Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Natural Play and wildscapes in Berlin

In Berlin last month I was privileged to visit many natural play sites, meet the users, share fresh berries with parents and children and experience the hot, summer weather. As someone who concentrates primarily on the why questions, from my consultancy's research based design perspective, it was interesting to see both how the sites were developed, and how they were being used.

Given the extreme heat - it was 38C - young children and their families largely sought natural shade. They also enjoyed splashing about in water. The photos show a small neighbourhood park, what might be called a pocket park, surrounded by mixed social housing, privately owned apartments and a residential care home for seniors. Around the edges and through the middle of the park deciduous trees have been planted to effect summer shade, while allowing winter light in to the surrounding buildings. Birds flock to the mixed plantings, attracted by insects, fruits and flowers. The berries I mentioned are planted alongside the main paths and include currants, raspberries and blackberries. Local people tend the plants, pruning as required, and picking and eating the ripe fruit as they enjoy the public space.

Families use the space as an extension to their home. As a publicly owned resource, it is theirs to enjoy. Small inflatable paddling pools are brought to the park, and filled from the pump. Water pistols are filled from the paddling pools and children shriek with delight as they soak their parents. The extensive use of trees and sand allows for exploratory play - creation and destruction, exploring the tensile strength of wood as a branch is bounced on until it breaks. There are abundant spaces to play hide and seek, and outdoor table tennis tables for older users.

So much of natural play is about how a space is managed. In Berlin the parks managers I met take a tolerant view of natural play. The children and their extended families value the spaces set aside for their enjoyment, and protect them from misuse. They are also quick to help out with official plantings of new trees, shrubs and edible plants, or to organise 'guerrilla gardening'efforts whereby some parks and playgrounds are planted with things the parents want to see there, without waiting for permission to come from the authorities.

In talking with teachers and health practitioners many of the childhood ailments from other parts of the world are absent from Berlin. This state of good health is attributed to the robust mental health of children well connected with nature, who spend time playing outdoors throughout the year. It is dependent on the availability, design and management of such pocket parks as healthy environments. With ecological health comes human health and well-being. Natural play connects children and their families with nature, bringing inter-generational benefits to the wider community.

Copyright 2013. Gayle Souter-Brown. All rights reserved.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Natural play and its effect on behaviour

Have a look at this video on natural playgrounds in Berlin You Tube natural play video. It says everything really.

I am going on a study tour to Berlin led by the acclaimed Norwegian architect Frode Svane in 2 weeks time so will post  my findings, and some photos, after that.
We were delighted to win the European design competition to develop a natural playground for a prestigious international school in Moscow, Russia. The scheme is challenging in that everything we put into the natural play scheme must work year round. The playground is under a heavy snow cover for 5 months of the year, so tunnels and boulder mounds must work when bare and when covered with snow. Swings must be sufficiently high off the ground so the children can access them when the ground level is raised with snow cover as well as during the brief summer months. Materials need to be robust - there are no cheap options in an environment that ranges from -20 to +35C.

Exposure to natural light is vital for the health and well-being of our children. The sun powers our energy flow systems, food webs and human health and well-being. In environments such as Moscow where it does not  get light until 11am in winter we need to encourage children to play outside. We need to give them an extra impetus and incentive to get outside, to enjoy the natural playground, even if it is dark! Working with the environment allows us to make the most of a potential negative and turn it into a positive. With fairy lights woven through abundant planting, the trees act almost as street lights, lighting the surrounding area in a magical way that emphasises the raw beauty of the winter wonderland. Once the children are engaged with their natural play space they will access it whenever they can, and make the most of the brief daylight hours.

This particular project comes with an existing site that provides design cues. The " Kremlin" is a massive climbing tower that gives the school character and a sense of location. Our natural playground has to soften the Kremlin, leaving it as the iconic centerpiece it rightly is, while blending it into the environment with planting and natural play features. We will post photos of the completed scheme when we're done.

With so much snow and ice about it can get very slippery. Again we are using that as an advantage and providing 'slides' - ice skating and luge runs. Where the risk benefits of natural play outweigh potential negatives the children have an opportunity to enjoy outdoor play. As play designers working to improve public space and school grounds designs we are constantly researching new ideas, reviewing existing research and getting to know our current and potential future clients better. We look to best practice examples to see what works best where, and why. For the Moscow project we have found inspiration in Canada, Germany, Norway and UK.

Nature deficit disorder causes known harm. In response to this we are working to reconnect children with nature through natural play, regardless of where they live. Our aim is to prevent childhood depression. This is no small task and we are grateful for the affirmation of our work from the IMF and World Bank. This year our attention is on Russia, UK and New Zealand. Next year we are looking forward to new natural play projects in Tanzania and the US.