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Thursday, March 29, 2012

My perfect playground

There's such a lot of talking going on about outdoor play that I've started to think about the huge variety of outdoor play areas I've seen. As a casual, I visit so many play spaces that I've got ample opportunity to compare their effectiveness- so here's a description of my perfect playground, compiled through my experience of watching real children play.

The best playgrounds I've seen in my wanderings from centre to centre as a casual have had two things in common:

  • plenty of open space for safe running, and 
  • teachers who never say 'Slow down, you might hurt yourself / bump into something'. 
What a boon open space is. You can play chasings- a marvellously social game, where everyone who wants to play can join in without the usual stresses of joining others' games. Do you remember my story about Bodie Finch? The 'real' Bodie, on whom I based the story, was first welcomed into play (despite his social difficulties caused by Aspergers) in a game of chasings. 

And there's more. You can play football without the constant worry about the ball going over the fence. You can have circle time outdoors without having to move a heap of equipment to fit everyone in. Skipping rope, 'What's the Time Mr Wolf', target games, pool-noodle play- the possibilities are endless; even more importantly, open space is a stage for open-ended activities designed by the kids.

There's no way you'd get me filling up the whole outdoor space with fixed play equipment. No way. My ideal playground has empty space, and no, I will not fill it up with toys so "visiting parents think it looks like the kids have got lots to do". (Yes, I'm quoting a former colleague.) I might arrange some piles of open-ended play props in close proximity- hoops, pebbles, balls, pine cones, stilts, fronds of real leaves, capes... but no, I won't fill it to the gills with rocking horses and bikes and prams and cars and seesaws and dolls and modular climbing equipment.

Kids need space. Don't clutter it up. My perfect playground has
  • a few attractively arranged resources, and
  • a mixture of natural and 'formed' toys.
The saddest EC playground I ever saw was so small that the different classes had to take turns to use it. It was surfaced with astroturf- how I HATE astroturf, horrible, scratchy, unnatural, hard-to-clean stuff that it is!!- and rubber matting that heated up to the level where it burnt the kids' feet in summer, with landscaped bark chips and concreted pebbles and rocks. There was not a single blade of grass in it. It was very stylish, very sensory (read 'too much'), and absolutely lethal for running. The four- and five-year-old boys nearly went crazy in that yard, because they were always being told to stop running.

My perfect playground has 
  • at least 75% real grass, and 
  • absolutely NO astroturf, and
  • at least one climbing tree plus shade trees, and
  • a real garden for digging, planting, smelling, feeling. 
I don't care if there are creepy crawlies. Children generally love creepy crawlies, and the few who are actually scared of them need gentle, educational exposure, not cotton-wool protection. Ants? Bees? For heavens' sake. Clover can be eradicated if it's attracting swarms of bees. Ants are ants; get over it. And they also can be moved on if a child's allergic to the occasional bites. 

And that climbing tree? How I remember the battle of wills I had with the staff of one centre! The children were determined to climb this tree, and the staff were determined to forbid it- so the kids kept doing it the moment nobody was looking. And I kept trying to talk to the kids about using a bit of common sense, making their own rules for climbing the tree, testing the strength of the branches, putting some soft fall mats up against the edge of the sandpit where they could have knocked their brains out if they fell... 

...they will do it if it's there, whether or not we forbid it. Our job is not to forbid risk, but to make it possible for the kids to learn to judge and moderate risk.

(Bottom line: If it's lethal, it shouldn't be in your playground. If it's risky, you need to adapt your supervision and teaching.)

The child-friendly garden is a must. Oh, the joy of digging, of doing real work! Of finding a worm! Of picking a strawberry or pulling up a carrot! Maybe it needs a growing area and a digging area... shall we ask the children what they think?

My perfect playground has 
  • a high slide- as high as is permitted by the regulations. 
It's built into the side of a grassy mound of earth. That little hill can be climbed, rolled down and used as a fort, as well as providing 270-degree access for the slide. Kids can walk up that slide if they want, without the staff having kittens that they'll slip and fall over the side. I've only ever seen this set-up once, but it made a huge impression on me. It was brilliant.

My perfect playground has 
  • a massive sandpit. 
It's big enough to play long-jumps. It's big enough for everyone to be in at once. It's big enough to sit in for circle time so we can do science experiments with the sand. Oh, and it's completely shaded, so the kids can play in there for hours in summer without getting burnt.

It's nowhere near anything that will mess the sand up all the time- like bark chips- and it has a proper cover to keep out the neighbourhood cats. (You'd be amazed how many completely inadequate sandpit covers I've seen.) My one rule would be, if you want to mix things with the sand, take the sand OUT, not the other stuff IN. (Unless it's clean water; clean water + clean sand = total delight.) Kids love clean sand. I've noticed how they flock to a clean sandpit, and scorn a filthy one. 

Is there another corner of the yard? Yes? Marvellous- in that corner we have 
  • a non-specific, roofed play platform that can have modular climbing frames added on to it in different conformations, and that can have semi-transparent curtains added as 'walls'. It's built on soft fall.
It's a stage. It's a cubby house. It's a boat. It's a bus. It's a train. It's a pirate ship. It's whatever the kids want to make it, through their imaginary play. I spent quite a lot of time in a yard that had one of these, and the kids never got bored with it. Again, it's open-ended, and that's what makes the difference. The more specific a toy is, the more you cramp the kids' style. 

They don't want detail. They want flexibility. See? 

There are two last things that I need in my shed to make this yard perfect. We need
  • gym mats, and
  • old sheets with some means to hang them up- ropes, clips, divider frames, whatever.
Just the thin gym mats, so the kids can put them out themselves. They can decide where they need them to moderate risks- maybe under that tree? The can use them for gymnastics. They can become the walls of a cubby. 

And the sheets? More cubbies, more props for imaginary play. Children love to create their own little space, their own little world, and cubbies are such a great way to do that- as well as giving those quieter kids some privacy.

Of course, when I get to Child Heaven there will be a running creek too, and enough staff to make it safe, but (sigh) that's the realm of fantasy. I'll just have to get the water trough out every single day instead... and the little buckets and spoons... the non-specific crates and the real cooking containers for the mud pies...

...I can dream, can't I?


  1. So true - we were really sad when we saw that the local small green space had been transformed into a plastic and chrome park. No where left to run or kick a ball! What was this Sydney council thinking and spending?

    1. Sadly, they were responding to the advertising society, where new, plastic, colourful toys are promoted as desirable. Stooooooooopid.


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