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Providing a quiet, open and active play area in a school can be a challenge

After many years of observing boys naturally gravitating towards digging, fossicking, climbing and collecting, an inspiring natural playground was constructed for the boys of Sydney Grammar School St Ives Preparatory.

Broadly speaking, as families have become busier, children have become less active, distracted by the allure of technology and an emphasis on academic pursuits.  As a community, therefore it is often more important than ever to encourage our children’s activity and their connection to nature.  Our natural, irregular and challenging new playground offers a wide range of benefits for child development, including:

  1. More diverse play opportunities1
  2. Measured risk to develop problem solving, persistence and creative thinking.
  3. Psychological benefits including fatigue restoration, building confidence and competence2
  4. Increased physical activity3
  5. Positive impacts on children’s social behaviour such as facilitating more group play 4

St Ives Prep small 2Throughout the planning and design phase of the new playground, St Ives Prep worked closely with a landscape architect to incorporate function, play and educational requirements.  The provision of quiet, open and active play areas, challenging play spaces, sustainable natural materials, as well as areas for outdoor teaching and learning, were central to the design process.

Phase One opened in July 2019 with the boys running excitedly through a water play area complete with water pump and trough, dry creek bed, rock scramble and fort.  The benefits of our new play areas were instantly evident.  We observed active child-directed play, boys connecting with the natural world and complex imaginative play.  As the boys climbed unfamiliar natural structures and calculated risk, they were building resilience.  As the boys shared spaces and resources, they were practising empathy.  As the boys negotiated and coordinated plans, they were establishing healthy relationships with their peers.

St Ives Prep boys smallAfter the initial flurry of excitement and random racing around the new playground, there have emerged dedicated groups of boys involved in a range of creative and social activities.  The ‘water trough’ boys have been particularly industrious.  They have been systematically creating a dam at the bottom of the trough and coordinating efforts to create a river through the dry creek bed.  Cries of, ‘release, release’, ‘hold the flow’, ‘time to pump’ and ‘we need to fix this’, can be heard as the boys work together to manage the flow of water.  The structural integrity of dams is scrutinised and progress is checked and discussed at the beginning of each play session.

The emergence of the ‘rock’ group was unexpected, our boys love to crush and grind rocks! The rock crushing has been highly experimental as the boys work out which types of rock are easier to break up, what colour sand they will make and what they can be used it for.  This group also likes to stack, rearrange, stockpile and create with the smaller rocks.

St Ives Prep small oneThere are always boys involved in creative play and they are a joy to listen to.  One day the log scramble may be their space base or refuge from dinosaurs or provide a careful track to follow in order to get through the bark lava.  Each group is fluid and can often be made up of boys from different year levels.  A constant between all groups is the need for problem solving as each boy suggests new ideas.

Undoubtedly, we are seeing the emergence of a bright new batch of engineers, project managers, lawyers and architects!

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

Year 2 boys have been known to find a quiet space amongst the sandstone or under a tree to read a story.  Year 1 boys love their practical Science lessons and can often be seen on the hunt for interesting flora and fauna.  Kindergarten boys have been engaged in a variety of Mathematics lessons, with the large sandpit providing a wonderful space to for hands-on experiences with measuring the volume and capacity of containers.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed building a broomstick out of natural resources and using it as an informal unit to measure areas of the playground.

The most rewarding outcome of our new playground is the social and emotional benefit to our boys.  Small squabbles have become a thing of the past with boys highly engaged in a wide variety of play spaces.  Our new playground was designed with the sole intention of supporting a balanced approach to child development.  It has provided boys with a beautiful invitation, ‘Should I dig, climb, fossick, build or create today?’  Most importantly, the boys’ engagement and eagerness to head out to play, demonstrates every day that our natural playground is a magical place for the boys to experience wonder, curiosity and joy.


Written by Leigh Higgins, Preschool Form Master and Susan Ward, Kindergarten Form Master (Sydney Grammar School St Ives Preparatory).

References1(Sarigisson & McLean, 2012) 2(Bagot, Allen & Toukhasati, 2015) 3(Coe, Flynn, Wolff, & Durham, 2014) 4(Cosco et al, 2014)

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