Kids Gone Wild: Nature Play in the City

Ask many Australians over 30 years of age and they’ll likely tell you of their childhood playing in the streets, in the park across the road, or in my case rambling around the paddocks on my family’s farm. The summers were endless, the cubbyhouses were awesome, and the play was cheap – A few sticks, a collection of rocks, and some creativity would keep us occupied for hours.

Nostalgia aside, life in cities for kids these days is pretty different. Houses are often bigger yet gardens are smaller, more people live in apartments, and in many cases there’s concrete where there used to be grass. In short, human lives have become increasingly structured and separated from the dirt, the bugs, the plants and trees. We’re at risk of forsaking the lessons, perspective, and joy that connecting with the natural world brings. Design, according to Sacha Coles, landscape architect and director of ASPECT Studios, can help address this disconnect.

Sacha and I are chatting about his latest project – the Ian Potter Children’s Wild Play Garden at Sydney’s Centennial Park. It’s a garden aimed at encouraging kids to connect with the natural world, and through this, their inner wildness. “Working on this project has allowed us the opportunity to create environments that invite kids to explore both mentally and physically, whilst creating new relationships with themselves and the natural world,” he tells me.

Being in nature is so important. More and more this connection is becoming a sacred commodity,” Sacha says.

Photo by Esteban La Tessa
Photo by Brett Boardman

More than three years in the making, the 6500 square meter play space opened in October this year. The project brief from Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust was to create a safe, unique space for children to explore, learn and connect with the natural environment. ASPECT Studios nailed this, taking their past experiences working on projects like Pirrama Park in Pyrmont and the Darling Quarter playground and building on them to create a wild, child friendly botanic garden.

The best design outcomes always arise from a full and frank discussion with the end users of the space. In this case, it meant squatting down and discussing bugs, lizards, rocks and play with kids. “The design process involved lots of talking with children. We asked our own kids and visited schools to find out what they wanted.  It’s amazing – sometimes you’ll get expected answers like ‘I want a flying fox and a pool’, but other times you’ll get these completely left of centre brainwaves that are real gems.”

Some things never change. It doesn’t matter the generation, the demographic, the age – all kids want to climb trees, according to Sacha!”

As well as chatting to children, the design process required the ASPECT Studio design team to connect with their inner child. “We don’t need a license to be playful and childish in our office,” Sacha tells me. “It is good, though, to have an official reason as to why I’m imagining myself as a wild boar, tunnelling through the forest!”

Photo by Brett Boardman
Photo by Brett Boardman

The Ian Potter Children’s Wild Play Garden is divided into a series of different areas, each with their own planting scheme and play focus. There’s a bamboo forest – a dense grove where kids can immerse themselves in a thick forest of green; an area of Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub – an endangered plant community which used to exist in the area prior to colonisation; a giant timber tree house; an artesian water play area and the eel, a balance play area. All of these different areas are wrapped up in a particularly weird and wonderful plant palette featuring both native and exotics and some serious specimen plants like ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata), fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis) and dragon tree (Dracaena draco).

The combination of diverse planting, the structure provided by the existing trees on the site, and the varied play spaces within the garden work to create a highly engaging and stimulating environment for kids – teaching them lessons not always offered in the classroom. “Spending time in wild landscapes is fundamental for children’s creative and social development,” Sacha asserts.

When things aren’t structured so that they automatically tell you how to use them you have to use creativity, intuition, and all of your skills to determine how best to use it,” Sacha says.

“That’s what it means to be slightly wild. This is what this play space is about.”

Photo by Esteban La Tessa
Photo by Esteban La Tessa

As I talk to Sacha and ponder the importance of creating places for city kids to play in nature, I feel a sense of sadness at the necessity to provide these kinds of contrived, hyper-nature places in cities for kids to get their fix of the green stuff? Can’t all public spaces feed this need? Surely there’s room for a bit more wildness and a bit less structure in our cities and lives?  Surely everyone, no matter how old, should be able access the magic, joy and delight that engaging with nature provokes?

Sacha quells my sadness with hope. “I hope that the reason we have to make places like this is that we’ve gone through this cycle of the modernist city, which is really anti-human and super boring. There’s really no tactility or grain for people, let alone kids, in these places,” he tells me.

I reckon we’re coming to the end of this cycle. We’re becoming more focused on human centred design, on biophilia and the benefits of nature,” he says.

“In a way it’s a shame we have to design places to bring wild play back into attention but I hope it’s a kind of catalytic project,” Sacha says. “I hope it’ll be one of many to come and an example that other councils can come to and say ‘look at this – look at the benefits of this’. It’s actually not that hard. You don’t have to go to the level that we’ve gone to for this to get the same result.”

He points out something I was already thinking – “Centennial Park is like a massive version of the Wild Play Garden,” he says. But, as always, it’s about packaging. “It’s not until you draw people’s focus in and give them an intense range of experiences wrapped up together that they might then realise this kind of play is accessible in many other places.”

“I hope it’s the start of a revolution,” Sacha Coles and his inner wild boar tell me. I hope he’s right.

The Ian Potter Wild Play Garden is located in Centennial Park, off Grand Drive and adjacent to the Education Precinct. Here’s a map.

Entry to the Garden is free, and the play space is open between 10am and 5pm every day.

Find out more about ASPECT Studio’s work on the WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM / FACEBOOK

Photo by Brett Boardman
Photo by Esteban La Tessa
Photo by Esteban La Tessa