When Emma Woods sees overgrown lawns and uneven surfaces she starts conjuring up a space that is rich for children to play in.
The former PORSE Educator-turned-landscaper knows the value of a good play space for children and through her work at Woodland Escape is trying to connect more children with nature.
All children should have the opportunity to play in a natural environment daily, as it is so good for their development, she says.
Emma helped turn an overgrown paddock into a vibrant playground for Christchurch school children who had to move from their earthquake-damaged site to outskirts of the city. The children now have planks and tyres to clamber over, a wildflower garden and vegetable garden to nurture. The new planting has also attracted a lot of wildlife, including frogs down by the pond.
Emma says she loves to watch the diversity of play in the spaces she designs.
She has watched children shift planks and tyres to create pathways across the playground.
“They’re using different surfaces and different levels and problem solving to get from point a to point b, and they’re doing it without even thinking - but they’re learning.”
Emma likes to use loose parts in her playground designs. Sand and soil can become mud kitchens. Children can move the material around or drive trucks through the dirt – they are connecting with the environment as they play.
When she was an Educator with PORSE, Emma used wooden cubes and ladders that the children could move around the garden.
“If you have items that children can shift, it gets them involved. They become interested in the space around them. They start to think outside the box and create things.”
These simple things can give children hours of entertainment. She has seen children become mesmerized watching a trail of ants. They might accidentally squash an insect, but they learn the consequences and it builds empathy.
Emma also plants to attract wildlife and chooses plants that are safe around children so that they can use and learn from. Different plants, such as lavender and mint, introduce children to different smells. Herbs can also be used in cooking and dried petals can be used in bath bombs or pressed to be used in a craft.
“It also teaches children that there are other creatures they’re sharing the garden with,” Emma says. “And these are all learning experiences for children that can be had in their own backyards.”
This was one of the reasons why Emma enjoyed working for PORSE, there was no set learning area, the children were learning in the environment around them – it was natural childcare.