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Child’s play

The Government’s recently-published Sports Strategy contains a core ambition for one million more children and young people to be physically active by 2030, supported by a national campaign, research into the barriers for under-represented groups, and a review of school sports provision. Here, paf looks at the role of playgrounds in delivering this vision, speaking to the design team behind a new facility at The Eden Project.

Research shows that when playing outdoors, children are up to five times more active than when playing indoors, and use five times as many words. And encouraging this engagement with the natural world – and getting children and young people to be more active – was the driving force behind a new attraction which opened this summer at The Eden Project in Cornwall.Nature’s Playground is one of the biggest outdoor play areas in the South West of England, covering nearly 500sq m, and consisting of a wood-wide web, a willow coppice soakaway, a water course fed by recycled ground water, a china claypit, slides and ladders, swings, and a majestic 9m-tall Tree of Life tower, providing year-round play opportunities. The attraction was designed by Touchwood Play, a bespoke playground design company chosen by The Eden Project for its regenerative and sustainable methods and materials. Darren Hoare, head of programme delivery and experience development at The Eden Project, explained: “Lots of research states that during COVID more children played alone and the way they play changed. “We also know that playing in nature has a positive effect on children’s mental health, with 80% of children saying being in nature made them happier. “While we have a great deal of activities and outside spaces here at The Eden Project, we felt there was a gap for children aged 5-12 to have play areas of size. “We wanted to offer something totally unique, intergenerational, and accessible to all.” Torin Lee, design manager at Touchwood Play, added: “We have worked with The Eden Project in the past and when the opportunity came up for this new project, we felt it was perfect for us. 

“The way we at Touchwood enable play in nature is all about bringing kids into that natural space and enhancing their experience and exploration of it. “Eden is about connecting people with nature – and what better way to connect children to nature than through play?” While The Eden Project is a massive site, the team did not have a lot of open space to choose from, eventually settling on a challenging location with a steep slope in the centre. Lee said: “This location brought a host of challenges, but also a lot of opportunity, which we have maximised. “Usually if building on a sloping site you would level out the ground or design out the slope, but we have used it as the central focus for the play area.”

On entering the playground, visitors will see the Tree of Life, complete with clambering routes, sustainable nets, ladders and slides, pulleys, and a host of other interactive activities. There are then opportunities to play as children move down the slope and traverse its many levels. For the project, Touchwood sourced UK Douglas fir, European robinia, UK oak ‘stagwood’, UK larch, locally-quarried stone, recycled rubber grass matting, ‘no-dig’ ground anchor screws, living willow, and oak sleepers from sustainably-managed forests. Lee explains: “It is all about getting children to play in nature.

“We tried to make routes through the space more fun, while also offering access to more challenging areas as you move up and down the slope. “Looking around you will always see things you want to go and investigate.” And a water feature runs the length of the slope, with water pumps and sluice gates so visitors can control the flow. “It is all about being really active and always finding something to do,” said Hoare. “There is a live willow in the playground and children can play in the water and use it to water the willow. “As you advance down the slope there are different types of water flowing down into overflow ponds and grey-water circulation tanks. “Children love the water, and it is an attraction that will appeal all year round.”

Accessibility was also critical to the design process, with the team building in access for pushchairs and wheelchair users and supporting intergenerational play as the centre attracts a lot of grandparents and their grandchildren. Lee said: “With a sloping site there is inherent inaccessibility, so we added top pathways, creating flat plateaus where wheelchair users can access the water play going down the slope, and we have built in access points wherever we could.” In addition, the design team also had to consider the risk of children playing on a sloping site. Lee said: “There is matting on the slope, particularly around the water features, and all equipment is designed to have a grippy surface, so even if it is wet, it should still be playable. “It’s about balancing risk and resilience and it was a learning experience for us. “But we believe that in this attraction we have created naturally-playful spaces and a wide range of opportunities for children of all ages to get active and find interest in being outdoors.”

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