The adventurous woodland

As well as the need to rediscover traditional woodland concepts, there is a challenge to search for new concepts. One such concept is termed the ‘adventurous woodland’, with its concern for the user’s direct interaction with woodlands and its particular focus on children. The importance of designing woodlands which support children, their development, their creativity and their play in groups as well as individually, has recently been stressed by many researchers. However, the question of how to design for children is not a simple one, and it should not be. It should rather be respected as an important design issue, in which you need to know the wishes from the point of view of the children and the adults involved, and what that means in terms of vegetation structure, plant choices, dynamics and management. Certainly, the design solution—‘the design concept’—is very much a question of several complementary ways rather than one, and also very much a combination of different woodland qualities and types.

Concerning the design of woodlands for children’s enjoyment, researchers seldom or never point at particularly designed places as examples of ‘good practice’. Rather, they focus on places which are not designed. The best examples seem to be found by accident rather than through a professional design, which of course is a remarkable fact. There are, however, exceptions, but they seem to be very few. One of the early successful cases was Balloon Wood in Nottingham, England, which was partly designed.

Children have, step by step, been allowed to interact more and more with plants in their play. In housing areas of the 1930s to the 1970s, plants were something that stopped children playing, keeping them on the ‘right’ side of an area rather than integrating them with plants or vegetation patterns. The designers used thorny plants because of the assumption that nothing else would survive. In the 1970s Salix species were suddenly introduced as a framework that could, to some extent, also be actively used by children to build huts, etc. But it was actually first in ‘the naturalistic style’ that children were actively allowed and stimulated to enter and experience plantations with trees and shrubs. A Swedish example that has been very successful and influential is the ‘Rosengarden play park’ in Helsingborg. Unfortunately, the day-care activity was closed at the ‘Rosengarden play area’, and today it functions as a local nature park area,

The adventurous woodland


Balloon Wood in Nottingham,

England—this heavily used adventurous woodland in the 1970s was one of the most influential examples of woodland concepts for children’s play in the ‘early years’

with just a few children coming to the place now and then. The adaptation to the new, more ordinary, park situation can today easily be seen by more conventional management, compared to the early park situation, which was strongly directed to the children and their use.

One of the most far-reaching experiments in Europe, with a particular emphasis on children, their uses and wishes, was the Gillis experiment in Buitenhof, Delft, in the Netherlands. In one of the nature-inspired yards, the children could take advantage of a large area which was to be the dominating part, and which was constructed by a combined planting and seeding, in which small tree and shrub plants were introduced as dense planting, with an immediate seeding of grasses. As a result, a fluent gradient between tree-rich and more open rooms occurred in a kind of emerging open woodland. This was later articulated by creative early management of thinning and pruning. The pedestrian ways were very much a result of an action-oriented design. The children were allowed to run, play and have fun, and the pattern of paths which where created in this way were followed up by the construction people. In the early years, a Dutch research team from Leiden found surprising results of how successful the design had become with regard to how much the children played and how varied their play was. It also inspired many of the adults to be outdoors.

It is important to stress robustness in order to enable the long-term survival of the woodland character and the key trees in areas that are attractive and are heavily used by children. In particular, this means a focus on low woodland types with standard trees or many layered high woodland structures, which enable a shift from one individual to another when one gets damaged or is removed by the children. The increased openness on less fertile soils can, to some extent, compensate for the need for fertility to give the necessary re-growth. In management there also has to be special

The adventurous woodland


(a)-(c) The experimental housing area in Delft showing the early development and development up until now. In the late 1990s, a

restoration programme was undertaken and after that an English Landscape park-style took over. In some parts the high quality is still there and has increased with the growing maturity of the vegetation, in other parts the management has not really succeeded in articulating the vegetation architecture or in keeping all the ‘micro-rooms’ that the children created and used. Today, children still very much use the area, but the strong, active relationship between the adults, the children and the landscape has been reduced

(d) A beloved glade in an adventurous woodland in Warrington, England.

individual care of the climbing trees, with a special understanding of important positions and the need to integrate more than seems to be necessary for the long term. There is also a need to reach an area size that should extend at least 20×20 m, and even more if open areas, like glades, are to be integrated as well. The activities of the children lead to a certain pattern in the vegetation. The children create their places, and that can be very violent, but then they often stop. What the children seem to do can be excessive and hard for the vegetation and its longtime survival, but they stop at a certain point, rather than being simply negative: they want to actively form a place for adventure, and the damage to trees and shrubs normally does not extend any further. The result also points out the importance of longterm research if we want to find out what are good and bad design concepts; for a strikingly high number of areas have gone up and down in quality over time (Figures 7.6 and 7.7).

Updated: October 1, 2015 — 4:12 pm