Thursday, May 29, 2014

Charlie's Natural Play Space

Like most adults, my childhood memories of play generally occurred outdoors. With the freedom of children in the 1970s, my friends and our siblings roamed not only our neighbourhood on the outskirts of Melbourne but also the undeveloped land surrounding us, where remnant bushland and retired farmland gave us unlimited connection with nature and unsupervised play opportunities from a young age - the instructions to "look after your brother/sister" and "be home before its dark" rang in our ears as we raced out the door.

My own children, fortunate to grow up in the same neighbourhood as both their parents, found their own nature play spaces, even though many of our own were now sub-divided and out of bounds. Their roaming spaces were smaller and more play occurred in back yards, but their was still plenty of dirt, mud and risk taking going on unseen by parental eyes. Cubby houses, mud pie creations and endless games of imagination went on from dawn to dusk in the summer holidays and on weekends and school days when increasing extracurricular activities permitted.

Another generation is now growing up in that very same neighbourhood! My daughter, her husband and daughter have recently moved in with us for the foreseeable future. Where before, it was a part-time space on the days I cared for her while mum is at work, our back yard is now a full-time play space for my 13 month old granddaughter Charlie. And while we are still blessed with green spaces close at hand, even more areas have been sub-divided for housing and increasing fear of predatory adults means unsupervised play is rare now - and likely to be rarer by the time Charlie is of an age to gain such freedom.

There is concern around the world about children's reduced access to natural place spaces and free play outdoors. Our idyllic local environment - where we can access the beach, bushland and rural spaces within a five minute drive from our front door and have an abundance of community spaces many parts of the world could only dream about - is not to be taken for granted. We need to ensure all children have access to outdoor play.

Our family attend a weekly playgroup Nature Kids, uniquely using local natural spaces as its venues and using the environment to let our children play and learn. Charlie began attending the group before she was 9 months old and is thriving on the experience. This has motivated me to further encourage outdoor play at home by establishing an age-appropriate mini-natural space for her play in our garden.

I knew from the experiences Charlie enjoys at Natured Kids some of the elements I wanted to include in her play space - and Pinterest helped me develop those concepts into practical ideas. Rather than list all the sources of inspiration here, hop over to my Pinterest Board Natural Backyard Play Spaces and have a look.

The obvious requirements were: sand, water, dirt, mud, stones, sound, light and air. And art.
This space is intended for toddler play, so it needed to be contained, visible and relatively safe. I have many plans and dreams for our backyard, with a focus on making it a children's delight for Charlie, her friends and future siblings and cousins to come. A replacement cubby house (our beloved one is literally falling apart at the seams), realms for fairies, dragons and other folk are gradually evolving from garden beds, space for riding trikes and bikes along our brick-paving and more are on the drawing board. But - for now - an obvious space lent itself to my plan. An area beneath our Flame Tree, where long-term drought and water restrictions, competition for water and nutrients amongst multiple established tress and my limited abilities had rendered a dream garden bed to look like this:

A blank slate after my wonderful backyard blitz in January
Adjacent to the garden beds being planted to attract fairies, butterflies and small girls picking flowers, immediately down from our deck, beside the clothes line and offering both sun and shade year round, this would be the ideal location.

Bricks were lifted and a retaining wall put in place to both level the space and accommodate the sand area. A swing set was bought second-hand, as were a toddler slide, a small playhouse, water-play table and some child-sized chairs. Although this is a natural play-space, some plastic is needed and buying it used reduces the impact on the environment. As she grows, some of these will be replaced or no longer needed and passed on.

Enjoying her new space already - and it isn't yet complete!
Now the hardware was in place, it was time to get dirty! This girl loves to get in and check it all out!

Not one to pass up an opportunity, the bricks were barely lifted and the play began!
All this was being undertaken at a ridiculous time in our lives. Following my husband's unexpected brain surgery, he was unable to drive for three months, which not only impacted on his work life but also meant he was not able to drive his car for family purposes - and his was the only car able to tow a trailer! Added to this, we were in the throes of downsizing our household AND my daughter's and beginning the gradual merging of the two. Throw in Charlie's first birthday, a family wedding on her father's side and a bout of illness knocking our household for six, it was a very frustrating time as I am so reliant on others to do any heavy work!

However, my vision was affirmed as Charlie took delight in playing outside at EVERY opportunity! I began to see my winter huddled under an umbrella, rugged up and pushing the swing endlessly! Her enjoyment pushed me to keep going until the full dream was realised. I drew my vision to share with the family:

I sourced second-hand materials for the project - free rocks, tree stumps from a neighbour when a grand tree was sadly removed and various odds and ends for the music wall. Apart from some blue board and a tin of blackboard paint - plus the timber etc hubby used to build the retaining wall - everything else has had a previous life before this.

And so - finally - I can call it done (well, tomorrow will see a final coat of blackboard paint and a tree stump has an appointment with a chain saw to create the stools).  There will obviously be additions as they come our way and evolution over time. But for now -

All the pieces in their places
So what does the end user think? I'll let you be the judge:
One happy toddler!!!
I hope we have inspired you to give up a little bit of outdoor space for child's play. We live on an average suburban block and this space is maybe the size of a single garage. We have spent a couple of hundred dollars on the retaining wall, sand and blackboard. And converted a disappointing space into one with real purpose.

And finally, as autumn tumbles into winter, a little glimpse into other areas of our garden which make me smile right now.

In Granny's Garden magic happens


Anonymous said...

Beautiful garden. I'm sure lots of magic does happen in your garden. I am in the beginning stages of creating something similar for my little one. You have provided lots of inspiration and new ideas. Thanks for sharing. :)

Becky said...

We lived on a 3 or 4 acre block of land on which our father had the most wonderful garden to supplement his work shoeing horses back in the 1940s. Apricot trees gave us fresh fruit, jam and stewed fruit served with custard. We never felt poor and enjoyed visiting grandfathers farm which had a milking cow and also fowls and turkeys,geese too.

Becky said...

During summer, we had tomato jam as well as in tomato and cucumber salad. The butcher supplied us with fresh meat. Dad also grew potatoes and pumpkin and beans. Mum was a great cook and also made scones and fruit cakes. All this was during the war years of rationing mainly of sugar and tea. Kerosene lamps were used as there was no electricity. Aunt B.