Nature Play at Royal Park: Australia’s best playground

From the top of the hill at Royal Park’s newest playground you can see the far-off outline of office buildings in Melbourne’s CBD. The buildings are there, past the trees and through the grasses, locating us a short 3 kilometres or a 15-minute tram ride from the working week. But here is where the action is.

Kites, picnics, swings, rope climbs, kicks of the footy. Kids are downhill rolling, their arms and legs ablur under the quick spin-cycle of gravity. Never one to watch from the sidelines, I find an empty run, lay flat out on the hilltop and take the tumble, down the grassy slope, hands tucked in prayer position, a fast-moving study in recklessness and abandon. The ride stops. At the bottom I try to recover as quickly as the kids, to mimic some of their elasticity, but my thirty-six-year-old self is forced to fake it. For the next three hours I remain elated, though ever-so-slightly seasick.

There are one hundred or so people spending their Sunday with kids, friends and family at the park. Amongst them my downhill run goes unnoticed. I’m just another player in a weekend landscape full of players, and I mean that in the truest sense.

The City of Melbourne’s Nature Play at Royal Park opened to the public in March 2015. After one full year of testing – running, stomping, splashing, climbing, cubby-building and the like – it was announced last month as Australia’s best playground by the Australian Institute for Landscape Architects (AILA). The title is an auspicious one, echoed by the genuine enthusiasm of visitors from all age groups.

The park itself occupies a corner within greater Royal Park, forming part of Melbourne’s largest inner city greenspace. Entering from the southern side, off Gatehouse Street and Flemington Road, Parkville, you’re met with open grasslands, galahs, frisbees and on windy days, kites. Further on there are plantings to represent the Kangaroo Apple season, one of seven climate transitions recognised by the Wurundjeri people and demonstrated here within the landscape.

“We started with the theme of nature play for the design of the park,” says Jeff Nelson, Senior Landscape Architect for the City of Melbourne, who worked on the project from start to finish. “But alongside nature play is the influence of the seven Wurundjeri seasons, which has driven the planting design and play opportunities. Each season is given a particular area in the park, with key species that flower, fruit or emerge at that time of the year, as well as play elements designed to express the season.”

There are in-ground water fountains as part of Biderap, the late summer dry season, and a series of hoops forming an open tunnel – reminiscent of eel traps – for Iuk, the eel season, which falls in March.

The two influences, nature play and the local seasons, permit incredible diversity when it comes to plantings onsite. There are 1,182 trees and 17,500 or so shrubs, tussocks, grasses and climbers within the park. Of the smaller plants, roughly three-quarters of them are local to Melbourne. “The diversity of the planting and its natural, rambling quality really appeals to me from a design perspective,” Jeff says. “There’s a tendency to plant single species beds in public spaces, and particularly playgrounds, to simplify maintenance, and this shows a different approach that has been very successful.”

Part of the strategy to maintain the integrity of the park and its large number of plant species is a full-time, dedicated gardener – a rare thing for public spaces.

Banksias are flowering when I visit for the first time, along with the last of the kangaroo paws and the seasonal rush of pigface (Carpobrotus rossii). When I next visit, two or three weeks later, everything has subtly changed. The stand of casuarinas has grown. The canopies on either side of pathways are suddenly taller, denser, more and more assuming the tangled forms of mature Australian natives. The colours are different, the flowers different, too. Over the course of an hour, the park shakes off the heavy, overnight dew, shards of sunlight begin to warm the ground, and an array of people follow.

“What I’ve noticed is that the park works successfully for a broad range of people,” Jeff tells me. “Initially we weren’t sure how kids above 12 would use the space, but we regularly see groups of teenagers here, making particular use of the climbing forest. We’ve spotted elderly people relaxing in the nest swing or climbing the hill, and groups of people practising parkour often use the space in the evenings when the kids head home.”

Interestingly, the park neighbours the Royal Children’s Hospital, and occupies its former site. “We built the park following the old hospital demolition, so we were starting from scratch, establishing the topography we needed, creating new soil profiles, implementing all the services and infrastructure required to make a park work, and making it all fit seamlessly with the significant existing landscape of Royal Park, and the new Royal Children’s Hospital,” explains Jeff. There are no visible boundaries between the two locations, with the result that the park forms a friendly backyard for the hospital community.

It’s a place of respite, close to the hospital, where families can be together, engaged in positive, fun activity.”

If you look, there are all the hallmarks of traditional playgrounds within the park – swings, slides, climbing jungles. But they are exceptional examples, which individually contribute to a looser, more creative platform for play. You won’t find bright yellow fibreglass here, but you will find happy kids and happy parents (with the result that mobiles are hardly to be seen). There is an adventurous quality that runs through the site, allowing for one simple focus: play. Everyone has permission to muck around here. It might start with the kids but the sense of fun emanates outwards, in a way that’s more or less contagious.

Park rangers leave branches for cubby-building. There’s a mammoth climbing stage constructed from wooden trunks – a pirate ship or the skeletal remains of a dinosaur, depending on which way you look at it – three graduated slides (small, medium and large) that all flow into a gully, and a giant nest swing, which both the elderly and under 8s are known to jostle for.

Defining the park design is its playfulness and acceptance of risk.

Both of these qualities are inbuilt in the play structures, in the dams, pumps, water fountains, and in the rocks that lead stepwise into gullies to meet giant climbing fortresses. Gone are the typically soft corners and in their place is an invitation for kids to explore and engage with nature on their own terms. “We used natural materials such as rocks and logs to form spaces, creating opportunities for play as well as seating or gathering,” Jeff says. “Planting is an equally significant part of the play experience, so there are winding paths through tunnels of plantings, and varied planting approaches from space to space.”

“A cluster of standing rocks provides scale and places to hide behind, and the rocky embankments that edge the play space also offer climbing, clambering, seating and discovery with small clusters of plantings.”

From the hilltop you can see the city, but you can also see all the activity of the park. You can see the elaborate picnics, the BBQs, the kids running headlong across bridges and hospital workers taking their 10-minute nap on the grass. Each spot in the park offers something unique, and contributes to the whole, but on both visits I kept gravitating back to the hilltop, purpose built as part of the site’s clever topology. I mention it to Jeff, who seems to understand the sentiment. “It’s a significant focal point that draws people in and through the space,” he says. “It provides incredible views of the city but also the broad expanses of Royal Park to the north.”

“Being up high appeals to everyone, and the opportunity to roll down a grassy slope brings out the child in many.”