A couple of interesting bits and pieces happened this week - I was on a consultation at a preschool where staff were talking about the importance of natural play and how they have noticed that some parents were over concerned about safety. A staff member mentioned that some parents even "bubble wrapped their skirting boards at home" to avoid toddler bumps and bruises. If only someone had given my mum that advice as I was known as the queen of head bumps when I was two and three - some the size of grape fruits. An obsession with the Bionic Woman on TV followed me into my primary school years where I was able to perform leaps from our top verandah over the roses and land on the grass - an act I would not have been able to do if I hadn't been able to build upon those early childhood stumbles. If a child never falls or hurts themselves how do they develop an understanding of what they are capable of, what their bodies can and can't do and the steps they need to take to accomplish something that seems so out of reach? What experiences and understanding do they have to draw upon to achieve a task in the best way possible if every level of experimentation has been made "safe"?
I was also asked for the first time ever for an area of - wait for it - asphalt! I generally don't have a problem with hard surfacing - I can see why sometimes we need to incorporate some artificial aspects for various reasons but asphalt? I was also puzzled at the idea, "If we can't have real grass then we shouldn't have artificial grass?", but wetpour rubber and asphalt are OK? There are so many possibilities in designing playspaces that to include asphalt into any space just seems like a wasted opportunity. I think my lack of enthusiasm was obvious, which then led me to reflect on why educators are still hanging on to these types of surfacing and how now it's even filtering into the manufacturers of the play equipment companies.
In the US (and recently becoming available in Australia), play equipment companies have been building "natural logs, tree trunks, boulders and rocks" out of Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete - why? We already have them available in a really amazing thing called NATURE. These companies also undertake so called natural play research and are stating that they are including these new items to meet the needs for a natural playspace - I don't think so - I think they are designing and constructing these items because they see the gradual change in mindset wherein schools, preschools and child care centres (even local governments) are looking at nature and natural play for their outdoor environments instead of the previous norm of adding play equipment. The play equipment companies don't want to be left out so they have come up with these alternatives to make $$$$$$$, not, as they state on their websites to help clients with more cost-effective playspaces (nature is not that expensive) or to improve safety (correct me if I'm wrong but hitting your head on a real rock as opposed to a concrete one really wouldn't make any difference). Why is it that people feel a sense of comfort with the fabricated and artificial as opposed to the natural? Does it make us feel more secure? The ironic thing is that most accidents occur on play equipment surrounded by softfall, (especially in child care) as children who may be in care up to 10 hours per day, 5 days a week become increasingly bored with the one piece of equipment that they begin to use it inappropriately.
Nature is not flat, smooth or constant and that's what I love about it - it is a great training ground for life. Hopefully over time attitudes can be changed and rocks and boulders in playspaces will be real and asphalt will be confined to the roadways.
Take a look at a new book I have read about by Sharon Danks - Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation - the title says it all!