The importance of play in children’s development cannot be understated. So much so, that merging the concept of ‘play’ with learning and development during their foundation phases has evolved significantly in South Africa over the years.
We have seen a movement towards the use of more sustainable material in playgrounds and away from the plastic, sanitised, European-style play equipment. These Western materials are expensive and not suited to the climate of South Africa. Along with this, a new understanding of ‘play’ has emerged from ongoing childhood development research, leading to a burgeoning demand for more tactile, sensory-friendly playscapes. The result is a curiosity-driven play philosophy in which children are encouraged to engage with nature by encountering natural materials and textures to generate their own play. This exposure to natural elements, as opposed to prescribed play structures, allows children to explore their environment and create their own challenges, and encourages problem-solving by exposing them to ‘safe’ danger.
There are four fundamentals of play: construction (building elements), functional (physical play, such as climbing, running, etc.), sensory (stimulation of our five senses), and symbolic (imaginary play, storytelling, etc.). The Curiosity Approach expands upon these pillars of play and incorporates the following elements:
Kids are captivated by movement, be it vertical or horizontal movement of objects or themselves. This element can be created by providing objects to throw, roll, or slide across.
Children immerse themselves in moving objects or materials — either single objects or by filling up containers and moving those. This is facilitated through ‘loose play’ and the introduction of receptacles and movable objects or materials.
Kids love spinning themselves, a friend, or an item around. Designs should provide objects to spin on, in, or around to fulfil this need.
Children are known to pack things in rows, connect them, or make them touch in the process. This can be achieved by introducing loose natural material and play elements.
Opening, closing, filling, and emptying are what kids do best. This can be incorporated by providing containers they can fill with items, or they can open and close, or even by giving them natural material they can dig in and bury things.
Kids enjoy hanging upside down, standing at angles, and viewing objects and their surroundings from different perspectives. Integrate orientation elements by providing structures to hang upside down from as well as reflective or distortive surfaces, peep holes, or magnifying features.
Children enjoy exploring the change of objects through mixing and adding elements together. The most common transformation of material in a playground is the creation of mud. Providing water and soil within the playground not only allows this transformation, but also exposes them to different textures.
South Africa still has a long way to go. The environment in which these playgrounds are built prevents them from incorporating the Curiosity Approach fully. Due to maintenance and budget constraints, artificial elements like special surfaces and loose play elements are needed. As landscape architects this should not deter us. It is an opportunity to lead the way in alternative designs for playgrounds, expanding the understanding of what play is and how this can facilitate education and development.