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Lessons from Canberra -2 Playground trends

Musical play at Boundless, Canberra's new All Abilities Playground


Canberra is the place to go if you want to see the latest trends -starting with it's original design, or the way it has been quick to adopt greener living. In January, 2021 it became the first Australian city to be powered 100% by renewable energy and in May 2021 it was chosen as  The World’s Most Sustainable City, because of its reliance on renewable energy – wind and solar, it’s 86% adoption of green transit infrastructure and the amount of green space it has.Whether looking at urban design, construction or street furniture, it’s the best place in Australia to look and see what’s coming. This also applies to playgrounds. Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to revisit some of them, but here are some of the things I learned.


1.      Playgrounds are more important than ever

Denser living, the proliferation of apartments and growing recognition that outdoor play is very important to child development, mean that playgrounds have become more important than ever and are increasingly well patronised. Both children and adults are spending more time on passive screen -related activities, so we need great play spaces to lure them out and preferably close to home.


Ropes and Nets are among the big news in Playgrounds - this is at The Arboretum, Canberra

2.      Catering for Adults as well as Children

With more people working from home due to Covid, parents have been  spending more time with their children. This has created a need for more inter -generational play opportunities which serve both adults and children. Some newer playgrounds have facilities such as fitness equipment alongside play equipment or walking tracks and obstacle courses which can be used for shared activity, especially as many gyms have also closed over the last two years. Incidentally, it’s been found that adults who play with their children bond better and both adults and children gain significant mental as well as physical health benefits.

The National Arboretum, Canberra's first major recreation area, is  a good example, offering a range of family friendly activities including cycling and walking tracks, horse riding plus picnic tables and BBQs  as well as a very original playground (see more below). While it's a great place for kite -flying, ball and frisbee throwing are restricted to protect young trees and banned around the children's play area altogether.

Shade and seating for carers and the elderly will be important too. 

3.      Play for Older Children

As organised team sports have declined, there is more need to create outdoor activities for older children and these need to be interesting and challenging to lure children away from keyboards and screens. Increasingly, they take the form of skate ramps, ziplines, climbing walls and nets. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near the  Deep Space Communication Complex has a good range of these. As well as a flying fox and climbing ropes there is a permanent orienteering course for older children.

Several places, including granddaughter’s school also had BMX tracks with plenty of humps and bumps and places suitable for riding scooters. Some waterside parks such as the Cotter River and Lake Burley Griffin also offer opportunities for kayaking and canoeing

Challenges for older children at Tidbinbilla

4.  More inclusive Play

Newer facilities make more effort to provide play opportunities for children of all ages and abilities. At Boundless, Canberra’s first all abilities playground for instance, the merry -go – round and slide are able to accept wheelchairs, there is a wheelchair -friendly swing and a spider swing suitable for non -ambulant children and babies. The fact that other children like this equipment too, means that there is more side -by -side play as well. The playground also offers sensory experiences which involve fragrant plants, musical play, a variety of textures such the roughness of rocks, and sand and water play. Children are free to join in  and interact or to engage in quiet or solitary play instead, or simply to watch if they prefer. 


Features such as this enable children to experience different textures in the sensory garden at Boundless

Waterplay at Tidbinbilla

Catering for different age groups at the same time can also be a challenge, but several playgrounds do this quite well. See for example, The Pod Playground at the Arboretum, . Older children can reach the ladders which take you up into the higher reaches of the acorn -like structures, while small children play at the base in banksia style pods. 


Wheelchair -friendly Rocket swing at Boundless is fun for everyone including mothers with babies in arms or strollers


5.  Play which incorporates Natural Elements

At Boundless too, natural features of the landscape such as rocks, logs and the creek are part of the play area, along with large grassed areas and natural bushland. Extensive use of hard wearing -native plants vegetation makes it friendly to native animals and there is also a bird feeding station. We saw lots of 'Easter bunnies' hopping around while we were there! Since Tidbinbilla is in the middle of a large nature reserve, there are plenty of opportunity to observe native animals such as koalas, emus , kangaroos and possums at play too. 


Sand and water play at Tidbinbilla


6.      Themed Playgrounds

The standardised plastic play equipment which I’ve seen in places as far away as Russia, is now giving way to much more imaginative concepts. I didn’t manage to see many of these in Canberra, but Metro Recreation, says that fairy tale and whimsical designs are becoming more common, along with structures which simulate train stations and firestations.

They also mention that those which relate to historical eras are gaining popularity, though I haven’t really seen much of this in Australia yet, unless we are talking about the pioneer village in Beaconsfield Tasmania, where you can press a button outside a miner’s cottage and hear the story of the people inside. In Sovereign Hill in Victoria, they had costumed volunteers talking about their early childhood and demonstrating various pioneer skills such as soap making, and I understand Tidbinbilla had something similar this month.This is could also be achieved through recordings or films – see below under the environment heading about using interactive kid power, rather than electricity.

If, as Metro Recreation points out, incorporating historical elements fosters “historical and cultural awareness.” Both Tidbinbilla and the Arboretum have activities which include Aboriginal culture culture, something which could be explored further. 

7.      Playgrounds as Outdoor Classrooms

Another trend mentioned by Game Time is the increasing use of outdoor spaces as classrooms. This means having things like seating, tables, shelters and hand sanitiser stations. Again, I didn’t see this at playgrounds, but at one of the schools.

8.      Environmental Considerations

There is also greater use of natural and environmentally friendly materials. The acorn inspired pods at The Arboretum are made entirely of wood – admittedly at a cost of around $1.3 million.

There is also more use of eco – friendly materials such as recycled timber for benches, recycled rubber for high use areas and for cushioning beneath places where children could  fall. According to overseas trends, in Game Time, where power is needed, it relies more on human power such as turning a wheel or pressing a foot pedal, rather than electricity, to turn on lights, create music or storytelling. The use of durable materials such as stainless steel and powder -coated steel is also important, since it means less plastic going to landfill.


This big stainless steel slide at Boundless is wheelchair accessible and has a canopy to prevent it getting scorchingly hot

 Lastly, many more play areas now have shading, either through natural vegetation, structures or shade sails. I was pleased to see that a new housing subdivision with as yet only a few houses already had a playground with big blue shade sails up and running. This will become increasingly important not only because of rising temperatures, but also to reduce high UV exposure which contributes to a large number of skin cancers in Australia.

Although there is a newer version of this site that’s easier to navigate, the original interactive map of playground sites developed by Astoria Bright shows the very large number of places in Canberra which now have shade sails.

9.      Public Consultation and Communication

 The older website also displays a number of other features by district, by the amenities they offer e.g. toilets, BBQs, etc and the ages and abilities they cater for. There is also the opportunity for locals to make suggestions to councils about what they would like to see. This too could be worth emulating, especially in our larger cities. 

The newer version of Playground Finder is easier to use and claims to work Australia- wide. Though I'm sure it will be useful for busy parents, it lacks the detail of the original.

10. What I’d still like to see

If it’s one thing I’m still not seeing in Canberra or elsewhere, unless it’s one little kindergarten that invites you to get dirty, it’s places which allow children to develop their own play. Yes, a few props are nice, but where are the mud puddles, ponds and creeks of my childhood - the places where we caught tadpoles or made dams, or the big old trees where we made cubbies? There aren’t any scraps of building materials or old wooden fruit boxes to make custom go -karts either, and it’s all too clean and hygienic.

I understand councils not wanting to take risks for fear of being sued, and we also want children to be safe, but what about being allowed to play there with adult supervision? Yes, it would also be messy, another thing councils don’t like, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be. One of the places I really liked in my travels, was a leafy park in the middle of Frankfurt. On weekends,  fathers – possibly intent on giving Mums a few hours’ peace, worked alongside their children to build an enormous pirate ship. Because the rest of the park was rather formal and neat, the ship looked like a marvellous emerging sculpture, as well as providing future opportunities for creative play.

One place which comes close to my ideal is Cubby Town in Perth where several agencies such as the local councils and Parks and Wildlife have collaborated.The council provides materials such offcuts from building and construction, branches and endless quantities of corrugated cardboard. Unfortunately, like  Brigadoon, it only lasts for a weekend and only happened now and then, in those pre -pandemic days.

What I absolutely don’t want, is that everyone now goes out and does exactly the same thing. No matter how exciting a park or playground is, they become less so if they are all look alike or never change.  Nor is it necessarily about hiring the most expensive architect or landscape designer., though they are important with respect to health and safety considerations. This is about tapping into the creativity and experience of your community and creating something original. We were all kids once, and some of us never stopped. I'd like to see more consultation with children too.The stating point is a big pool of ideas and seeing what local materials and skills are available and who knows what kinds of amazing play experiences could happen.



For a look at some other interesting playgrounds around the world, many of which use repurposed materials, timber rather than plastic, or otherwise illustrate some of these ideas. click here or here, 

-All photos by Cluan Smith