Exploring Wakehurst’s living willow tunnels helps build up a close connection with nature
Shaped like a plant, the new PLANTastic Play area will have roots, a stem, leaves and a flower imagination. It’s how they develop physical, emotional and social skills and arrive at an understanding of the world they live in.
Treehouse Towers is a fairly conventional playground, promoting physical and social skills. Yet even here the opportunity hasn’t been missed to make some basic connections: why trees are important to us, for example, using the familiar items – furniture, pencils, paper – that derive from them. ‘For me the important thing is that the kids are having fun, and building a positive relationship with
A new play area has opened recently at Wakehurst Place, with tunnels and a dome fashioned from living willow. Inspired by the shapes of seedpods, it forges an imaginative connection with both the trees surrounding it and the millions of seeds stored nearby in the Millennium Seed Bank. A scented courtyard maze for toddlers follows in June, and a play zone based on the structure of roots thereafter. Andrew Jackson, head of Wakehurst, feels strongly that natural play is the obvious way to instil
Play is how children learn – without being taught –
how to solve problems and think creatively
Kew,’ says Steve Ruddy, who heads up the Gardens Development Unit and helped design the play area. ‘If Kew becomes a place they look forward to visiting, we’ve already achieved a huge first step. If they take a message home as well, that’s a bonus.’
This relationship can be built up from their earliest years – in the nearby Climbers and Creepers play zone, babies as young as one year old fossick happily through rubber ‘sand’. This is a highly structured indoor area, but now, as part of the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, Kew is experimenting with a quite different type of play space.
a love of nature in children, and wants to see integrated play areas in every part of the site.
At Kew, meanwhile, in the woodland near Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, a temporary children’s landscape is taking shape.Devised by Steve Ruddy’s team and Kew’s festival staff, ‘PLANTastic Play’ has been designed in the shape of a plant, with roots, stem, leaves, a flower and seed. As they explore each part, children are encouraged to consider how it relates to the whole, and to the world around it. A system of crawl tunnels represents the roots of the plant, drawing up water. Making their way along the main
‘stem’ pathway, they will encounter leaves, one with balance-beam ‘veins’, another offering a maze of native plants, full of hidey holes for play and simple explanations of how leaves make food for the plant.
Along the way they can search for beasties in a logpile, watch creatures make their homes in bug hotels, bird and bat boxes, and clamber over giant fungi, before reaching the flower and launching on to a zipwire as a pollinating bee. They can also discover fruits and seeds, and learn about one of the world’s most important food crops, wheat.
If their discoveries seize their imagination, the children can then go home and follow them up on Kew’s website. Better still, they can start to look around them. This part of the Gardens is managed for habitat creation rather than horticultural interest, with carpets of bluebells and wild garlic during spring, and all kinds of resident wildlife, from unusual snails to foxes and badgers. Tony Kirkham, head of the Arboretum, who offered the site, and Tony Hall, whose staff helped in the construction, hope that families will also make the acquaintance of some of Britain’s rarer native trees, such as the Plymouth pear and Bristol mountain ash.
Obviously, Kew isn’t a forest – children are not allowed to climb the trees, many of
With so much native wildlife, Kew’s a great place to develop observational skills
Getting a new perspective on a leaf could sow the seeds of a career in botany EDUCATION
Kew offers family trails around the Gardens to encourage exploration, discovery and learning
Fun events get all ages actively involved in looking at why plants are so vital to us all which are old and precious. Yet this woodland site is as close as many urban youngsters will ever get to a real wild space to play in, with all the benefits it brings. Annie Waddington, who managed Climbers and Creepers for three years, has high hopes for it: ‘You can sometimes feel that playgrounds are made for the convenience of adults, as somewhere to offload their kids,’ she says. ‘Instead, we’d like to encourage interaction –“Did you spot this, can you find that?” – so families talk to each other about what they’re seeing.
‘Children are often a lot more knowledgeable about biodiversity than their parents are,’ she continues. ‘It’s frequently older children who are steering the environmental agenda at home. So this isn’t formal education – it’s more about planting a seed in their heads, so that as they get older they’ll be more receptive to environmental messages, willing to engage with us, go on our website, and do their bit.’
Annie can’t wait to see what kids will do with the area. ‘We’re hoping children will see things at PLANTastic Play that will help them to make connections with the rest of the Gardens. It would be great if their sense of discovery then trickles outwards, until the whole of Kew becomes a place for exploration and learning.’
On our way back from visiting the new play area under construction, we hear suppressed giggles coming from within the dense canopy of a weeping conifer. Four young children are hiding in this secret green cave, spying gleefully on passers-by. It’s a sight to gladden Tony Kirkham’s heart.For these kids at least, a tree is a thing of enchantment. n
Ambra Edwards is a freelance writer and winner of the Garden Media Guild’s Features Writer of the Year award 2009
For details on all of the play areas and family events at Kew this summer, go to www.kew.org; the Kids’ Kew guide is available at shop.kew.org and in the Kew shops, at just £3.95
Why natural play is good for children Research carried out by American educationalist David Sobel in 2004 showed that even merely introducing more greenery into school playgrounds led to increased concern for the environment, while numerous studies confirm that regular contact with nature benefits children in a variety of ways, including: • improving cognitive development by increasing awareness, reasoning and observational skills • boosting health, co-ordination, balance and agility • increasing concentration and self-discipline • fostering more diverse and imaginative play, as well as developing creative,
language and collaborative skills • encouraging positive feelings towards others • reducing or eliminating bullying • relieving stress (in children as well as adults) • contributing to the development of a sense of wonder • encouraging children to develop independence and autonomy
Plants provide a wealth of artistic inspiration for youngsters at events like The Big Draw
Among such a vast collection, the beauty and importance of plants is easy to see