Natural play spaces

Play areas should not only be safe and pleasant but also sympathetic to the environment, says Sally Drury.

Ask 10 children what they like to do in playgrounds and you'll get 10 different answers. One may like to swing, another to slide and a third will be a climber. There might be one that relates to "being Robin Hood or Batman" while another may like to simply meet friends. Others want to run, hide, jump, keep fit or picnic.

The challenge is to provide play for all in a safe and pleasant environment. The provision should also be delivered within budget and on time and be sympathetic with the environment.

In King's Lynn there are five play spaces with trails, roped walkways, craggy rocks for clambering over or sitting on, plus a sprinkling of play products such as a soaring swing and colourful multi-play system, all nestling among the undulating landscape. The sites, recently refurbished and enhanced by Wicksteed Playscapes, now provide the local community with pleasant, verdant spaces for playing inventive games and going back to the outdoor play of yesteryear.

The contract with King's Lynn & West Norfolk Council included the design and build of five sites in all and totalled £230,000. Funding was supplied through the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) and the Improving Neighbours Board for Pulkey Wood, Coronation Wood, Centrepoint and Peck's Field sites plus other monies from the council for the fifth site at Terrington.

The tender was specific. Interestingly, it incorporated new natural play guidelines while still providing a balance of prescribed equipment. A wealth of landscaping, planting and planning based on forward-thinking artistic vision was also required.

King's Lynn & West Norfolk Council green space project officer Michelle Parker says: "The areas designed all involved creating natural play sites to include landscaping and planting, a couple of which are going into light wooded areas and therefore needed to work with the sites. Wicksteed provided clever designs that integrated the equipment into the areas and enhanced the natural feel of the sites through planting."

Natural play has also been brought to West London - and it seems the children of Kensington, Chelsea and surrounding areas are delighted. Timberplay completed a phase-one £400,000 development in Little Wormwood Scrubs in July. The site attracted 500 children on the opening day and since then has seen an average of 150 children visit it each day.

At the Little Wormwood Scrubs site, the nearby trees have been incorporated into the design to provide scope for climbing and exploring. Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea head of extended services Paul Williamson also leads on the Play Pathfinder programme in Kensington & Chelsea - a programme that focuses on natural- and adventure-based play. He says: "As Timberplay structures are constructed primarily from timber they suited the environment exceptionally well. We also appreciated the way Timberplay embraced the existing landscape to create as many opportunities for natural play as possible, which is so important in our densely populated city environment."

The project benefited from the input of the Children's Forum, bringing together local children aged five to 13. The children were involved in the consultation process from day one and were instrumental in making the adventure playground design suitable for all children, including those in wheelchairs or with disabilities. Certain key pieces of equipment, such as the Pyramid Structure and the Inclined Climbing Panel, have been adapted to make them easily accessible, while the sensory and landscape elements of the playground are enjoyed by all.

King's Lynn and Little Wormwood Scrubs are two examples where the installation of natural and adventure play schemes has been successful. The result is sites that are aesthetically pleasing - perhaps more of a requirement for adults - and that provide children with facilities to stimulate their minds, exercise their muscles and develop their social skills. No doubt such success will spur other providers to look at creating natural play sites.

While most would agree that it is beneficial to view play and the environment together, providing natural play requires a great deal of thought and care. Providing natural play is not a case of just creating hillocks and dumping boulders around the site.

Proludic marketing manager Dave Bailey says he has often seen children bypassing natural boulders to get to the equipment that moves and provides a variety of play experiences. "Given the choice, would eight-to 13-year-old children pick boulders and logs or even mounds to play on?" he asks.

"The Design for Play guide details the first principle for good practice as 'Imagine a play space designed to enhance its setting'. This does not mean import soil, boulders and build mounds wherever possible," Bailey continues. "Our approach is to design a landscape setting alongside well-designed equipment that meets the needs of the users."

Bailey also believes there is an imbalance between the encouragement to provide natural play and the need to engage eight- to 13-year-olds. These needs, says Bailey, are very different.

"Eight- to 13-year-olds need physical challenge, exercise and stimulation - opportunities to engage and even compete with each other. Natural play has a benefit to younger children, but provides little for the target group identified by the Government's investment," he says.

Consultation is the key to the Playbuilder programme as it advocates that the community should have a say in the play-space facilities. A recent project undertaken by Proludic saw the refurbishment of the main play area at Lowndes Park, Chesham. The aim was to make the area more accessible, challenging and easier to maintain. Proludic worked with Chesham to provide a well-attended consultation day with the community. A graffiti wall was provided so people could post their opinions.

Work included the removal of 400 tonnes of soil to level out the existing slope and create a terraced area suitable for seating and picnics. From the consultation day, Proludic was able to choose the best equipment for the park. As it was partly Playbuilder-funded, some equipment chosen had to fit the eight to 13 age range. Equipment included a Gyrospiral roundabout, a Pod swing to encourage social play and interaction and an Ixo Multiplay. Some Cradle Seat Swings and a castle-themed multiplay unit were added to appeal to younger children.

The play spaces at King's Lynn, Little Wormwood Scrubs and Lowndes Park in Chesham are popular with children. The sites meet the needs of their communities by providing a variety of activities in natural settings. But they have another thing in common - they all asked the children for their input.

OUTDOOR FITNESS

The Outdoor Fitness range from Record RSS consists of 11 individual stations based on popular gym apparatus and intended to provide exercise for individual muscle groups. The range has been designed to be permanently installed outdoors and to be free for everyone to use, helping to encourage fitness and healthy living in today's busy environment.

Record RSS area manager Alan Eastell says: "Increasing activity for all people, regardless of age, has to be encouraged if we are to raise our levels of fitness and enjoy the benefits it ultimately brings. The Outdoor Fitness Range has been launched to support the need for cross-generation fitness provision within our parks and public spaces. It makes training and informal workouts accessible to all."

Why limit fitness to the park? A range of outdoor equipment from Street Fit is designed to increase participation in regular exercise, improve mental health and agility and reduce obesity. Suitable for anyone from 12 years upwards, the equipment includes Fab Abs sit-up boards, Air Strider, Air Skier and Fitness Bike. Street Fit sells kits to Street Fit Zones in either six- or 11-part sets.

NEW PRODUCTS

Proludic has introduced the Ludic' Area - comprising an innovative combination of new products and services to offer a wide range of unprescribed and education play opportunities. It includes a new range of themed towers measuring up to 7.6m tall and linked by a system of platforms, bridges and slides. Other new items include the Musical Kiosk, which provides a bandstand where users can join together to create music tuned to a musical scale. Sand and water play units bring the parent and children together to share experiences, helping to strengthen family ties. A new range of mazes with interchangeable panels creates sustained interest and adds a unique feature to the play area.

Completely committed to retaining and enhancing natural play elements in its playscapes, Wicksteed has introduced PlayAlive - an electronic fitness and play system complete with 16 LED interactive satellites, flashing coloured lights, sonic sounds and a variety of games for multiple users. Intended to appeal to everyone, but especially eight- to 13 year-olds, the opportunities provided by PlayAlive should motivate youngsters to get out into the fresh air and get fit.

Record RSS has introduced the Scorpion, a design allowing two users to rotate at speed, twisting 360 degs.

The Sky Carver, introduced by Russell Leisure, is a board swing based on the concepts of skateboarding, wakeboarding and kite surfing and allows the rider to emulate the movements and motion associated with these sports. The first in the Adrenaline range, Sky Carver is available in stainless or mild steel finish.

The latest addition to the Inclusive Play (UK) family of products, Cyclops is a 2.4m-high structure incorporating wireless DECT technology and solar power to bring sight and sound adventures to outdoor play. Cyclops enables children to look round the park, find and talk to their Cyclops friend.


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