The importance of water play
Landscape architect Sarah Collins has done a lot of work in the area of children’s play in both early childhood centres and public parks. Based in Auckland, she’s a partner at Boffa Miskell and heads up a specialist team who are passionate about children’s play and who work predominantly in that area.
“My family lived in two different homes as my sisters and I grew up, and both were beside the Waimairi stream,” she says.
“We tried to fish for the trout that swam in the stream. We had a kayak and tried various other floating devices. Over the years, we learned a huge amount from living in that environment.
“That background, together with the work that I do, has led me to thinking about the benefits of providing water-play and the wide range of opportunities to do so within our towns and cities.”
While splash pads, or purpose-built water play areas are increasingly a must-have feature in suburban parks, a more naturalised option – the daylighted stream – offers a raft of benefits beyond play.
Freeing these natural watercourses from the concrete pipes that have bound them for the past decades is increasingly recognised as a optimal solution for stormwater management within suburban environments.
But along with reducing the impact of storm events, thoughtful design can turn these areas into intriguing natural amenities – an ideal place for children to “play outside“ the old-fashioned way and interact hands-on with nature.
La Rosa Reserve in Green Bay, West Auckland, was the city’s flagship stream day-lighting project.
Along with demonstrating bioengineering techniques for stream restoration, La Rose illustrated how people can be reconnected with their local stream.
The outcome is a transformed park, with opportunities for interaction with water in a naturalized setting which has become a much-used community space, and was recognized with many awards for design and sustainability.
Urban placemaking can provide opportunities, for waterplay too. In Auckland’s St Patrick’s Square, a water feature offers young residents of the many surrounding apartment buildings an opportunity to ‘play in the water’ right in the heart of the city. On a sunny summer day it is a much-used space.
“With purpose-built splash pads, surfaces need to be hard -- but must not be slippery in a wet environment,“ Sarah explains.
“Careful design is needed to ensure slip resistance codes can be met, as well as creating a surface where the abrasiveness is minimised for the minor falls which will be inevitable in the children’s excitement of playing together with water.“
Sarah notes that splash pads should provide seats or sitting edges for caregivers to rest and observe the play.
No matter what form the waterplay space takes, or its location, the children’s response will be both explorative and collaborative, Sarah says.
“With preschoolers, you’ll soon see tentative exploration of the water itself… the way it moves and feels. And in the case of stream-based designs, it won‘t be long before young children explore the damming and release of water flow together.“
As waterplay spaces provide the opportunity for a range of diverse activities, they encourage the exploration of water and facilitate collaboration.
“There’s a growing awareness around the importance of unstructured play for children,” Sarah says.
“As modern childhood becomes increasingly prescribed, the opportunity for young children to explore the natural world at their own pace.
“Waterplay offers a setting that nurtures these skills – and they are important life skills, that are best developed as a child interacts with others in an imaginative and tactile environment”.