Natural Playgrounds - Creating a Dry Creek Bed


Children’s playgrounds across the world are seeing a move towards natural playgrounds or nature play parks - the rubber soft fall that has become standard in most kids playgrounds is being replaced by tactile, natural, loose parts materials such as sand and bark, metal climbing frames replaced by large logs and boulders, and mud, water and mess-making being embraced not avoided.  

In an age where our children are not as free to wander, explore and play in the bush at the end of the street, we’re recreating bush features in our playgrounds, early childhood centres and schools.     Seeing them as desirable and necessary features for the development of our children - physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.  By the middle of this year, Canberra will see three purpose built natural playgrounds opened to the public in O’Connor, Barton, and Tuggeranong.

For over a year, Sticks and Stones Nature Playgroup have been fortunate enough to experiment running an outdoor focussed playgroup for children birth to 5 years at the ACT Playgroups play space at Cook.  We’ve proven that you can play outdoors all year round when dressed in the right gear, and that most kids relish it!   We’ve experimented with building a mud kitchen from recycled pallets, creating vertical plantings, planting raised garden beds with kids, designing water and music walls that can withstand the enthusiasm of young children, building obstacles courses with hay bales and salvaged wood, getting very muddy, and incorporating features made from natural materials to bring a bit of the bush into our play.  

Our latest experiment has been to build a dry creek bed, and here’s the story behind it…

Why a Dry Creek Bed? 
We chose to build a dry creek bed to further enhance the natural feel of the play space. For young children learning to move, walk and use their bodies - gaining their footing and controlling their balance on an uneven surface helps to build the movement skills needed to be confident on their feet when active, especially in natural environments.  We see way too many flat surfaces in designated play spaces these days, and wanted something different. 

Also natural rock feels great to the touch, is a loose part to incorporate into play, changes its look when wet (more colours are revealed) and becomes a home to insects (turn over a rock and see what you find).

We choose ‘dry’ over ‘wet’ because creating a wet system or trickle stream means creating a more permanent feature and is much more expensive.

The How
It sounded quite easy when the words ‘let’s build a dry creek bed’ came out of my mouth.  I’ve never built one so then came the questions: What type of rock? What size rocks? How many tonnes of rock? How do we make it look natural? How do make it feel right, and not out of place? How do we fund it?  Has anyone built one?  Are we allowed to build one here?  It was time to think about planning and design.

Planning and Design Phase
We received the ok that we could build the creek, and then as luck would have it met Kate, who just happened to have built a dry creek bed before…phew!  Over playgroup we chatted about rough design ideas - mainly how big (long, wide and deep) - this guided how much rock material we were going to need.  It was decided that 2 tonnes of large 150 - 300mm sized river rock, and 1 tonne of 50 - 70mm river pebble would do the job.

As the rough design was mainly in my head, I searched the internet for images of dry creek beds in play spaces to get some pictures to show others (a picture really does speak a thousand words) and to work out the best way to build it.  Knowing what we needed, work started on how we were going to pay for the materials, and what volunteer labour could we rouse up?

Although I had a rough idea about the position in my head something about it didn’t feel right. Quite a few weeks were spent observing how the kids used the play space while trying to work out where was the best location. If I was a landscape architect I’m sure this question and uncertainty would have been resolved quickly.  A quick catch up with Kate a week prior to construction with printed photos of the area lead to the original plan being scrapped and a new location/design being finalised (finally it felt right).

Funding turned out to be fairly straightforward with thanks to the Nature Play Grants Program administered by Active Canberra.  If you don’t have funding, but have plenty of time, volunteer labour and a ute/car with trailer - keep an eye on websites such as Gumtree.  There are people who want rock removed from backyards - but it may take you a while to stock pile sufficient supplies.

We roughly worked out that construction would take about 5-6 hours of volunteer labour based on 2-3 adults with kids to tow.  Being a volunteer led project we had to factor in the good old day sleep, and decided to split the construction into two phases/days: site preparation and creek build.  We’ve learned from previous community projects that it’s best to get the site prepped prior to a group of volunteers turning up to lend a hand, because it can be quite fiddly while design is discussed and worked around.

Construction Day 1 was clearing the existing wood chip, marking out the design of the river, digging out the soil to create a shallow trench for the river pebble and rock and clearing couch grass.  Day 2 was laying weed matting, laying 2 tonnes of 150 - 300mm sized river rock along the bank line and infilling, back filling with 1 tonne of 50-70mm sized river pebble, planting soft Lomandras (Lime Divine and Seascape) and finishing up the edges with wood chip.

The Final Product
We’re seriously pleased with the finished product, and it’s just as we had imagined it.  The creek flows nicely off the lower edge of the sandpit, bends around the casaurina (a tree we find along many creeks in the ACT) and then meanders it’s way to the fence line.  The kids enjoy crawling and walking along it, pushing and filling their trucks and exploring the stones.

Thank you
Projects such as these require the energy and enthusiasm of many people.  Thank you to…My boys - Phil for the digging and heavy lifting and Jack for your enthusiasm for any endeavour that involves a wheelbarrow and shovel. Kate for planning, design and wielding a shovel. Sue, Bob and Ben for help shifting 3 tonnes of rock with a smile.  Active Canberra for the funding.  ACT Playgroups Association for supporting the build in the play space.  And to those who dropped by to see how we were going, and join us for playgroup each week to celebrate kids playing outside and in nature whatever the weather.



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