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BOOK REVIEW: Natural Playspaces: Creating Outdoor Play Environments for the Soul

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Rusty Keeler
Reviewed by Ric McConaghy

There are times when you can judge a book by its cover. Two imps peering out from behind a moss covered tree trunk suggest that Natural Playspaces ; Creating Outdoor Play Environments for the Soul is going to be a joyous and playful journey of discovery. This is a book about planning for play where the primary focus is the child, and the title refers not to the body but to the soul. Bliss.

The tone from the outset is encouraging and positive. The language is personal and intimate. The style unashamedly undertakes the perspective of the child to whom the playscape will be delivered. It is almost taunting you with the idea that if you don’t like the approach then save us all some time and go and get an equipment catalogue.

This book has humanity at its heart, imagination in its head and play in its soul. The visuals are rich, diverse and almost make the words redundant. Even the paper feels nice. It is all so sensual I found myself wishing that Rusty had really let himself go and had a few scratch and sniff pages (2nd edition maybe).

We are urged to re-connect with what made our own childhoods special. The senses are explored, the imagination engaged and the view of play and its place in the world collaboratively recalibrated. This is not play to burn off energy between boring maths lessons. This is not play to reduce your bmi (body mass index), increase your gms (gross motor skills) or to stimulate your p&ks (proprioceptive and kinaesthetic sensation). This is play because it is great and it gets you out in nature with your friends, no matter what the weather.

The case studies take you through the journeys of others and the challenges they faced. Not every project team will have a handy Rusty to ride with through the inevitable bumps of design to delivery (more’s the pity); so the case studies and workbook resources give you a glimpse, a guide, and a way of going that will assist in many of the pitfalls.

There are simple projects at the back that can be undertaken by groups to bring special elements to any space. Some are seasonal while some are more enduring. So many of the ideas are simple and achievable. This does not mean they lack sophistication, but they certainly lack any unnecessary embellishment, and leave that level of imagining to each new maker.

At times the text can take tangents, but this is the rhythm of Rusty, and this book is clearly his. As such these drift into alternate universes and can be forgiven for their obvious unbridled enthusiasm and inherent interconnectedness. It is much more of a conversation than a dissertation and may I suggest it should be read that way.

No book can be completely comprehensive without being formidably thick. There are technical issues relating to site analysis and design that will require expertise during the process. There are issues that will vary from one country to another and from one region to another where local knowledge will be crucial. But fundamentally at its core this book is about children, about play and about nature – and that is universal.

Free play is one of the few remaining unstructured endeavours left for our over-organised, intensely urbanised children. Nature is nothing if not chaotic and so the synergy with children should be obvious. This book, and its author, celebrate this, encourage this, immerse themselves and the reader in this and so empower communities to deliver this in the spaces they seek to provide for their children to play. I urge you to embrace it.

Ric McConaghy is a designer of children’s environments in NSW, Australia

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