Hopeful green stuff

Edinburgh Botanic Garden

Tucked away – in a little known section of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE) – is a natural woodland and wild meadow area – a secret idyll far removed from the rest of the city. Last year – funded by a Beltane Fellowship – I worked with RBGE and a neighbouring community from Pilton in West Edinburgh to explore how this area might be developed for nature play.

Nature play is child-led play using natural materials – loose logs, trees, soil, sand, rocks and stones – to follow their own play needs freely in an unstructured way. This type of play is not universally offered by schools and nurseries, but a rare exception is the Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery, an award wining and unique 25 acre ‘wild’ play area woodland in Fife. Here I observed young children roam and scramble the forest freely, self-generating their own learning and games – and even sleeping in amongst the trees – whatever the weather.

But not everyone can afford – or has access – to this type of facility.

The Beltane project enabled parents from built up urban areas that have little or no access to natural play areas or woodlands to experience nature play. Over a series of visits, the children – and their parents – had time to immerse themselves in this little known ‘wild’ area of the Botanical Gardens. Naturally – without any adult intervention – the same child led play experiences took place. Utilising the materials from the forest floor – and adjacent meadow – the children generated their own unique games and organized their own group dynamics.

What become apparent is the resilience and adaptability of children – from any background – to integrate with each other and their environment with minimal adult intervention in these wild areas. I was struck by the sheer ability for a child’s imagination to adapt natural materials for play and communicate with their peers – working hand in hand, even with those barely known to them.

Through a process of observation and feedback, the families were able to make their ideas known and play a part in developing the nature area. Using these findings, I generated a conceptual plan that formed the foundation of successful application to Calouste Gulbenkian to develop the nature play facility. A series of further community interventions are planned for this year, with the aim of producing guidelines on managing biodiversity-rich urban sites for nature play and nature conservation.

An important step towards a new – and hopeful – nature play facility for Edinburgh has begun …

‘A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he. I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.’

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass