Play Matters – The Impact of Landscapes on Play

The garden at Coombe in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, once the home of Dame Nellie Melba, is 7+ acres of incredible gardens, including a hedge with a tunnel to a secret garden, where reportedly Dame Nellie’s grandchild loved to play. Wouldn’t that be an incredible childhood memory?

Studies over generations have shown the benefits that play of all forms brings to children. We know that outdoor play in particular supports physical activity, a love of nature, language development, creativity, problem solving skills and negotiation. It supports imagination, self-expression and impulse-control. You just have to quietly observe a group of kindergarten children ‘at work’ creating fairy gardens to see this in real-time, as their approach to teamwork develops, ideas are shared and hypotheses tested. However, play isn’t – or shouldn’t be – simply the domain of the early years.

Photo by Alaric Sim on Unsplash

One of the byproducts of the many lockdowns in urban areas was the creation of BMX tracks in reserves and parks that saw tweens and teens immersed in designing and then constructing ‘bump’ tracks – which hasn’t come without consternation, often with good reason as revegetated areas and infrastructure were sometimes damaged in the process. That said, and ecological and safety concerns notwithstanding, seeing these tracks pop up, and witnessing the excitement, dedication and commitment of the kids involved was a reminder that the benefits of play extend far beyond the preschooler years. It brought front and centre the stark reality that once children leave the typical play-based development stages of kindergarten and early primary school years, their opportunity for play is diminished- particularly non-goal or parent-led play, as activities beyond kindergarten move to organised sport and extracurricular activities such as music lessons, dance and drama. The impact on teenage girls is even more concerning. This lack of play opportunity is a consideration we like to keep in focus in every design that leaves the studio, but particularly those where humans will be interacting with the space: aka all of them

But back to the importance of play on those critical early years – research tells us that play enables development, and a natural flow-on from this is greater self-esteem. This is because kids who have strong social skills, creative thinking abilities and a positive affect, all harnessed through play, are simply the people that other kids are drawn to, want to be around. They build bonds with others and are able to extend their thinking in a way that’s non-combative or instructionally adult-led. We know that when ‘play’ is didactic or adult-directed the impact on social development is diminished. Socio-emotional development needs active and semi-independent use by children to enable functions such as self-regulation and socialisation.

There are three broad categories of play – solitary, parallel and group play. All three serve a purpose to a child’s development. By definition, play is spontaneous and joyous. Opportunities and physical space to allow this are key. Spaces that can facilitate all three are actually really simple to incorporate into a landscape design.

Our residential designs include spaces or areas for adults to be able to kick back and keep an eye on proceedings, as well as being accessible to join in. One of our projects included a deck designed to do double duty as a ‘cafe’ where a child kept her parent well-fuelled with banksia cone ‘muffins’ as well as a laboratory where she made ‘potions’ from lily pilly fruit. Another project of ours that was heavily sloped lended itself to retaining walls with a rock climbing wall, hide and seek corners, a slide as well as a hill to roll down.

Our commercial designs, both in educational settings and community spaces have included features such as tree stump stepping stones which facilitate counting games, proprioception activities such as weaving in and around them as well as social games such as follow the leader. Of course, any opportunity to add some sensory details are always a good idea – be it via a giant sandpit or a strategically planted herb.

There is no doubt that play is essential to child development, but for the team at Orterra the opportunity to design with play in mind is one of the key perks to our work. Knowing that our landscape architecture enables lifelong skills is a buzz we can’t describe!

To find out more about our work please reach out.

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