Building cubbies, digging holes, damming streams, etc. are all very positive and worthwhile forms of play; but at the same time, they are activities which are best tempered with commonsense if permanent damage to the backyard is to be avoided. Never discourage children from playing with their environment, but do educate them to understand the implications of what they are doing.
Landscaping to foster that awareness in life and to minimise damage to the garden is the desire we all share for our kids and ourselves.
PLAY FOR KIDS
Play is a very important part of a child’s development, and to be properly catered for, children must be given lots of flexibility in what they can do.
There are four different things kids can find in the backyard:
1. Animals Everything from microscopic protozoa, through snails and spiders to the more complex vertebrates such as birds, lizards, dogs and cats.
2. Plants Again, from the simplest microscopic bacteria, to the mosses, fungi and ferns, shrubs and trees. Play can be centered around complete living plants (eg. growing a garden) or parts of plants (eg. arranging flowers or making a whistle from a piece of bamboo).
3. Earth Stones, rocks, sand and soil, etc. are all commonly used in play.
4. Man made objects Toys and playground equipment are the most obvious man made play objects, however such things as buildings, walls, pavements, fences, etc. have tremendous play potential, and don’t cost any extra.
Too often, however, instead of exploiting the play potential of these things, we discourage or even ban play around them.
eg. * Brick walls can become rebound walls.
* Fences and walls can be used for murals, or a lean to cubby.
LANDSCAPING FOR PLAY
A Play space is made up of surfaces, play structures (equipment etc), plants, earth shapes, fences, walls, seats, steps and perhaps other landscape features.
The components of a play space might include:
A. CONTOURING Mounds, slopes, embankments, steps, cliffs
B. SURFACINGS Grass, earth, sand, gravel, mulch, rubber
C. ENCLOSURE Fences, walls, cubbies, other buildings
D. WATER Ponds, fountains, streams, drinking fountains
E. LANDSCAPE FEATURES Statuary, bridges, pergolas, arbors
F. FURNISHINGS Seats, tables, rubbish bins, bbqs, lighting
G. PLANTS Hedges, mazes, topiary, trees, windbreaks
H. PLAY STRUCTURES Slides, swings, see saws, climbing frames
I. OTHER PLAY FACILITIES Games courts, rebound wall, bike trail, skate
area, animal enclosure, etc.
When catering for kids you have the job of selecting and combining these components to achieve an appropriate environment which will enhance play in the area being designed.
If you want your backyard to be good for the kids to play in, you need to consider the following:
#What are the children’s ages?
Toddlers enjoy exploring and learning about their physical surroundings.
It is important to include variety in textures, smells and surfacings. Older children interact more with each other, so the backyard needs to be designed to allow them to play with each other rather than with things.
#How much will the yard be used?
Things which can only be used by one child may create conflict. Crowding makes accidents more likely, so design safety becomes more critical. Leave room around playground equipment, and make sandpits big enough for all the kids. Heavily used play areas need stronger construction and more frequent maintenance.
#How much time will be spent in the yard?
A child’s attention span is short. Some play activities are only suited to playgrounds which are to be used only occasionally or for short periods of time. Don’t expect a child to use the same swing all day every day, but they might use a sand pit more often.
Plants have too often been underused or misused in playgrounds.
Above all, avoid using poisonous plants in areas where small children play. It has been said that more than one third of commonly grown plants have some toxic properties. Children below the age of 5 or 6 frequently place parts of plants in their mouth.
Some of the most popular plants to avoid include:
Angels trumpet Duranta
Ornamental Figs Bulbs
Diffenbachia Star jasmine
On the positive side, plants can be many things to a child’s play:
They can become play structures (providing mazes, cubbies, climbing etc).
They can modify the environment (providing shelter from sun, wind, rain).
They can define spaces (providing enclosure, protection, separating different parts of the playspace).
Trees should be selected according to both strength of timber (ie. ability to withstand use by children), and disease resistance (eg. A birch which is highly susceptible to internal rots can become unsafe for climbing). Prickly or poisonous plants are also unsuitable.
The following trees are better than most to hang a swing from or climb in:
Quercus (The Oaks) Eucalyptus camaldulensis
Fraxinus (The Ashes) Platanus (Plane Tree)
Pinus (Pines) only problem can be sap running from tree wounds.
Prunus excellent small climbing tree for small children.
Lagertroemia indica (Crepe Myrtle) also good for small children.
Schotia (Parrot tree) – also good for small children.
Playground equipment must have soft surfaces under them.
The most lethal surface under any play structure is concrete or ashphalt. Hard surfaces are useful in open areas for playing ball games, but should never be used under equipment. Consider the following table:
The impact force that can cause concussion in a child is 50 times that of the force of gravity (50G). This is how existing surfaces compare:
Materials Height of fall needed to result in a 50G impact
Concrete or asphalt less than one foot
Packed earth about two feet
Standard rubber tile about four feet
Double rubber tile about eight feet
Wood chips (6inches deep) about ten feet
Sand (12inches deep) about twelve feet
*From ‘Danger on the Playground’ by Ayrton
CHILDREN’S PLAY EQUIPMENT:
Development of the child both mentally and physically starts at home. If the child is allowed to explore his surroundings and play in it, he or she will develop a better mental and creative mind than their house bound friend next door. The garden is very often the first educational system a child comes into contact with.
Sand pits: These are often the first play pens of a child. Ensure that it is sturdy, does not hold water, has a cover to displace rainfall and prevent animals contaminating sand, and has protection from the hot sun.
Consider when building the pit to put a layer of gravel beneath the sand to discourage children from digging into the soil and mixing earth with the sand.
Swing Sets and Climbing Units:
These play equipment pieces are made of timber, metal or plastic (PVC) with the occasional piece of rope or chain. Ensure all edges are rounded and smooth, pieces do not come off, it is relatively child safe (nothing is actually 100% child safe), it is visible from your house and it is ideally positioned near shade.
This is the pinnacle of children’s garden furniture. See below for more details.
All play areas must pass your safety standards. Look for sites that might harbour spiders and snakes and avoid those sites or equipment. Children’s play is most creative when the child feels they are alone and out of sight of parents. However, common sense says that a young child should always be kept in view for safety reasons. How you wish to meet these two contradicting designing values is up to you. Good creative designing on your part will find an answer.
Cubby Houses are very important in a child’s life. They give children a place of their own, where they can do things which can’t be done anywhere else (even in their bedroom). For kids, a cubby is a place of their own. No one is likely to insist it is kept tidy or tell them not to do this or that. They can make their own rules and play their own games.
They don’t have to be a makeshift eyesore in the garden, but be sure to remember it’s the children’s building, and they must be the interior decorators. If the parents build, buy or arrange everything inside the cubby it will stop being the kid’s cubby and become the parent’s cubby.
Safety is also an important factor. A well constructed, well finished cubby will not only look good but will reduce the likelihood of injuries that so often occur in poorly constructed cubbies.
Look for timber, rather than steel structures; make sure windows are of perspex or plastic for safety; and include a sturdy floor. The floor is important, also from a safety viewpoint, as it prevents the construction of “secret escape tunnels” which can be very dangerous.
If the structure is tall, and there is any chance of a child falling, the surface under it should be something soft such as a thick layer of sand or mulch. This will absorb the impact and greatly reduce any chance of injury.
About the Author: