Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Natural play in urban settings

You may think what the play industry describes as natural play only occurs in urban settings. However, if you look at children growing up in rural areas, their play is generally natural. They climb trees, swing out over rivers on flimsy lengths of rope, dig holes in earth banks, create huts and hideouts in long grass, under old pieces of wood and create their own fun.They thrive on few rules, except those made up to play new games. As adults those children are more likely to be entrepeneurial, manage suucess and failure well, are sociable, ready to explore new options and enjoy good mental and physical health.

Urban children can experience a similar range of natural play opporuntites, but only if we, the adult authority, allow it. We make the rules that state no treehouses may be erected...no home-made skate ramps may be left on the footpath/sidewalk...no climbing on the sunshetler roof of the toddler play equipment in the local park.

That leaves us with a challenge. As most people in the western world now live in urban areas what sort of communities do we want for the future? What sorts of people do we need to be the economy that will support us in our old age? How we shape our children today will have a direct bearing on us in our latter years.

Already we have seen our elderly neighbour incarcerated by her family as being 'too much trouble'. The 'me' generation emerging from teen-hood now have largely missed natural play in their formative years. They expect life to be 'as expected'. When it is not they do not know how to deal with it (and lock their mother away in a home rather than deal with her changing circumstance).

Natural play is about much more than a few logs in a playground, is about giving children the freedom to play. As adults we can make it easy for them or hard. It is up to us to allow a bit of mess, the chance of a skinned knee if they fall. It is up to us, as landscape architects, as urban planners, as parents, as city planners, as teachers and health care providers to provide for free natural play, even in urban settings.