I was born in England and was lucky enough to grow up in a large garden not far from the beach in West Africa. Although we lived in the city, my memories of childhood play are of being in and surrounded by the wonders of nature, whether on the sandy foreshore of the beach, in the ocean itself, exploring surrounding empty house blocks covered in vegetation, setting up on the banks of a river mouth, or even playing in our more manicured tropical paradise at home.
Our garden was designed by my architect father with huge canopy trees, lush plantings, a zen pebble and rock garden that wrapped around a fishpond (always overtaken by frogs!), curvy retaining walls that ribboned across the grassy slope creating terraces, large stepping stones to hop across the lawn, fruit trees, and the obligatory 'Wendy house' and sand pit. Although not entirely designed for children, the garden was not only beautiful and pleasant to be in, but offered lots of variety and opportunity for imaginative play.
A Surburban Backyard
Fast forward 30 years and I’ve completed my landscape architecture degree and have settled in Brisbane with my family on a small inner city block. When we bought the Queensland cottage it had what I call the Hill’s Hoist Garden - a clothesline in lawn, a low fence to one neighbour, a tall stately silky oak, and that was about it! I so valued my own past experiences of natural play that, of course, I wanted this for my two children as well. So, my dilemma was how to turn our tiny block into spaces that offered variety and interest, keeping the kids happy outdoors, whilst using resources that we could afford (or beg and borrow!).
Creating Our Nature Play Space
My first decision was to place the nature play area immediately at the back of the house, knowing that this area would eventually get built on with an extension when the kids had outgrown the nature play space. It was also to the south and in shade for much of the year. Using our old timber stumps salvaged after re-stumping, we sawed them up at varying heights and used them for robust edging around organic pits containing mud, sand or pebbles. We incorporated water in a big old bakers bowl, and added a linking bridge with a den underneath. Around this we planted fast growing hardy native shrubs to provide a sense of enclosure. The plants also provided more raw material for play (leaves, twigs, seed pods etc). The rest of the garden (beyond the future extension) had a flat lawn with flowering plants and a long curved sandstone retaining wall with a sloping path down to a ‘messy’ area at the back for the trampoline.
Lessons I Learnt
Sure enough, the nature play area was eventually sacrificed for the new deck and extension - by this time the children grew into other interests and activities. So if I did it all again (which I might well do once grandchildren arrive!) what would I do differently? What really worked well? This is what I learnt:
Demolish Fences - Having no fence between us and the next door property was a bonus not a disadvantage - the neighbour also had kids (and a tree house!) and so the little gang got to play together in a much larger and more interesting garden space. A few strategic shrubs gave me the sense of privacy I needed in certain areas of the garden. We also put a gate in a new fence between our neighbour at the back, so our children could roam freely between houses.
Kids Grow Fast - In retrospect I am glad I didn’t spend much money on the playspace as they do become redundant landscapes eventually. But to me, that’s the wonderful thing about creating a garden - it changes and grows alongside the family and can be adapted to changing needs. If I did it again, I would have dedicated much more of the garden space to nature play, knowing I can have my ‘adult’ garden later.
Know Your Kids - Some parts of the playscape were not really used. The ‘sunken den’ held no appeal to my children - it was probably too small and cramped and if I am honest, was a remnant fantasy from my own childhood. I have a friend who spent a small fortune on an artist designed carved log playground which her daughter hardly ever used, beautiful as it was. Children’s personalities influence the way they play - some just love being boisterous and physical, others are more introspective and like quiet fantasy play, some like to be solitary, others social. So, think about how to cater for specific and differing needs.
Raw Materials - You really can’t go past sand, soil, rock and water for younger children. If you don’t want to create a structure to contain these elements, at least introduce a pile of sand, dig a hole for dirt, collect some rocks and use the hose pipe for some real messy fun in an ever changing landscape! In retrospect, I would have put more effort into bringing in more ‘loose parts’ (bamboo, shells, organic fabrics, leaves, sticks, planks, palettes etc) for the children to create more challenge and variety in their play.
Design Your Own Outdoor Wonderland!
I do think that every garden, however small, has potential for nature play and can be designed to really encourage it. If you have young children (or are expecting them!) come along to WildChild Gardens - Design for Backyard Nature Play and get inspired to design a playful wonderland on your own doorstep. Once the planning is done, the fun starts with getting stuck in and making (constructing) the wonderful, site specific nature playspace - with the kids help of course!
Tamsin Scott is a Landscape Architect, Visual Artist and nature lover. Tamsin Scott Earth Play is based in Brisbane and runs connect-with-nature activities for families and children that are fun, inspiring and highly creative. She is a Nature Play Qld Provider.
WildChild Gardens - Design for Backyard Nature Play is a hand's on practical workshop run by Tamsin, that provides expert guidance on how to transform a front or back garden for natural play.
Next workshop: Saturday 10th March | 9am-4pm | Northey Street City Farm, Brisbane