Is it OK to play in the woods? Well, is it? It seems that the answer is often assumed by both children and parents to be ‘no’. In Winchester, the Forestry Commission decided to do something about that with their innovative, Big Lottery-funded It’s OK To Play campaign.
The Ranger was invited to take a look at one of the new sites, at West Walk, near Wickham, Hampshire. On one of the wettest days of the year so far, he went along to find out why this project was ‘more than just another play area’. West Walk is a well-used plantation woodland, popular with local dog walkers and picnickers – in fact I even had a family picnic there myself a couple of summers ago. So I was amazed when I returned to find the transformation that had occurred. Previously, a typical FC woodland with public access: car park, litter bins, a tiny toilet block and a few wooden swings. After… well, see for yourself:
A large, delightful and adventurous play area has been constructed, right on the edge of the woodland. Much of it was built with local wood from the Forestry Commission’s own woodlands, and it’s intended that it should be maintained in the same way. I guess if you’ve got an estate management team and a very large supply of timber for the foreseeable future it makes sense to do this. However it’s not just a normal play area – and by normal in this context I mean a set of standard pieces of equipment arranged inside a fence. It is a play area with secrets. To reveal them, our guide for the day was Rob Gazzard, who’s the Recreation and Development Manager for the Forestry Commission in South East England. Rob had made time to meet the bedraggled Island visitors and explained something of the philosophy of the site, and the lottery project that had funded it.
As we sheltered from the downpour in the convenient tree house, Rob explained that this unusual play area was laid out with a very specific, and unexpected, objective: to get children out of it! It’s OK To Play is a project that intends to make people think that going out and playing in the woods is a normal, natural and safe thing to do: and to help them do so. As Rob explained the design of the West Walk play area, we realised just how cleverly this has been done. The first thing that Rob pointed out was the small area of traditional swings in a square enclosure, right next to the entrance to the site (visible in the picture above).
The trad swings are clearly visible from the car park, and so even the most cautious and urbanised visitors would easily understand what to do. They make for the swings, and start to play. However, there are only a few swings, and they’re not really very exciting. Deliberately so. Very close by is a lightly wooded area, and in it are lots of interesting and partly invisible play structures: teepees and play houses. Before long the kids will be off playing in the more free-formed play areas, and doubtless, like us, venturing up into the dominant central tree-house. Incidentally, we discovered a remarkable fact about that house: amazingly, the mighty oak that supports this house had not grown there – it was moved from elsewhere on the estate and is mounted in a huge concrete block. Within the play area is a lot of woodland – and it’s all stuff that in most parks gets cleared away as a matter of course. Yet this is prime play material. There is plenty of light woody scrub to play and get lost in, sticks to throw, bark to smell and twigs to break. Already, we saw that some enterprising person had added to the traditional wigwams provided by building a rough bivouac out of pine branches. Although the children can play in the woods, leaving perhaps over-anxious adults in the more open spaces, they are still safely enclosed by a reassuring wall and fence. Smaller children can be left to run around safely inside this palisade – but older and more agile ones might soon discover the secret of this play area: you can get out. Shown here are two of the several cunningly ambiguous locations around the site where the very slightly adventurous can leave the play compound, and find themselves playing in 350 hectares of wonderful open Hampshire woodland. There, not so dangerous after all, was it?
This was a really intriguing and cunningly designed site. It’s a great example of taking a landscape and building something appropriate in it, rather than dropping standardised units in arbitrary configurations – of which I am as guilty as any park manager. But the rebel in me just jumps with delight at the deliberate subversion of the ‘playground fence’ concept. This fence, whilst constraining to a point, does so only so it can urge you to transgress, incites you to cross it. When you do, your reward is free play. What greater achievement can a playground have than to make itself redundant? See a whole set of pictures and panoramas of West Walk on Flickr. Includes all the above and many more in much higher resolution.