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.