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Child playing in park

Natural Play and other cliches

17-April-2013 by Aileen Shackell

Natural Play, OR, the Logs and Boulders School of Design: a plea to play designers

Many of you will have come across and maybe used our document ‘Design for play: a guide to creating successful play spaces’, published by Play England and the DCMS in 2008. After 5 years it’s now beginning to look a bit out of date and we’re really pleased to say that Play England have commissioned us to revise it with a view to publication by the autumn. A great opportunity to review what progress we’ve made in play design and also look at some of the new play spaces that have been created across the UK. And a chance to re-visit some new, emerging play design clichés. So here’s a bit of a rant (my own personal opinions obviously).

The phrase Natural Play seems to have passed into everyday vocabulary since 2008. What does it mean? Well first off, it wasn’t a term used anywhere in the guide. We did talk about creating a more natural environment for play, and of using natural elements and materials – and I suppose Natural Play is a convenient shorthand term for this approach, though essentially we were trying to encourage people to treat play spaces in the same way as any other outdoor space, to take a ‘landscape-led’ approach. For example, what we mean is, when we design a new park we don’t start by thinking, how many seats shall we have? What sort of fence? We think about the sorts of spaces we want to create, the atmosphere and character of the place, the sorts of activities we’re providing for, picnics, ball games, playing in the river…Play Consultant Sandra Melville said becoming focused on play equipment, or ‘stuff’‘ is a bit like “getting an architect to choose the furniture before the building is designed”.

So it’s great that so many people are trying to take a more adventurous approach to play design, because undoubtedly many of us have made great strides forward. It’s been quite a steep learning curve for us landscape designers and we’re still learning. Play spaces are quite tricky design exercises, hard to do well, and there are lots of potential pitfalls. But still, everywhere, we see play spaces in more of a landscape setting – with grass matting increasingly replacing wet pour, and interesting landform replacing boring flat grass – and evidence that we’re learning from past mistakes and working with clients to help them make braver design choices.

But sometimes I just want to scream at what sadly seems a tokenistic approach to the whole business.

The mounds that sit stranded in the middle of a huge flat area and bear no relation to anything else. The boulders dotted randomly around a site with no apparent purpose, too far apart to be a balance trail, not located where you’d want to sit on them, or the ones isolated in a sea of wet pour (are there are any granite boulders left in Scotland ?!)… …in fact, have logs and boulders just joined the list of equipment? Just another bit of stuff to include? This year I came across  a design proposal document showing, alongside the equipment, a picture of a log, short,  straight, barely wide enough to stand on, no protruding bits (to avoid Health and Safety worries?), and it was about as sanitised a ‘natural element’ as possible (cost: £100). Who are we kidding here? I could go on, but won’t!

Just a reminder to all of us who want to do the best we can for the children we’re designing for: let’s not fool ourselves that we’re taking a ‘landscape-led’ approach to designing for play by including a token log or boulder. Let’s not just replace the old KFC cliché with a new Natural Play one. (And when you’re reading the ‘Natural Play’ pages in the equipment catalogue, look at them with a very critical eye). Taking a landscape-led approach is more than just including logs and boulders, rather about place-making and creating non-prescriptive play environments which are rich in possibilities and opportunities and, above all, which allow children to play (definition: play is what children do, when they’re not being told what to do by adults… Above all, we need to remember that at the end of the day we don’t ‘design play’, we design FOR play.

Onwards and upwards!