Sunday, 5 April 2015

Botanical Gardens as Nature Play Spaces

Rethinking Botanical Gardens as spaces for children
To me botanical gardens have always been places of great beauty, places where dedicated teams maintain plants from all over the world. I perceived them to be places where children and adults visit to look and see the plants, to photograph and learn botanical names - not as places for children to play.
Visiting the Royal Botanical Gardens Melbourne with a friend and colleague, Juliet Robertson, we met up with the lovely Chris Joy, Education Coordinator, who showed us some special spaces; spaces where children are not only welcomed but encouraged to interact with the spaces.

A large stone spiral leads past a topiary as I have not seen before, hidden pathways leading through random organic shapes to wonder about. The centre of the spiral, a piece of stone art made of petrified wood depicting hands with eyes...a message encouraging using the hands as eyes to feel.  


 The Ian Potter Foundation Children's garden was our first stop, "where children can delight in nature and discover a passion for plants....." a sign to welcome children and families to explore.


Stepping inside I was fascinated by the bottle trees with their watching 'eyes' offering shade over an open space with seating.
Large angular 'sheets' of stone stood tall, inviting children to squeeze through the gaps to explore the different textures of the warm hard rocks and soft vegetation. Some of the rock sheets had been decorated by children's handprints where the 'paint' was made of rocks crushed by the children - ochre paint. The open grass settling space, with mounds to roll down, could be seen inviting further exploration 

 Wandering along a pathway we are led to an outdoor learning space beside an open pond surrounded by a variety of grasses; dragonflies and tadpoles inviting children to stop and stay. Rocks and stepping stones encourage us to walk around the pond.

The Island with slopes covered in artificial turf for practical reasons
 The Island, a raised sandpit surrounded by a shallow creek for children of all ages to paddling, float leaf boats and build dams in. A threaded nature art piece made of native plant material is suspended over the island throwing moving shadow patterns on the white sand.

Another hidden path leads into the 'jungle' where I was surprised to glimpse an animal normally found in my homeland, South Africa, and not Australia! Looking closely the elephant is painted with pictures of other exotic wild animals, a conversation piece for children and adults.

Surrounded by tall tree trunks, leading the eye up and to the green plant canopy offers a perception of total enclosure, a dark jungle. Moving on into the bamboo forest there is evidence of children having moved between the bamboos playing and gathering in the open space.

Multi-coloured flax plants invite children to make their way through, to celebrate getting through, possibly wiping the odd cobweb away as part of the adventure. A bubbling water feature invites adults and children to play and paddle in the stream.


In the jungle we are cooled down by water spray adding to the feeling of being in a damp tropical jungle. In another shelter possums are napping soundly tucked up on the bamboo ceiling. 

Through the soft foliage a rock tunnel can be seen, another invitation to explore and discover, obviously well used by children as testified by the tracks leading up beside it. An invitation we could not refuse either, scrambling up and standing on top of the bridge gave us a new elevated view. A rock slab carefully balanced to make a tunnel and a bridge depending on your view.

A shaded space surrounded by large sandstone rocks and small spaces to discover and investigate.

A winding track to a tall blackened tree trunk, a dead tree standing tall with an inviting hollow underneath. How did this happen? Lightening? Juliet crawled in, visions of being under a tree like a burrowing animal. Space, a lot more space than we realised in this trunk, a hollow dark tunnel to climb up, laughter and then Juliet popped up out of the top. How could I resist this challenge, climbing up inside an ancient tree as I too viewed the world from the top of the trunk.

On to a lavender maze where the flowers were recently harvested by a group of school children. The vegetable garden where children are invited to plant and to harvest - a digging zone, large gourds, corn, purple beans.


Chris is keen for us to see the 'wild' side of the children's garden too, spaces for children to connect closely to nature that has not been tidied up. Long grasses to hide in and to build cubbies under the gumtrees, a tea tree and paperbark tunnel and a dry creek bed waiting for the rains. We found a 'jigsaw' tree with its camouflaged bark.

The Children's Garden is a playground to support children's connection to the natural world, it is safe and challenging, it is the sort of backyard so many of us grew up with. It is a garden available to schools and settings but sadly not used as much as Chris would like it to be used for wild nature experiences.
I love the idea of a Botanical Garden where there is a space for children to have direct contact with nature, where they can respectfully change the environment. How much would this be tolerated within the rest of the Botanical Garden? Could children climb the trees, run across the lawn, build a cubby?
We wandered through the oak garden, a large open space with sprawling oak trees and a gentle cooling breeze. A perfect place for children to play in the summer heat. We were on our way to the lightening tree...

The lightening tree is a large old oak tree split in two by lightening 30 years ago. Arborists repaired it with huge cables holding it together, the fused split is still clearly visible down the length of the trunk. At the bottom of the tree are numerous 'fairy' doors, little spaces where children (or adults) have played.

 Our last stop was the dinosaur tree...a prehistoric Bunya, Bunya Pine aged about 145 years. Under the low hanging prickly branches, a narrow track obviously created by children, a pathway leading to the trunk and what we found there - a huge dinosaur foot complete with toes!

I left, my head spinning with all the amazing possibilities for children. Why were surrounding schools and settings not using these Gardens on a weekly basis? The Children's Garden welcomes and offers the space for bush school type experiences - for nature-based practice. The Royal Botanical Garden in Melbourne welcomes children to the whole garden. As far as climbing trees and hanging rope swings from the trees, this would need to be negotiated with the arborists who care for the trees. The main point is that children are welcomed into such gardens, they can explore, investigate and play for many hours - these beautiful green spaces are their heritage and I personally would love to see more children using these beautiful spaces.