Kindergartens in Ballarat are benefiting from a pioneering research project to study the effect of green play spaces on children’s behaviour and learning. KinderGarden: Putting the Green Back into Kindergartens is a collaboration between the City of Ballarat, Deakin University, UnitingCare, Flemings Nurseries and Eureka Community Kindergarten Association.
Three kindergartens have just been landscaped under the initiative, with another two set to be reinvigorated in the next six months, pro bono, by Flemings Nurseries. Features include grass mounds, tree tunnels, logs, plant mazes, fruit orchards and tepees. Data are being collected, both pre and post greening, by Deakin University’s Early Childhood Education Division, led by senior lecturer Dr Anne-Marie Morrissey. She says:
“As early childhood experts, we have noticed in recent years that kindergarten outdoor areas have been ‘de-natured’, with trees removed, little vegetation, artificial surfaces and fixed, man-made equipment. This is concerning in the light of growing evidence that regular contact with nature has multiple benefits for young children”.
The KinderGarden project is the brainchild of Wes Fleming, third-generation nurseryman and the man behind nine years of Australian show garden entries at London’s Chelsea Flower Show. Having successfully achieved his aim of placing Australian horticulture firmly on the world stage, his philanthropic attentions are now home-based. He says:
“The ‘imagationational’ playground is all about giving kids opportunities for creative play. Instead of a plastic see-saw we put in old logs that become whatever they want them to be. One of the best things has proven to be a small mound with grass on it. It’s the most used part of the playground for all sorts of activities.”
Having young children of his own has intensified his interest. “Since starting this project I’ve learned that a child’s most important developmental age is between birth and four years. Children need to use their imagination and they need to be mobile”, he says. “Our pilot study at Eumemmerring showed that with a stimulating playground children displayed much higher levels of physical activity, exploration, movement, and interaction with their environment. This research project aims to measure those behavioural and educational benefits, with a view to taking the program across Victoria and hopefully the whole country.”
Morrisey, who also supervised the research on the pilot, has been involved since the early planning stages. “The great thing about this project is that it brings together different areas of expertise, with academics, landscape designers, educators, parents and children in a consultative process. You can see the results of that in the new landscape designs.”
Australian research on how young children engage with green play spaces is limited, driving the need for specialised knowledge. “In comparing how playgrounds with natural features embedded in the landscaping can replace traditional, more artificial playgrounds, we use behaviour mapping and child tracking to record the different types and intensities of play and physical movement, where these occurred and how children used the different environmental features. The complexity and sophistication of their play is an important marker of their thinking and socialisation skills.”