Sacrewell Farm – A case study in natural play design

“It’s hugely important for children to have a safe place to enjoy nature. There are so many different parts of this area for children to enjoy – they could never get bored. “

Laura Bingham, Mother and Adventurer

Sacrewell Farm is a visitor attraction run by the William Scott Abbott Trust, with the aim of providing an agricultural education for everyone, from school children to heritage enthusiasts. We were approached to help them develop an underused area, downstream from their award-winning 18th Century watermill.

The area includes a shallow valley with open grassy spaces, woodland and willow coppice, as well as a network of streams, ponds and mill leats. As soon as we arrived, we saw the great potential for natural play. The affordances were already there – they just needed improved access and, importantly, a clear invitation.

Children are the experts when it comes to play and we were fortunate to have the guidance of a group of youngsters from a local primary school to advise us on how we could improve the landscape of Sacrewell to make it more playable.  The site is rich in natural features – streams, hedges, mature trees, seasonal and marsh vegetation, hills and mounds – which clearly excited the children we consulted and sparked a sense of adventure.

The children were excited by the site’s rich natural features

Through a process of landscape exploration, drawing and model making they came up with lots of imaginative ideas, which we incorporated into our design plan.

Habitats for children and wildlife

Our company mission is to create habitats where children’s innate play instincts are awakened. Luckily, what works for kids also works for wildlife.

Our junior design consultants told us they liked running over mounds and through tunnels, finding their way through a maze and encountering colourful birds and butterflies. Our response was to use the excavation spoil from the new stream channel to create mounds in the lower area, and to cut an extra pathway into the extensive bramble tunnel which leads into to a willow coppice. Inside the bramble tunnel, we placed log seats creating an intimate semi-secluded space for social and imaginative play, and opportunities for close encounters with the other creatures that inhabit the woods.

Getting across the space is always most exciting if you don’t have to touch the ground, so in the woodland copse, we designed a play cluster featuring a network of nets, ropes and balancing beams. The mature trees were incorporated into the play structure, making it feel as if it had emerged from the forest itself. The loose material in the copse makes this a perfect space for den building, with the play cluster adding physical challenge and an opportunity to climb up higher into the log ‘nest’.

The mature trees were incorporated into the play structure making it feel as if it had emerged from the forest itself

We found further opportunities to enhance biodiversity through wildlife-friendly planting, both beside the streams and in the woodland. We also advised the Sacrewell team of further simple measures they could take to open up more opportunities for natural play.

Harnessing the benefits of water

Children love water play, and we know that once near a stream children’s innate biophilic* impulse is engaged, prompting deep and immersive play experiences that bring children into close contact with aquatic life and biodiversity.  Research shows that the mere sight and sound of water can induce a flood of neurochemicals that promote wellness, increase blood flow to the brain and heart and induce relaxation and generates an improved sense of physical health and well-being, and contact with water can induce a meditative state that makes us happier, healthier, calmer, more creative, and more capable of awe.

The character of the area is largely determined by the streams, ponds and leats and we were keen to maximise the potential of these assets.

How many of us remember spending hours as a child damming streams?

Access to the stream was not easy before as it was deep, silty and surrounded by nettles, so we cut a new accessible stream channel, and in that process created a new island.

This new section has a constant but shallow flow of water to safely access. Lined with pebbles and boulders, mud and silt are not an issue and the age-old activity of damming streams with stick and pebbles is encouraged. How many of us remember spending hours as a child damming streams? It is an archetypal, alchemical, loose parts play experience. The staff at Sacrewell now have a daily task to “Reset” the stream back to normal, but this is seen as an indication of the success of the stream to encourage healthy natural play.

A new sitting deck by the stream offers opportunities to rest and learn near the water with enough room for a whole class of children. Boulders were used as stepping stones in the streams, but also for retaining stream banks and small clusters on land for sitting on and climbing over.

For those not wanting to risk wet feet we designed other ways to cross the water, all with the sound of running water adding to the sensory experience. The different bridges allow access to the islands for those less mobile or able, whilst still giving a sense of challenge and adventure.

A playable landscape

The design at Sacrewell enhances the rich natural setting by creating access and invitations to play, as well as directing the flow of play through the space with physical markers such as fallen tree logs, boulders and bridges. This recurrent pattern of natural elements creates a subtle sense of visual and material continuity and turns the site into an exciting playable landscape to explore.

This approach to play design is holistic in the broadest sense as it harmonises with the existing environment, with minimal, effective interventions and minimal waste, offering not only good play value in the present moment, but safeguarding nature for future generations.

It shows how a landscape focused approach to play design can achieve amazing results, even with limited resources.

 

When Sacrewell approached us, we were delighted to find out that we had such a close alignment of values. This project has allowed us the opportunity to develop a real exemplar of natural play – the sight and sound of running water and safe ways to access it, the clear and playful invitations to explore the existing natural setting, the opportunities to enhance biodiversity and create close contact with wildlife. It shows how a landscape focused approach to play design can achieve amazing results, even with limited resources.

We believe that by creating habitats like these we can facilitate a connection and understanding of nature that not only offers children an amazing play experience – one that enhances both their physical and mental health – but also encourages them to love and care for the natural world, of which they, and we, are an inextricable part.

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We would like to express our thanks to the Sacrewell team for giving us this opportunity to create a magical natural play space and also to the 2019 RoSPA Play Safety Conference for bestowing the first Annual Play Safety Excellence Award to the Sacrewell Millstream Natural Play Area.

* Biophilia is the instinctive attraction to all that is alive and vital.

Ropes and net tunnel supplied by South West Play

For more photos of the Sacrewell Immersive Natural Play Space see our projects page.

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