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Playing With Nature at Sydney Grammar

Recognising the inclination of young boys to dig, fossick, climb and collect, Sydney Grammar School St Ives Preparatory decided to build an inspiring natural playground.

It harkens back to old-world child’s play, with dry creek beds, water pump and trough, rocky climbs, and grassy fields. The new natural playground at St Ives Prep provides quiet, open and active play areas, challenging play spaces, sustainable natural materials, and areas for outdoor teaching and learning.

The School worked closely with a landscape architect throughout planning and design to ensure the playground incorporated functional, play and educational elements.

Phase One was completed in July 2019, with the benefits immediately evident. The boys displayed active child-directed play, exploring the natural world, creating complex, imaginative games. Their activities called upon and built skills in resilience, ability to calculate risk, physical fitness, teamwork, empathy, organisation, and resourcefulness.

Phase Two was completed in July 2020 with another dry riverbed full of rocks to explore, challenging climbing areas and an Astroturf space, which quickly became the ‘penalty shoot-out’ corner for football enthusiasts. The playground continues to evolve as boys and staff find new ways to engage with their surroundings.

The natural, irregular and challenging new playground offers a wide range of benefits for child development, including:

1. More diverse play opportunities

2. Measured risk to develop problem solving, persistence and creative thinking.

3. Psychological benefits including fatigue restoration, building confidence and competence

4. Increased physical activity

5. Positive impacts on children’s social behaviour such as facilitating more group play

All of the above have already been observed in the new playground. After the initial flurry of excitement and random racing around, boys instinctively formed into groups dedicated to a range of creative and social activities. One industrious group has coordinated in building a dam at the bottom of the water trough in an attempt to run a river into the dry bed. The structural integrity of dams is scrutinised and progress is checked and discussed at the beginning of each play session.

Other boys have formed a ‘rock’ group, crushing and grinding stones to produce sand of varied colours; stacking, rearranging, stockpiling, and generally being creative with smaller rocks.

Each group is fluid and is often made up of boys from different year levels. One constant among all groups is the need for problem solving as each boy suggests new ideas.

It’s not just about being wild and rugged, either. Boys will find a quiet space among the sandstone or under a tree to read. They take part in practical science lessons, hunting for interesting flora and fauna. Kindergarten boys learn basic mathematics with hands-on experiments such as measuring the volume and capacity of containers in the large sandpit.

The most rewarding outcome of the new playground is the social and emotional benefit to the boys. Small squabbles have become a thing of the past with boys highly engaged in a wide variety of play spaces. The new playground was designed with the sole intention of supporting a balanced approach to child development. It has provided boys with exciting possibilities: should they dig, climb, fossick, build or create today?

The boys’ engagement and eagerness to head out and play every day demonstrates that the natural playground is a magical place for the boys to experience wonder, curiosity and joy.

Leigh Higgins, Preschool Form Master

Susan Ward, Kindergarten Form Master


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