Enabling Environments: Outdoor resources - Tunnel vision

Ruth Thomson
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Plants and play go together naturally thanks to an innovative garden design installed at early years settings. Ruth Thomson takes an inside look.

Children in Southend-on-Sea can now observe the underground life of plants thanks to specially designed planters that formed part of the local borough council's award-winning entry at this year's Hampton Court Flower Show.

The enormous blue cubes have clear Perspex tunnels that children can crawl into to view ordinary vegetables - potatoes, carrots, French beans and beetroot - and the more exotic, such as mooli (a type of radish).

The planters were one of the main features of the Playful Garden, which won a bronze award at the Royal Horticultural Society's show. It was created by the council's parks team with support from playground equipment company Hags Play and the Department for Education.

The team aimed to use a playful design to teach young (and old) about plants and to challenge perceptions about how plants grow. As well as providing an underground insight, the 1.8m-high troughs within the garden forced plants - including French beans, strawberries and tomatoes - to grow not upwards, but to cascade down the sides.

Denis Lloyd, a horticultural officer with the council, says, 'What we tried to do was develop a garden that would engage the generations and make plants interesting.'

The planters have proved a real hit, in part because of the choice of vegetables. 'The idea was to have different coloured roots so you had something to explore as you crawled through the middle,' says Mr Lloyd. 'Children have been absolutely fascinated. At the show, even the adults were interested, as they didn't realise how long roots grow. It is surprising people that carrots have roots of 1m long.'

GROWING INTEREST

One planter has now been installed at Darlinghurst Primary and Nursery School, where it was used as part of a play scheme on the theme of roots and shoots. The other is captivating children at Bleinheim Primary School and Children's Centre, where it is positioned near the entrance. Children can play in it when they arrive and leave the centre.

'It's been a great success,' says Caroline Reynolds, Blenheim's extended services development manager. 'The children love to climb through the planter and trace the roots, so parents say they have to allow more time when they collect their children so they can spend time playing in the planter.'

Centre teacher Michelle Clayton says, 'Since the planter arrived, there's been a lot of interest in plants and the children have been keen to find out about what plants need to grow. The planter supports them in beginning to understand what happens beneath the soil surface. Having the planter is quite fortuitous, as we're currently developing our own nursery garden and plan to build an allotment area.'

They also plan to harvest the vegetables from the planter and incorporate them into snacks or meals.

It has yet to be decided if the planters will remain in their current position, but the council is keen to develop features of the Playful Garden design. One idea is the space-saving spiral path planted with aromatic herbs. While play areas often now feature mounds, the Playful Garden spiralled down to its centrepiece - a climbing frame in the shape of a tree. Great for running down and scrambling up, the path measured 25m long, yet spanned an area of only 5m.

'It was a bit of a concept garden,' says Mr Lloyd. 'The ideas are being used to develop new planting ideas. These can be applied as the borough improves the play provision under the Playbuilder initiative. The planters may also be produced commercially if there is enough interest.'

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