Monday, 14 May 2012

Nature deficit disorder

The environmental benefits of re-connecting people of all ages with the natural world, come from greater understanding of and respect for the environment. To make that connection meaningful requires personal experience. We are familiar with ‘armchair travel’ documentaries and have watched as wildlife photographers take us down the Zambezi River. What we miss with the virtual experience is the smell of the earth, the taste of the fresh berries, the feel of the sun warming our back.

People value special places, care for them and in so doing care for themselves and those around them. When we re-connect with Nature we re-connect our communities, get active, get healthy and we all benefit. With pressing environmental concerns adding to physical and mental health issues it’s time to re-connect, build the linkages, value our varied skills and work together. Health practitioners need to work with  landscape professionals, who in turn must work to support the efforts and initiatives of educators, environmentalists, academics, local communities and their representatives.

The problems and possible solutions described in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods are not unique to New Zealand, USA or any other country. They are problems now spread across the world. There has never been a better time to think global, act local. The challenge is to do it with shrinking funding. That’s where the benefits of connecting professionals and budgets become tangible. My measly budget added to your measly budget makes a bigger budget. Together we can achieve more, avoid doubling up of services, capture a wider ‘market’ to provide the natural connection opportunities sustainable communities need.

Nature deficit and sustainability are about more than just the planet’s resources, the community of birds and the trees; it’s also about the health of the people who live there and their hopes for the future. The web of life connects us all. When we destroy a part of the web we destroy a part of ourselves, whether through depression, rickets, obesity or disease.

Friday, 11 May 2012

There is a lot of debate over natural play, the benefits vs risks of natural loose materials as impact attenuating surfaces, and the high cost (environmentally and financially) of rubber wet pour. But what do we learn from all this? I think that although as play design professionals we are coming from differing professional and personal experience our common ground is that we all aim to help build happy, healthy, confident children.

Depending on the community we are designing for shapes their needs and our design response to those needs. Sand has excellent play value - which is why kids love going to the beach. Older kids make use the sensory mass to lie on the warm sand, run and fly kites, build sand castles, dig trenches, build whole cities, bury their little brothers, collect shells and feathers. Young ones squish sand between their stubby toes; pour it endlessly from one bucket to another.  However, sand does compact and I broke my back falling onto wet sand (admittedly at speed and from a height, off a horse), so it wasn't so much fun then. I was lucky. I can now walk.

All this tells me that yes sand has great play value and that being able to manipulate the environment is good for learning about life. Natural play is about reconnecting with the natural world. In an urban setting with no access to a beach it is fun to be able to recreate the environment for land-locked communities. The decision to use an IAS, whether wet pour epdm or sand /bark mulch is as much about health and safety as it is around softening the hard urban landscape. We will never make anything completely safe, but we can lessen or attenuate the impact. - Although falling off a mountain hurts, if our children are climbing a mountain we hope they have matured sufficiently to accept risk and personal responsibility. In an urban play situation we are providing an opportunity for them to learn and mature at their own pace.

I do not believe the choice of IAS is an all or nothing situation. It is possible to introduce nature through playable planting into a wet pour environment, to further soften the hardscape. (‘Sand’ coloured wetpour under high equipment with coastal grass planting on artificial ‘dunes’ has been done) It is also possible to provide community-sized sandpits, and climbing areas, but not necessarily on top of each other. In tight funding situations we need to look at play value for money spent. If a community need high climbing opportunities, some of the money will need to be spent on IAS. In a multi-generational play setting it may be more appropriate to provide a giant sand pit, with a few swings to one side.

It all comes back to what does the community really need and, working within local parameters, how can we best meet that need? (note, this is often quite different to what they think they want!)