After working most of the weekend @Childcare Expo running workshops and exhibiting, I enjoyed a lovely leisurely morning with my two children playing in the park and browsing the bustle-free shops – their choice not mine! As novice Sunday shoppers we’d been dropped off in town too early and so had half an hour to fill before opening time. The warm sun was drying out the puddles from the night before and a spontaneous trip to the park was the answer. Half an hour turned into an hour as I enjoyed their unrushed exploration of all the new challenges on offer. They pushed themselves to scale greater heights, stretch further and climb higher on the inventive equipment. The zipwire initially challenged nerves but once tried, they squealed with delight as with each go, they grew more and more confident and bounced higher and higher at the end. This play area, unlike many doesn’t ‘do it all’ for the children leaving them adequate opportunity to push their own boundaries and use their bodies to ‘fill the gaps’ literally and metaphorically. With no slides to tire of, challenge really was at the heart of the design.

As I watched, supporting and catching when needed the stresses and strains of the week dripped away. My highlight had to be watching my eight and five year old master a battering ram-style rope ‘swing’ – basically a thick rigid rod of rope hung like a suspension bridge from wooden poles. Having seen them explore other equipment independently, each picking their own challenge to face, this demanded teamwork. They quickly discovered how to use their bodies to make the rope swing, controlling its speed by flexing their leg and arm muscles. As they developed a natural rhythm, with grins spread wide across their faces, there was no mistaking their full-bodied play. As each new child approached, eager to join, without hesitation they slowed down to allow the new passenger on, before catching their rhythm again and building up speed and height. From their comments later it was clearly thrilling as well as strenuous ‘work’. For me, stood mesmerised by the energy, movement and joy of their play, it was a welcome reminder that well-designed play areas can offer exciting and challenging environments. Like all good open-ended play resources, the secret lay in its ease of being moulded by children’s minds and bodies and the countless opportunities for exploration, problem solving and innovation that this unlocked.