Designing for play, learning from nature and leaving blank space

No matter how much we yearn to stay indoors on a cold winters day, the pull of the great outdoors is always stronger. Being immersed in nature seeps into every part of our lives here at Studio 31 and it’s rare that even a day of work isn’t broken by a windswept walk.

Our working days are broken up with brief interludes describing our outdoor adventures and yesterday we were the recipients of a rare and beautiful show of photographs depicting our director’s children den building.

It was cold on Sunday, bracingly cold, the kind of cold where your fingers ache and your toes yearn for the heat of a log fire, but these kids were out. Deep in one of our ancient woodlands, collecting sticks, branches and leaves, building dens and making mock fires to heat them. I commend him on his parenting of course but that’s not what this blog is about. It’s about design or rather the spaces between it.

You see, very often design is a necessity, it is a way of creating beauty, making use or enhancing function but sometimes design is also about space. It’s about knowing which parts to change and which to keep; which parts perhaps, nature already does better than we do.

We’ve learned this through forestry and woodland management for example. We’ve learned that it’s often better to leave a fallen tree than to remove it and that the power of nature to regenerate when left alone is sometimes more fruitful than intervention.

There are similar schools of thought when it comes to play. In this place of limited phone signal and zero toys, two small children played with just what mother nature had given them. Can we use design to replicate this and create maximum benefits from our urban play environments too?

There is an increasing trend towards natural play in the landscape industry and the art of designing play schemes for children is fast becoming a specialism in itself. We have been following this trend with keen eyes and take inspiration from many of our peers and colleagues in this field when designing our schemes.  Our peers, Green Edge Design in Australia for example, design play and education focussed landscapes for children and advocate the development of their design approach through the feedback of the staff and children who interact with them. A successful approach that really does let the clients lead the way.

Back on this side of the pond, practices such as Davies White led by Landscape Institute’s current president elect Adam White are setting the benchmark for innovative play space design. What we’ve learned here at studio 31, is that it seems the most successful play schemes are the ones that most closely replicate what nature has to offer and give children the freedom to explore, interpret and imagine.

Of course, being in nature isn’t just about play, we’ve talked time and again about the therapeutic benefits of nature on health, wellbeing and happiness and this applies as much to adults as it does to children. That’s why, the great thing about children and den building, is that they require supervision. Meaning that for every child with muddy hands and dirty boots, there is an adult also benefitting from the power of the great outdoors and the great reward that comes from building your very own shelter. For every child that engages with the natural world there are adults who are learning tree species to answer the barrage of questions coming from their offspring and there are adults feeling fresh air in their lungs and the sun on their face too.

Designing for Play

Here at studio 31, we try to have a simple, honest and reflective approach to our designs. We try to learn, not only from our industry but also our subject matter and what we’ve found is that some of our most profound interactions with the natural world are the simplest ones of all. That’s why, when we design, just like illustrations on a page, we try to leave white spaces that nature can fill; like the view between earth forms on our Kent Architecture Project or the use of native planting across many of our schemes.

So, if you’re short of ideas on what to do this week, go on, build a den and whilst you’re at it post a picture and tag us (@designstudio31) in the results. We’d love to keep our creative juices flowing on this one.

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