Watching my children having fun in this playground made me realize how important play is for children, in particular outdoor play; and how a proper landscape design can transform an ordinary playground into a fantasy land.
When my older child was in kindergarten, I remember asking his kindergarten teacher if she was going to teach him literacy and numeracy skills. She told me that they only teach pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills at kindergarten because it is more important for children to learn through play at that age. She is absolutely right because, according to Scholastic’s Instructor magazine, not only does research support the importance of imaginative play in the social, emotional, physical and moral development of young children, Dr David Elkind, child psychologist, child development expert and author of The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally, states that play facilitates children’s growth in reasoning abilities. Children learn to make inferences and draw conclusions through experimentation (e.g. playdough, water play) and through classifying objects (e.g. shells, cars, beads). A good kindergarten teacher will guide the children and help them make sense of their world through imaginative play; thus laying the groundwork for understanding numbers and words in the future.
As play is important for children’s development, when it comes to designing landscape for children’s open play spaces, it is important to take into account children’s expectations and needs. No one knows what’s best for a family as far as the sort of play space and play equipment they want in their backyards than the actual family and the children themselves. Setting the scene for imaginative play is important, so things like what theme for the landscape (e.g. plants, sand pits and accessories); what structure for imaginative play (e.g. castle, cubby house, country fort or a custom-made cubby) and what cubby furniture will complete the setting. That’s why it’s a good idea not to simply buy a mass-produced cubby house from a hardware or departmental store, but rather to get one from a store that specialized in cubbies and are happy to cater to your child’s play expectations and needs. After all, not all children are the same, so why should all cubby houses be the same?
Today’s children may think of the television or computer games as a way to spend their free time, but those are passive activities that pull children away from the sort of unstructured and imaginative play that help prepare children for social and academic success. Or today’s over-protective parents might be so worried that their children would fall behind academically that they sign their children up for almost every academic or extra-curricular activity to the point that their children are too busy to play. Why sacrifice play when we could incorporate it into our daily lives by simply designing a child-friendly landscape in our backyards that include things like trampolines, cubby houses and sand pits? Seeing how much my children enjoyed the imaginative and unstructured play at the Tim Neville Arboretum playground, I think it is definitely worth redesigning our backyard.