Wild at heart


The Ian Potter WILD PLAY Garden by ASPECT Studios was officially opened in October 2017 by NSW Minister for the Environment, Local Government and Heritage, Gabrielle Upton. The opening was also attended by the NSW Minister for Early Childhood Education, Aboriginal Affairs, and Assistant Minister for Education, Sarah Mitchell, and Kim Ellis – Director and CEO of Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust, along with Lady Potter.


ASPECT Studios won the design competition for this project, an important addition to the family of memorable of urban parks that ASPECT has given Sydney in recent years, including Darling Quarter playground on the eastern fringe of Darling Harbour and The Goods Line in Ultimo. WILD PLAY lets kids adventure through an artesian water basin of creek beds and fountains, tunnel their way through thick bamboo, navigate a balancing course in the form of an ‘eel’, snaking its way around fig trees, or cross a swing bridge and test their mettle climbing a treehouse.




“Kids like discovery, challenges, movement and adventure. They thrive on being in nature – playing with water, climbing trees, jumping through puddles, hiding in trees. We know this instinctively as parents, and as designers we build these observations into our work,” says Sacha Coles – ASPECT Studios Director and UTS Adjunct Professor.

“The bamboo forest, banksia scrub and caves are about hiding, being engulfed, ducking and weaving. The water play is about immersion, relief, joy and surprise. The treehouse is about the sublime – delightful terror! Pushing yourself to the limit of comfortable risk. And the tunnel is about imagining becoming a burrowing creature!”

While Coles and his crew designed the micro environments to give kids these experiences, part of the fun he says, “is knowing that kids always bring new ways of engaging and play to each of these experiences, so it will be different for every child who plays there.”



Located within Centennial Parklands Learning Centre, off Dickens Drive, between Loch Avenue and Robinson Drive, WILD PLAY is designed as a learning experience for kids of all abilities aged 2-12. Its botanical adventure covers 6,500 square metres (roughly the size of a rugby field) with tracks and trails winding through densely planted mounds of shrubs and trees, with existing fig trees incorporated for seating and shade.

This is one of ASPECT’s most densely vegetated landscapes to date, with over 12,700 trees, shrubs, succulents, grasses and ground covers planted, to mature into unique plant communities that define the different play spaces. Of the 22 tree and 57 plant species used, in what Coles calls a “weird and wonderful palette”, more than half are native to Australia, most of which are endemic to Sydney.

And in contrast to many new urban playgrounds that increasingly look artificial and abstract, the constructed elements at WILD PLAY are mostly timber and stone, crafted into complex forms, clearly derived from nature.




Three years in the making, WILD PLAY was created with support from the Ian Potter Foundation, whose Children’s Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, has been a popular drawcard since opening in 2006, attracting 207,000 visitors into the gardens in 2016 alone. A shared goal between the Foundation, Centennial Parklands and ASPECT Studios is to promote innovation and excellence, with a focus on community health and learning, and in particular – encouraging active, inquisitive kids.

Anecdotally, we know that children’s relationship to the outdoors has been steadily slipping since the dawn of the digital age. In 2010 Planet Ark estimated that only 35 per cent Australian children play outside every day, compared to 72 per cent a generation ago. Parents and educators call it ‘nature deficit disorder’, and its effects are detrimental. Conversely, Anthony Dunsford, the Director of Visitor Experience at Sydney Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands says the benefits of exposure to natural environments can’t be underestimated.



“Unstructured play is essential for healthy development of children because in it, they ‘explore’, and are driven by their own interests and imagination. Through trial and error, children teach themselves how to navigate a pathway, take manageable risks and help others along the way. These formative opportunities are being lost for a variety of reasons – a lack of access to nature, fear of risk, and overscheduling of children’s free time,” says Dunsford.

With around 100 primary schools, 100 childcare centres and 58 Out of School Hours Care centres within 15 kilometres of Centennial Parklands (many of which have no outdoor play areas or natural features) WILD PLAY is a welcome addition to the early education landscape of Sydney.


Photography: Brett Boardman, Esteban La Tessa + Centennial Parklands
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