Canberra's playgrounds have evolved since the safety-obsessed 80s and 90s

Description

An article reflecting on attitudinal changes to playgrounds in Canberra

Period19 Mar 2018

Media contributions

1

Media contributions

  • TitleCanberra's playgrounds have evolved since the safety-obsessed 80s and 90s
    Degree of recognitionRegional
    Media name/outletThe Canberra Times
    Media typePrint
    CountryAustralia
    Date19/03/18
    DescriptionIt's a scene of pure joy - three young kids playing outside in a burnt-out car, with the sun on their faces and scabs on their knees. This photo was captured by The Canberra Times in 1975, and it's hard to imagine a similar scene playing out in Canberra today. The car would be fenced off before being removed, and most parents probably wouldn't let their kids anywhere near it, for fear of snakes, tetanus, or something worse. Share on Facebook SHARE Share on Twitter TWEET Children playing on the maze at Weston Park in 1973. Children playing on the maze at Weston Park in 1973. And besides, there would now be a perfectly good playground somewhere nearby instead. It's an ingrained part of family life in Canberra, but we have come a long way when it comes to play spaces. Share on Facebook SHARE Share on Twitter TWEET Children playing in a burnt out car next to the Forrest Primary school in a photo from 1975. Children playing in a burnt out car next to the Forrest Primary school in a photo from 1975. Today's kids are treated to large, bespoke playgrounds, carefully designed every step of the way to ensure their enjoyment, mental and physical stimulation and, above all, safety. And the ACT Government wants to continue this trend. The City Renewal Authority is holding a survey to find out what families want from their playgrounds. Advertisement The results of the survey, which closes on March 21, will help "guide the design and creation of future play spaces in the City Renewal Precinct, especially as part of the new high-quality public realm that will be created as part of the redevelopment of West Basin". AM & PM Update Newsletter Get the latest news and updates emailed straight to your inbox. By submitting your email you are agreeing to Fairfax Media's terms and conditions and privacy policy. Cathy Hope, an assistant professor at the University of Canberra, is the founder of the Play, Creativity and Wellbeing Project, which will draw on the results of the City Renewal Authority's playground survey. Share on Facebook SHARE Share on Twitter TWEET Professor Cathy Hope at the National Arboretum playground. Professor Cathy Hope at the National Arboretum playground. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos As part of the project, she's part-way through an audit of the city's main destination playgrounds, which she says has demonstrated society's more enlightened relationship to play spaces. "It is very apparent that Canberrans love their playgrounds, and take them seriously, because they're basically people's backyards and they treat them as such," she says. Share on Facebook SHARE Share on Twitter TWEET Landscape architect Neil Hobbs, who designed the Boundless playground. (in the newest updates section) Photo by Karleen ... Landscape architect Neil Hobbs, who designed the Boundless playground. (in the newest updates section) Photo by Karleen Minney. Photo: karleen minney "It really expands people's lives outwards and provides us with opportunities for families to spend time together, meet up with other families and also get kids off screens." Every Canberra kid will have a distinct playground memory, from the 1970s stone turrets of the Fort in Commonwealth Park, the flying fox at the Kambah Adventure Playground, or even just the hot metal-and-tanbark smell of the average suburban set of monkey bars. Share on Facebook SHARE Share on Twitter TWEET Landscape architect Neil Hobbs, who designed the Boundless playground. (in the newest updates section) Photo by Karleen ... Landscape architect Neil Hobbs, who designed the Boundless playground. (in the newest updates section) Photo by Karleen Minney. Photo: karleen minney But while many of us have grown up the various parks and idiosyncratic playgrounds around the city, their position at the centre of family and community life has not always been as assured. Landscape architect Neil Hobbs, who designed one of Canberra's newest playgrounds, Boundless, and has been working on play spaces for the past 30 years, recalls the many years of over-regulation that once hampered the design of such spaces. "In the early days...you just made playgrounds with what you found, which was rocks and logs... and stuff like that, which is what kids used to make cubbies with," he says. And then came the era of strict safety regulations, and fears of US-style litigation, effectively stifling innovation in play spaces. "It's hard to build things that are specialised and different, because you've got to get them certified, so there's a cost and there's a risk that it won't happen," Hobbs says. Retired architect Adrian Pilton, who designed several play spaces across Canberra in the 1970s and early 80s, says nothing could have been further from his mind when he was coming up with the distinctive Fort in Commonwealth Park, and the much-loved Mouse House in Weston Park. "It was more or less common sense, I think, to make things as safe as possible," he says. "My attitude is that there are risks in everything, and you design to manage the risks, so children can't fall too far, and when they do fall, they fall on something that's going to give a bit." He says where he lives in Sydney, there is a paucity of innovative play spaces for children. "Almost all the playgrounds are just an off-the-shelf out of a catalogue, and there's no imagination used whatsoever," he says. "There's nothing for the children to imagine. The idea of the playgrounds where I was working, I was trying to get the kids to think it could be a spaceship, it could be a pirate fort, it could be whatever. It goes back to when I was a child... There were no playgrounds when I lived in Ireland, so we'd make our own." He designed the Fort with plenty of room to make things up. "It was to allow children to run around and imagine stuff, so they could go down the tunnels, they could climb up, they could hide, the could find little hidey-holes, and there's one little niche in the wall that kids could curl up in, and hide from their friends," he says. His Mouse House, which was demolished some time in the 1990s due to safety concerns, was similarly inventive, a maze made up of narrow, box-shaped passages. "I didn't even think that was particularly dangerous, because the fall heights were carefully controlled. You couldn't fall very far, that was the main thing, but that's how kids learn," he says. "If you break a leg, it's terrible but it's not the end of the world. Not that a kid ever broke a leg as far as I know in any of those playgrounds." In the years after the Mouse House was removed, plastic and rubber play equipment, often in primary colours, became the norm, safety became more important than the play itself, and the notion of good design fell away. But Hobbs says that in the last four or five years, the pendulum has moved back to something closer to the nature-loving 1970s. "It's interesting that things have swung back very much now to natural play, natural areas and natural materials," he says. Boundless, nestled near the shores of Lake Burley Griffin across from the Carillon, is designed for children of all abilities, and represents, in many ways, this newfound appreciation of old-fashioned outdoor play. "We've got artificial grass, pebbles, stone, timber, smooth sandstone and granite - about eight or nine materials to give the idea that kids can take their shoes off and feel those different textures," Hobbs says. Hobbs also has an inkling that if authorities had waited a little longer, the Mouse House might have become acceptable once again, retrofitted like the Fort with some discrete rubber matting, and still have children scuttling through it today. Hope says such playgrounds are more conducive nowadays for kids to learn life lessons while playing. "There's been a push back against risk aversion, because what we're finding is that not taking risks is to kids' detriment," Hope says. "One of the key places where they can take risks semi-safely is a playground, because they're in an environment where there are people around, and all the experiences they have have been thought through and they adhere to certain standards" Ultimately, though, architects like Hobbs and Pilton aren't working to please a tough crowd, and there's plenty to suggest that children can get by fine without all the bells and whistles of the modern play space. "The kids don't care! They'll swing on the gate when they come in, and that's probably the most fun thing," says Hobbs, of his many observations of how children interact with Boundless. And it's very possible that those mid-70s kids clambering into the shell of a burnt-out car were having the time of their lives, skinned knees and all. The City Renewal Authority's public survey is available at yoursay.act.gov.au
    Producer/AuthorSally Pryor
    PersonsCathy Hope