Healthy Psychosocial Outcomes & Their Connection to Creative, Three-Dimensional Environments

It’s not a picnic area and it’s definitely not a playground. The Rio Tinto Naturescape Kings Park, 60,000 square metres of hidden thicket, creeks and trees in Kings Park, is a space specifically designed for children to engage with nature. Landscape architect and Director at PLAN E, David Smith underlines the strong connection between creative, three-dimensional outdoor environments and healthy psycho-social outcomes.

“We’ve designed Naturescape with a real sense of purpose and a specific design aesthetic. It’s an environment for kids to interact with nature and it’s also a place situated within the broader design palette of Kings Park. It’s not a playground, it’s very much an experiential landscape for children to extend themselves and push their boundaries.”

David underscores the point that Plan E has intentionally created a micro-world for children. It’s one that embraces similar problematic issues found within the wider horizons they’ll be stepping into as adults.

“It’s a great challenge to allow children to be exposed to character building risk while also maintaining appropriate levels of safety. Positive interaction with strangers and developing broad social connections without overarching monitoring are valuable skills to learn. As landscape architects, the Naturescape project prompted an exploration of how we can instil confidence and a sense of independence through the medium of creative play. In order to allow children to perceive their boundaries you have to let them have experiences that come close to those limits.”

“There is an element of risk with Naturescape. And I’m sure there are people who might say there’s too much bush, an excess of rocks and there’s bound to be snakes. We’ve designed it with the intention of setting some different challenges than you’d normally find in an urban society.”

“It’s a valuable and pertinent discussion and it begs the question, have current Australian standards for ‘safe’ play reduced it to something that doesn’t develop very much at all?”

In a light-hearted reference to the medical profession, David expands on the balancing act between risk and reward.

“Doctors should be thanking us because some of them will be getting a little extra work repairing broken arms. It’s a two-edged sword and some people might say it’s an unacceptable risk and others would counter by saying places such as Naturescape are absolutely essential to build confidence in children. Inevitably there will be a broken arm or two, but some would say that’s a rite of passage anyway?

The highly subjective interpretation of a creative space is something that David and Plan E value highly.

“Everyone, adult or child, comes to Naturescape with their own script. We’ve designed a landscape that hopefully challenges and expands those narratives, one that allows an immersive and interactive experience and is markedly different from a conventional playground. A swing and a slide satisfy a physical need but do little to foster social and psychological strengths. This space develops those qualities and, hopefully, builds resilience in children.”

There’s been a long-standing association between Kings Park and Plan E. In fact, as David says, ‘if it’s happened in the Park over the last 13 years then we’ve been involved with it.’

“It’s been an amazing opportunity to have that level of consistency with a client such as Kings Park and Botanic Garden. They’re well aware that the area is a facility for the entire Australian community and that means we have to work across a broad range of design briefs.”

“One of the projects we’ve worked on is the Place of Reflection, an area for people who’ve suffered loss in any form and are looking for a nature based space for contemplation and healing. We’ve worked with a number of different groups in Perth embracing issues such as SIDS and post-traumatic stress linked with torture.”

“We see ourselves as a catalyst in creating a three-dimensional landscape that mirrors what the wider community is trying to achieve.”

David is very clear regarding the role of a landscape architect and he’s equally emphatic about where the profession should draw a line in the sand.

“I’m not a social engineer. We’re designers and we’re not here to shape or drive community expectations. It’s our job to listen to a client and transform their needs into a three-dimensional space.”

“I’m not an expert on whether kids who play outside will grow up to be better citizens than those who sit in front of a screen. Would the world be a better place if Bill Gates hadn’t been a computer nerd? But I do feel that outdoor play is valuable for children and it’s important to make it as stimulating as possible.”