The Journal is our place to bookmark stuff that caught our eye, share things that have inspired us, and capture what we are up to. Enjoy!

Sticks, crabs and mud – Talking play with Laura Bingham

Age: 26

Profession: Adventurer, speaker, explorer

Mother to Ran (2)

Laura opened our new play space at Sacrewell, so we decided to ask her some questions about her own experience of outdoor play.

Remember playing outside? What are your strongest memories of outdoor play as a child?

The first thing that comes to mind is how my Dad used to mow the lawn in stripes and how the mower would leave these lumps of grass in lines and I would challenge myself to crawl from one side of the lawn to the other side across these lumps and stripes. A simple thing like mown grass can be so much fun. I still love the smell of it.

I also remember being in the car and looking out for trees lined up in a perfect four. I was convinced that they were portals into the fairy kingdom.

What is the riskiest thing you ever did as a child?

Well, drawing on the nicely painted walls of the house didn’t go down well – that was pretty risky. But in terms of physical risk…when I was six years old, we started visiting my family in South Africa roughly every two years and I would go microlighting and wild water rafting. That’s quite a risky thing for a small child. But I always felt safe with my parents looking after me.

How did those childhood experiences shape you as an adult?

Funnily enough when I was 15 my Dad announced we were going to South Africa again and I thought we would be better off spending that money on a TV! So you can grow up having all these amazing outdoor experiences and still prefer a TV when you hit your teens.

I think who I am today was born more out of trauma than my experiences growing up. I had a really idyllic childhood and then hit a rocky patch in my late teens, which sculpted me to really try and find myself and push my boundaries. But obviously being exposed to microlighting and white water rafting and elephants at a young age gives you a confidence in the outdoors. It gives you the confidence that you won’t die doing those things. Though there is a huge leap from doing it with your parents to doing it alone.

Why does outdoor play matter?

It just stimulates kids so much more than a TV ever can, but in a really relaxing, calming way. Whenever my son is crying it is usually indoors and all I have to do is take him outside and he is immediately distracted by the plants and the sky and the bees. He never has paddies when he is playing outside. Only when he has been in front of the TV and we take him away from it.

We just spent a month on an island, as a family – we didn’t have any problems. He loved playing with the sand and the crabs. We didn’t have any TV or anything to entertain him other than sticks and water and crabs. Children can entertain themselves just as easily outside with nature as they can inside.  And it’s a much more healthy and wholesome stimulation, I think.

Based on your travels where have you experienced the best play opportunities for children?

It’s quite obvious even for someone who hasn’t travelled much when you see documentaries of children in indigenous communities – they are always running around and laughing and making mischief with sticks and stones and stuff. And I think that has been the case in the villages I have visited too. Though to be fair, in a lot of poorer communities they will have TVs – they will have a TV before they have a loo! – but they only have three channels so there isn’t much to entertain a child.

What obstacles to children playing freely outdoors do you observe in the UK?

My instant answer would be other people and their judgement as to whether you are a good parent or not. There seems to be this health and safety culture that frowns upon parents who let their kids play freely and judge them when their child has a fall and scrapes their knee. Or makes you scared that they will go missing or be kidnapped if you don’t have your eye on them at all times.

Accessibility is also an issue. There are fewer green spaces on people’s doorsteps, especially in highly populated areas like London. And fewer local parks just a two-minute walk away like there used to be, and that’s what kids need: to play right where they live.

Where do you see opportunities? What could we do as a society to create better outdoor play for kids?

I think creating play spaces that are fun and risky, but at the same time safe and accessible are extremely good, because they help cautious parents let their kids roam and play freely because health and safety has been checked off. Parents are the gatekeepers to their children so you have to convince them first.

And we need to turn our screens off. I am almost waiting for this apocalyptic phase where all the screens go black (laughs). It’s like we need a situation where electricity is rationed like food, because the online world is almost too addictive to give up willingly. We never get the chance to be properly bored nowadays and it is only through boredom that you start thinking outside the box. Screens offer a weird kind of numbness where you are often a bit bored, but not bored enough to get provoked to invent a game or think of something else to do outside.

Maybe it’s the responsibility of parents to unplug their kids and tell them to make their own fun, but a lot of them seem just so scared of the backlash they will get.

Finally, describe your dream play space…

It would have to be something messy. I would almost like it to be a big mud pool where children can literally just dive in and be covered from head to toe in mud. And then have a shower station where they can hose off. I love water play too. I am a Pisces, so I will get into every bit of water I can find. I love how it washes over you and washes everything away. That’s one of the things I love about Sacrewell, the way you incorporated the river into the design. It is beautiful for children, and adults, to have their feet in the water and feel the rocks beneath them. So messy, water play… with a big sand-pit-beach area like the one at Sacrewell. My son and I loved it there!

Mud Play – photo AKA Jane Random

Into the Woods – returning to nature’s perfect playground

“This oak tree and me, we’re made of the same stuff.”
― Carl Sagan

The relationship between humans and forests is an ancient one. From Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life, to the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, trees and woods are at the core of world folklore and mythology. As a species we evolved in a forest-edge setting and on a neurological level the woods are still our natural habitat.

With this thought in the back of my mind I took a stroll through North Woods in Dartington on a (far too sunny) morning in February. Small creatures stirred in the undergrowth and the air was full of bird song. But one distinct sound was missing: that of the young human animal – climbing, laughing, running, playing – inhabiting the forest.

At Earth Wrights we believe nature is the ultimate environment for play and our designs aim to replicate the way Mother Earth fosters children’s innate biophilia. Yet countless studies have shown that children are spending less and less time outdoors and even less in the forest. How can we invite children back into nature’s perfect playground? Continue reading “Into the Woods – returning to nature’s perfect playground”

Christmas – a Festival of Play


At Earth Wrights we love getting outdoors and playing in the fresh air, but even if the weather forces you indoors there is never an excuse not to play! So this year, after the last of the Christmas pudding has been scraped from the bowl and before you get cosy in front of the fire/radiator/x-box why not have some fun playing a silly game?

The Victorians loved parlour games. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge goes to ‘visit’ his nephew Fred with the ghost of Christmas present, Fred’s guests are playing parlour games which we still play today such as Blind Man’s Bluff and Twenty Questions. Here are some old and new games for you to try.

The Minister’s Cat

This game actually features in the 1970 film adaptation of Dickens’ novel and is a fun game for all ages.

Sit in a circle and start a clapping rhythm – two claps on the thighs and two hand claps, so thigh – thigh – clap – clap. To this rhythm each person takes it in turn to say ‘The minister’s Cat is a … Cat, adding an adjective in the space starting with the letter ‘a’. So ‘The minister’s cat is an awful cat’, the next person ‘The minister’s cat is an attractive cat’ and so on until someone misses their turn, as it gets more and more difficult to think of new adjectives. Once a person is out you move on to the next letter of the alphabet. ‘The minister’s cat is a brilliant cat’. When (if!) you make it to x you can use words starting with ‘ex’. Variations include each person doing the next letter of the alphabet or the next person having to find an adjective that starts with the last letter of the previous one. So ‘The minister’s cat is an abominable cat’ and then ‘The minister’s cat is an excellent cat’ That’s advanced level parlour gaming. Continue reading “Christmas – a Festival of Play”

Making space for the primal nature of kids

At birth we are the buds, the tips of the tree of life. Our parents are the twigs on which we sprout, our ancestors the branches, and the boughs and trunk are as old as life itself. We are gifted with a precious heirloom, our jewel-like strings of genes. Worked and reworked through our long ancestral line, they determine both how we look and function and our potential. Three bright facets on this heirloom recently caught my magpie eye.

  1. Children are born with small brains and five times the fat of their primate cousins – gorillas, for instance. They are primed with potential and fuel, ready to rapidly grow and learn how to survive and thrive in the world. Evolution has placed a tool in their hands. A flexible, quirky, unpredictable tool, useful when messing about and experimenting with the rich natural setting of planet earth. It’s called play, and children have a strong instinctive drive to engage with it. They enter the world expecting and anticipating play; it’s in their inherited genetic coding.
  2. We are subject to the influence of biophilia, an instinctive attraction to all that is alive and vital. It is during childhood that we are particularly motivated to seek out the natural world around us. Paul Shepard calls it ‘loading the ark.’1
  3. Human biological evolution happens slowly and our genetic make-up is still the same as that of our hunter gatherer ancestors of 12,000 years ago. ‘The neural processes that guided our ancestors’ behaviours in Pleistocene hunting and gathering bands are likely to still be in operation today’.2 Yet our culture has evolved at lightning speed over the last millennium, leading to today’s technological society. The ancient hand-in-hand journey of our genes and culture has been broken. They have lost each other on the path and are now strangers.

Continue reading “Making space for the primal nature of kids”

At one with the magic of nature

Earlier this year Tommy Leighton interviewed one of our directors Mike Jones for Early Years Childcare magazine. They spoke about why Mike got involved in designing for natural play and the unique approach Earth Wrights offers children and communities. If you want to know why we do what we do, read on!

Tell us a bit about Earth Wrights and your journey so far

The seeds for Earth Wrights were planted several decades ago when I finished my degree in Landscape Architecture. My focus had always been on how to make urban environments good places to live and creating playable communities is part of that. The pivotal moment came when I was asked to design a play space for a women’s refuge in London and couldn’t find anyone to build it, so I just got on and built it myself. I saw with my own eyes what a difference it made to the kids to have a playground that was exciting and imaginative and really met their instinctive play needs – allowing them to use the space whichever way they wished, rather than being stuck with just swings and slides. Continue reading “At one with the magic of nature”

Plants that love kids

It is easy to think that children and beautiful gardens don’t mix well. Think of balls and feet trampling your precious tulips and you would be forgiven for concluding that never the twain shall meet. But there are plants that are both robust enough to be handled and beautiful enough to inspire interest and appreciation from even the wildest kids.

pic: pvandermaesen

Inviting your child into the garden – whether to tend or play – allows them to build a relationship with plants and wildlife that will stay with them forever. It lets them get up close with other species and develop an attitude of care and reverence as they watch the cycle of life unfold – a cycle which all creatures, humans included, are part of. In fact, when designing gardens for play the right mindset is one where children are considered just another wild species amongst the flora and fauna that we are attempting to nurture. Continue reading “Plants that love kids”

Primed for Play – Responding to our children’s instinctive play needs

Along with bonobo apes and chimps, we’re in the top 3 most playful creatures on Earth. To most of us this will come as no surprise: watching them rolling, climbing, jumping, running – testing their bodies and minds at every opportunity – it is obvious our children love to experiment and explore. Play is vital to children’s health and wellbeing, so how can we ensure our children get to play in ways that suit their primal nature? Continue reading “Primed for Play – Responding to our children’s instinctive play needs”

Rewilding Play: Letting nature lead the way

Mike Jones and Mark Renouard think a lot about children’s play needs. They also think a lot about the needs of the natural world.  As directors of Earth Wrights, they design play ‘habitats’ – natural spaces where active, social and imaginative play arises naturally from the environment – and believe these can encourage a reciprocal relationship between what both humans and the earth require to thrive.

Continue reading “Rewilding Play: Letting nature lead the way”

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