Thursday, 2 February 2012

"Wild Spaces - Adventure Places"

  "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature.... 
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."
Helen Keller (1880 - 1968), The Open Door (1957)

What do you do when you have a day off work – there is not a cloud in the sky and it is 41C in Perth, Western Australia? Go EXPLORING of course..... better still go exploring with somebody who has the same sense of adventure and interest in promoting play for young children! Alec, a fellow ECE blogger Child’s Play Music, and I agreed to meet at the entrance of one of Perth’s exciting new play spaces for children (and adults!) of all ages - Rio Tinto Naturescape Kings Park.

We reflected on what we felt are ideal outdoor environments for children as well as the essential element of risk children should be allowed to explore and experience and in fact ...... have a RIGHT to be trusted to explore as self risk assessors! As we visited the Naturescape together we decided to write our posts simultaneous and release our blog posts at the same time! We have not collaborated or consulted on this one and I can’t wait to see Alec’s perception and perspective of what I would now consider one of the best 'wild' play spaces for young children.
How refreshing to see so few 'rules' and signposts in an area used by children - I find it sad that designers often feel they need to explain how children should use a space, list all possible risks and then display so many rules that we don't even read them anymore. At the entrance is a non intrusive display raising awareness of the natural hazards and the associated risks of an environment - how much better to explore these possible risks relatively 'safely' rather than totally removing them. Humour and child friendly words are used, often the best approach with young children.

Sensible attitude to natural risk!

Children scramble up the metal rungs in bare feet

'The Treehide' structure is an invitation to all climbers and risk takers, the steep metal rungs sloping and angled so that climbers have to remain constantly alert and concentrate as they make their way to the top. From the platform there is a bird’s eye view and glimpses of what is to come - the promise of more to come is always a great motivation to keep investigating.

 The Treehide can be seen in the background

Rungs unevenly spaced to offer challenge

This viewpoint is a space for reflection (and recovery!) and not so much a place to engage in a particular activity - I watched the children climb up, take a quick look and climb down again....the challenge of the climb being the motivation and goal.

From the top of the Treehide the gentle sound of water can be heard and on further investigation this leads to "The Spring" which in the Australian heat is immediately appealing. A collection of large angular rocks with carefully designed grooves, hollows, dips and puddles could be seen from the viewpoint. This and the shadow pictures the trees made on the stone and the earth enticed me down to explore more closely.                   

Enticing view of 'The Spring' from the top of the Treehide
Giant blocks of stone of different heights and sizes with water pouring over the edge creating  small waterspouts tempt children to explore the cool water - fingers, hands, feet, heads and whole bodies enjoy the sensation. To find the source of the water children need to climb to the top of the stone - a large circular hollow creating a high up puddle to walk through, sit in, lie and float leaves in. How inviting is that!!!
Carefully selected stones add the detail

A place to sit quietly and to just BE

Two young boys, who were obviously familiar with this space. arrived and immediately chose to explore the potential of the large puddle – they walked through it, sat in it, ‘directed’ the collection of stones needed, piled them up, lined them up, sorted them and tried to use them to block the water flow. A piece of bark was used to dam up the puddle with the comments: “it stopped, it stopped a little bit, some is getting under, it doesn't work”. Eucalyptus leaves floated in the puddle, down the groove and then dropped off the ‘cliff’ much to the boys' delight. The adult calmly and quietly supported only when requested by the children.
Some of the resources nature offers
Trying to stop the waterflow
Giant stone blocks - his favourite place 

A  small bird splashing in a puddle drew my attention to a large stone slab with an assortment of hollows of different sizes and depths with water that had collected in them. The bird left tiny water footprints on the stone, fingers and a feather made handy writing tools - although the feather writing evaporated very quickly - and sticks of different diameters and textures created interesting marks depending on the amount of water they held and the detail of the 'point' of the stick.

Evidence of bird 'play'
A little bird using the water hollows

Sticks marks

Finger marks
Feather marks

Adding soil to make mixtures

A strategically placed mound of rich ocher coloured soil invites children to transport and then experiment with water and soil mixtures to create mud paint, mud pies, mud sculptures and any other use they can make of the water and soil combination.

There are no buckets or other man-made tools to transport the water encouraging children to be creative in their thinking – not easy as the natural tools I would normally choose to use would include large leaves or rolls of bark that would allow me to create a water channel to divert the water from the spring to the hollow but these were not easily found.

I could have spent the whole day playing in this space - there are other interesting stone and hollow structures to investigate as well as a large gravel pit which was not well used on the day but has great play just means I will have to go back to see how the children use these opportunities!

Paperbark Creek is a natural gathering place for adults and children
The water courses offered some respite from the heat and not surprisingly, were the most popular sites on the day. Children were building intricate waterways, using an assortment of carefully selected stones, sticks, seedpods and mud to create dams and bridges. What struck me was the sense of calm purposeful play I could see and feel around me - the sound of water and children of mixed ages contentedly playing and learning without any adults ‘interfering’ contributed to this. Children were fully engaged and I could not hear any raised voices from adults or children.

This calmness is what nature brings us - there are no walls to 'bounce off', the environment constantly changes as the seasons change and as the children using this space create changes. These changes can be subtle or drastic capturing children’s attention and imagination and inviting them to explore this space and the opportunities on offer over and over again. Adults with the children were also relaxed and allowed (trusted) the children to just ‘BE’ – some sat in the shade reading while others chatted to friends. There was no rush or sense of urgency and no parents over anxious about the activity their child had chosen to engage in. I have often observed this when adults and children are in a wild natural space together, both appear less stressed and much calmer - could it be the lack of walls and fences, the lack of man made rules?

Time to get to know each other and 'work' collaboratively

Natural creativity- using stones and water
A place of high play affordance - with so much to offer

Interesting structures that could be anything

These water play spaces offer a wide range of sensorial opportunities and experiences – children barefoot, temperature changes - cool water, hot sunshine, slight breeze, dark cool shadows. Textures - fine sand, loose gravel, stones, rocks, bark, seedpods, leaves. Sounds – fast flowing streams, waterfalls, gentle trickling, laughter, silence. Surprises from the sky – birds coming down to drink water or bathe, a stunning array of fluorescent dragonflies hovering and settling in amongst the children as well as butterflies flitting around. A trail of ants crossing a path, colourful beetles scurrying about and spiders building intricate webs. This must be paradise to young children! I did not see any snakes but was ready with my camera - I have only seen one snake in Australia and it got away before I could photograph it!
Cubbies and shelters. Metal domes and piles of logs, branches and sticks invite children to build their own dens
Places to hide and get away from those ever-watchful adult eyes are another of the needs of children catered for in this environment. There are shelters, Dingo Dens, as well as a variety of different sized metal frame domes. Sticks, branches and logs placed in the vicinity encourage children to design and create their own cubbies or build on to existing shelters.

Alec photographing the fire-circle in a cubbie
Shelter - to be completed later?

There was evidence of children having created pretend fires inside the shelters - a natural urge of the human race is to sit around a fire sharing and reflecting and it is no wonder that children also have this urge. I would love to see children being able to make real fires under the watchful supervision of bush rangers or forest school leaders - even a small 5 minute fire in a firebowl will allow children to investigate the properties of fire, build up a knowledge and become aware of keeping themselves and the natural environment safe. The Naturespace was closed the day after we visited due to the heat and increased fire risk and will be closed for the rest of February!

What struck and impressed me was that there were no brightly coloured plastic or man made ‘toys’ to be seen; either children had not brought any or they did not choose to use them. I would think that children realise that nature provides what they need and the challenge is to find the most appropriate resource for the job. Working together in multi aged groups allows children to learn from each other and add to their creativity.
Names underwater
Fairy with wings

A seed pod shop

Natural creativity was evident everywhere – children writing their names in the water using carefully selected stones, or using stones of different sizes to create bridges and castles with moats. Two little girls proudly showed us the smiling fairy with wings and hair they had created using specially selected sticks, leaves, seeds and seedpods. When it was time to go they created a ‘shop’ by sorting the different natural materials they had been using in their transient artwork for other children visiting the area to use.

Upside down trees and large ropes at different heights create challenge for all ages.
We followed some children through a metal 'maze' which echoes with sound as children run through it to discovered another hidden world - upside down trees with roots reaching up to the sky, giant ropes suspended between these tree posts, huge metal rings! We had found the "Tangle" another place inviting us to take a risk, face a challenge........just what children need!

Maze - combination of metal and stone
Child's view of one of the 'posts'

Self risk assessing

How it all fits together

Alec managed to climb nearly but not quite the top! Two young boys scrambled onto the lowest ropes and were proud and so chuffed with their achievement; "I did it!" They did not attempt to go any higher; "it's wibbly, wobbly", "don't shake it, you will make me fall!" I feel this is another great opportunity for children to self risk assess and only use the equipment as they feel able to - the complexity of the rope structures allows a different challenge for all regardless of age - no adult needs to tell children how high they can climb .

Sticks and logs - open ended resources with a high play affordance

"The Prickly Thicket" offers another opportunity to create or complete structures by weaving sticks, branches, leaves and reeds between the metal bars or by placing sticks or large pieces of bark on them to make a roof or wall. There are a variety of these metal structures; one shaped like a giant basket another an igloo - or should that be a twigloo! These reminded me of baskets - giant baskets - but a comment made by a boy of about 10 was "looks like a jail" as he looked through the bars!

A giant basket?

The bars?

Is there anything I would change in this naturescape?
Metal walkway
Concrete and metal walkway
Rubberized surface

I would have to say that the large metal and concrete pathways were visually  intrusive and very hot to walk on. I did wonder if these were created to allow wheelchair access but then there are many paths in the environment that would not be -  I much preferred the dusty natural paths meandering through the bush. I would also question why it was necessary to put an artificial rubber surface in the large shelter although I was grateful that it was not in the bright primary colours that I am seeing in so many playgrounds now! I am hoping that the shiny new steel used in the cubbies, paths and other structures will weather and 'dull down' with time to be less visually intrusive.
A Billabong with a child-friendly reminder not to disturb the tadpoles instead of just warning not to swim!

This Naturespace is a place to visit regularly to be able to build on previous experiences, a place to spend long periods of time and allow in-depth investigations, a place to explore and be allowed to make changes to take come ownership, a place where time slows down to nature time, a place where children are trusted to be self risk assessors.

It is a place full of surprises, the unexpectedness of a wild space adds riches to the experiences and increases curiosity. Picking up a stone could reveal a cool damp spot, a little bug or a clump of soil still attached. The leaves on the ground change all the time, different shapes, colours, textures, smells – some curled up ones or ones shaped like numbers and some with holes in them!

Colours in nature vary from browns to greens to reds and the hundreds of shades in between. Nature's pallet has a visually calming effect with its gentle and subtle tones and only occasional bright splashes of colour to draw our attention. Children add the colour. These are the treasures children will find in this amazing wild 'paradise' in Perth.

Conclusion: The best public "play" space I have seen in Australia!
Naturescape does not offer the nature many children currently access - what I call CANNED NATURE with manicured gardens, over plasticised playgrounds, nature brought inside and sanitised and highly stressed adults worried about the risk! There are man made structures but there is also a lot of WILD nature children can explore and change and where children can take the risks they feel comfortable with and adults can support children to make these discoveries.
"There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million"
Walt Streightiff


  1. Oh my Niki - what an amazing and inspiring space. I hope this is the start to more of them Australia wide. I'd heard about it, but these are the first images I've seen. I have so many memories of Kings Park as a kid - my Nan lived in West Perth within walking distance and whenever we went to stay there were loads of adventures in Kings Park to be had :)

    1. I am also hoping that children everywhere will have opportunities like these on offer at this amazing space - next time you are here in WA let me know and we can go and play together! What is sad is that with the current ratios allowed by the regs not many Educators will be able to bring the children here .... a 1:1 or a 1:2 ratio is hard enough but first aid and a bronze medallion are also needed - just to allow children to wade in shallow water! I can't wait for the new regs to come into effect in WA........this would 'free' many up to take children to such exciting places.

  2. Thank you - wouldn't it be great if every city has a space like this but more importantly - that parents and educators choose to take children there instead of manicured parks (if there is the option)and indoor entertainment centres. I will still add to this blog - was a bit of a rush/race with Alec so curricular links, quotes and research not in yet :-) My competitive streak!

    1. I have wondered what it looks like completed.
      Since Tim Gill & Richard Louv have delivered their presentations to decision makers, we have seen change. a quantum leap !!!!
      Hope it continues, and we become less risk-averse, building adventurous & resilient children for the future.

    2. I so agree. I have worked with both Tim Gill and Richard Louv in Scotland and the other big influence has been Claire Warden who is now well known internationally. Children deserve a rich childhood and taking risks and being allowed to explore wild spaces is part of that! I am working on some projects here in Australia to promote this and am already seeing change!

  3. Love it! Thank you for sharing! :)

  4. Niki,

    A lovely post and an amazing space!!! I am coming to Perth in April to run the first Bush Schools/Forest Schools course in Austrailia, which is about long term, regular opportunties in a natural space for personal, social and emotional development, using play, outdoor living skills and tracking to engage children with nature. :-) Exactly what Tim Gill and Richard Louv are after :-)

    If you or anyone you know is interested, please look at

    All the best

    Paul Moseley
    Training Manager

    1. Hi Paul
      Thank you for your comments and maybe we can meet when you come to Perth!

      Your comment about Bush/Forest schools training in Australia is interesting - Claire Warden of Mindstretchers (has created a Forest/Bush school training course for Australia and this is being run all over Australia this year! Her accredited training has been developed over the past year after intensive research and discussion with indigenous Elders to make it culturally relevant for Australia. This training also includes her now world recognised consultative approach woven in and a strong focus on young children.

      It would be interesting to hear more about the training you are offering - I can be e-mailed at

  5. Niki - I think our posts complement each other very well. We've seen different things within the same environment, yet our overall take is similar. Love the picture of me up in The Tangle - it felt higher than that when I was actually climbing!

    I'm sure the steel will mellow somewhat with age but in the end it's zinc-plated steel. It's never going to look like it belongs and it's never going to get any cooler. The other steel structures like in Prickly Thicket and the maze are not plated, so they look much more a part of the bush, but even they aren't as attractive as they might have been in different materials.

    For all that - it's still the best playground I've seen :)

  6. This is absolutely beautiful!! What an amazing place for the children to explore and enjoy. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Niki, I am a fifth year architecture student writing a paper and creating a presentation about the importance of play in child development and how that manifests itself in architecture. Would you mind if I used some of your images from this post in my presentation materials to show what a wonderful play space this is? I will, of course, offer you and your blog credit in a caption and/or bibliography-whatever your preference is.
    Thanks so much!

  8. Hi Veronica
    Not a problem as long as you acknowledge me! I would be very interested in hearing more or seeing your paper - I am passionate about children having access to naturalistic spaces that encompass risk and challenge.
    Good luck

  9. Excellent reference to risk and challenge x stunning environment I love the water pools in the rocks and all the visitors and play encountered there x children have a right to be in these spaces, I love you passion niki to advocate and educate x