Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Adventure and play

I took the boys to St Kilda Adventure Playground on Monday. We went with two of Jacob's friends from school and their respective dads and siblings (no mums!). We had a great time!

We had been there once before as a family, when Jamie was still an infant and Jacob was just short of turning six. That meant he couldn't ride on the flying fox yet. This time he could, and loved it!

Jacob also had many turns sliding on the half pipe with his friends (on cushions or free-form only – no skateboards). I found it unnerving watching them clamber up that slippery steel slope and then go hurtling down again.

But then, it is one of those requisite risk-taking aspects of children's play. I think it helped that Jacob showed so much confidence moving around the space and playing with his friends – and not taking unnecessary risks – that I managed to let go and not stress over him.

The St Kilda Adventure Playground is one of those rare public places where children can play, exercise their imaginations, be active and just be loud outdoors – without the burden of commercialism on their parents. It isn't one of those indoor private, cost-based enterprises where the grimy, plastic and steel play equipment reflects the children's cartoons and licensed products they're bombarded with on television.

Instead, children range freely through wooden constructions, tunnels, mazes, cubbies, tepees, trampolines, ropes, and a wonderful old 'deconstructed' sail boat! Pirates ahoy! There were lots of trees, shelters and shade sails for shade, and natural and recycled (or rather re-used) materials for kids to play with. It is well staffed, there's a kitchen where parents and kids can help themselves to a cuppa, water, or food (for a donation), and there are clean, well-maintained toilets. And there wasn't a single arcade/computer game in sight.

Owned and run by the City of Port Phillip – rather than a private enterprise or contractor – it is living proof of what can be done through publicly owned, community centred – and run – spaces. Unfortunately, of the few adventure playgrounds built in the '80s and early '90s – with the express purpose of giving urban children, especially those living in housing commission flats or without backyards, the opportunity for outdoor adventure play – only a few Victorian ones survived the Kennett-era funding cuts and only St Kilda and the one in South Melbourne appear to still have a thriving funding base, community involvement and support from the council.

I had to spend a lot of time looking after (and playing with) Jamie, who tried to keep up with the big kids (he was the youngest of the seven kids in our group). Luckily, the Adventure Playground had a sand pit and other activities that better suits younger kids.

All the same, when his big brother heard that Jamie was asking for him to play with, it was lovely to see Jacob take him in hand and lead him around the fantastic wooden castle maze – up and down ramps, steps, and through little holes and cubbies – with his friends in tow.

I also enjoyed taking the kids out with other dads. It's not just the different dynamic of being there with other families that I liked. It was the rapport with other men, Cisco and Leith, fathers who care for their children and like doing things with them. I enjoyed the quiet conversations, the laughs, and being able to take turns to watch each others' kids while you make a cuppa or duck to the loo.

We had fun, and when it was time to go home the irrepressible tide of three men walking out the gates and refusing to take any prolonged nonsense – and the fact that your friends were leaving at the same time – foreshortened the usual arguments about not wanting to go home yet. That was the best thing!

The Playground is located off Neptune Street, St Kilda, so the street only parking is very limited. I suggest car-pooling, as we did. It also made the long journey from our homes in the northern suburbs more manageable.

Opening times vary between school terms (after school hours only) and holidays (from 10am to 5pm). Check out the council's website for details, and bring a picnic.

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