The best playground is a mud hole

It can cost a city a lot to recreate the play areas we adults had as kids

Posted May 25, 2014

I had the most wonderful time touring the Rio Tinto Naturescape play area in Kings Park, Perth, Australia. Broad sandy paths lead you into an area of the park that has, on the surface, been kept to look like the brown spiky rugged forest of Western Australia. You can practically hear the snakes slithering in the underbrush, and might wonder where the spiders and other creatures are hiding. There still are snakes, of course, some of them dangerous. And there’s water holes that measure more than a metre deep. And tree houses that zoom five metres into the air. But all is not quite as it seems.

Kings Park Chief Executive Officer, Mark Webb, told me that they have created a space for children (and their worried parents) to feel comfortable back in nature. It took some doing. Though there is a babbling brook that the children can dam and wade and fall into, the water is tested daily to ensure it is safe enough to drink. The small warrens that are placed strategically, and the areas where the children have lots of rough sticks and branches to build forts, are all checked methodically each morning to ensure no snakes have settled inside over night. There are state of the art sanitation facilities, and though the walkways over the ponds have no railings, they are designed with small barriers at the edges so wheelchairs won’t take a tumble. In a 15 acre area, two staff roam and carefully tidy spaces (making them look natural again) so the next batch of kids can feel like they are the first to discover the forest.

Not surprisingly, the park worked very closely with their insurer. While it looks rough and wild, in fact there is nowhere in the park where a child can climb more than 1.5 metres above another platform. The ladder up into the treehouse zigzags so that it isn’t possible to fall directly to the ground. Even the huge boulders, brought in from other parts of Australia in some cases and blessed by local Aboriginal people, are carefully positioned so that no tumble will be catastrophic, and no child’s head can get wedged between them. The insurer made sure risks were minimized. Even the big log over the river, which looks completely natural, is placed strategically next to a smaller log a little lower down. The child who slips is going to bounce off that second obstacle before ending up wet and a little bruised.

It’s hard not to be impressed and the park has more than a mailbag full of praise from adults who are reminded of their childhoods. But all of this costs a great deal. Which is odd (but necessary), given that when I was a kid I recall hours spent in the “swamp” at the end of my housing division where we built tree forts, hid treasures, blew things up and lit fires. All over the world, there is an effort to bring back that sense of unstructured adventure for children. The results go from the well-managed chaos at Naturescape to even more mayhem and destruction at The Land in Wrexham, Wales, where kids play in what looks like a junk yard of old couches, tires, and building materials. It's the urban equivalent of the Naturescape.

Wherever these parks are springing up, it seems that the biggest challenge (after insurers and municipal leaders) is getting the parents to calm down and leave their kids alone. They tend to hover, telling kids how to build a fort (rather than letting the kid try and fail a dozen times), to “be careful” and not get wet when children actually quite like that moment of plunging accidentally into a pond. Once the parents back away, the children’s play tends to get more imaginative.

Without any technology to amuse them, undirected visitors to Naturescape (those not in school groups) spend an average of over two hours playing in the park, a remarkable amount of time if you were to look at what there actually is there to occupy the little ones. No shiny slides, no zip lines, no interactive video displays. Nope. But there is a stream and a fresh pile of mud (replenished once a week) and big boulders with bowl like holes hollowed out on their surfaces. It is a creative paradise where water and sand and grass and bits of twig mix into an endless menagerie of small creations. On the park’s website children and their carers have suggested a long list of other possible activities:.

• Climb the rocks.

• Make yourself a bush necklace.

• Weave a giant nest in the Prickly Thicket.

• Have a leaf-boat race in Paperbark Creek.

• Find a quiet place to listen to the sounds of bush.

• Count how many different birds you see at the Lotterywest Bushbase.

• Pretend to be a bilby hiding from a dingo.

• Search for dragonflies on Boomerang Bridge.

• Build a shelter.

• Look carefully for birds in their nests.

Now admittedly, these are all great activities. I also recall as a child creating underground fortresses for toy soldiers and having competitions to see who could successfully bomb the other’s fortress with huge boulders flung from the edges of the sandpit. I lit fires with magnifying glasses. And I recall being tied up and forced into prisons made of fallen branches. I think many of us recall that untamed wild of our childhoods. These new parks are reminding us that our children are much the same as we were and need similar experiences.

For me, these open, less structured activities are about building resilience. A child who self-directs her play, and is given the chance to test her limits on her own may make some mistakes, but may also be ready for what life dishes up later. It may be a stretch, but I’m left wondering if these parks will help us decrease the number of children with anxiety disorders and ADHD we see in our schools these days, and the number of poorly prepared young adults whose parents are doing their homework in university. Though it is not easy, at least some brave park administrators are making the effort to remind us of what our children really need from the adults around them: time apart, and spaces to explore.