As the Duchess of Cambridge unveils her RHS Back to Nature Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Rachael Austin, Landscape Architect at Austin Design Works in Gloucestershire, talks to us about outdoor play and child-friendly gardens. 

A woodland setting for communities to connect with nature is the inspiration for the RHS Chelsea Back to Nature Garden co-designed by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Elements include climbing logs, a tree house and stream, with stones to build dams.

Established trees and shrubs combine to create a calming garden full of scent and colour.

Government research shows children spend an average of just 68 minutes a day engaging in outdoor activity, and Sport England and the NHS are leading the charge to increase this dramatically to improve mental health and reduce childhood obesity.

Here at Austin Design Works, creating ‘play spaces’ in clients’ gardens is becoming increasingly as important as formal planting and landscaping.

It’s why we were approached to lead a CPRE award-winning community playground project in Horsley in Gloucestershire, which we designed and built following a six-year consultation process.

Our brief was a creative, challenging and educational play space for all ages.

The result – like the Duchess’ garden – is an inclusive garden: a playground with a large sandpit; natural play logs; a willow tunnel; nut grove; wild flower area; insect hotels and dipping pond.

Helping people connect with nature and appreciate wildlife was our focus.

Studies from the NCT (National Childbirth Trust) show the benefits of outdoor play are immense.

Research shows it helps children burn off energy and sleep better; improves confidence and gross motor skills and encourages a healthy lifestyle.

Playing outside gives children the opportunity to use their whole body, boosting fitness and confidence and improving mental health.

Plus wild gardens are multi-sensory experiences, from the scent of blossom and birdsong in springtime to the feel of fallen leaves and the taste of wild blackberries in autumn.

The whole village became engaged in this project, from the school sowing seeds to the youth club building bug hotels and bird boxes and experienced gardeners planting up.

The Horsley garden has become a space for all ages to come together, to play, to chat, to picnic.

ADW’s community playground project, in Gloucestershire, opened after six years of consultation.

The conclusion was to create a new, creative, challenging and educative space; a gathering place with seating, shade and picnic tables to be shared with the village shop and other visitors.

Greenfields Ltd won the tender to contract the works and one of the first tasks was to tackle the waterlogged site by capturing seasonal flood water in a dipping pond, creating a habitat for frogs and insects and a muddy play space.

Spoil was remodelled into a hill, contained on one side by a 3m retaining wall defining the kick-about area, topped with a play tower.

Natural play logs formed a climbing structure and a zip wire, rope swing and monkey bars made from sustainable robinia hardwood were installed.

A sand pit with logs for balance, sourced from neighbouring woodland, were set within planting including a willow play structure and nut grove.

During construction, ADW ran a bug hotel-making workshop and helped with two community planting days, sowing wild flowers and constructing the willow tunnel.

The playground is a garden in the making and will continually be added to by the village for years to come.

The scheme, funded by The Veolia Environmental Trust, Gloucestershire Environmental Trust and Horsley Parish Council, won a CPRE Gloucestershire award.

5 Ways to Build Natural Play into Your Garden

1. Make balancing logs out of old tree limbs

2. Use old stumps to create seating areas

3. Plant a willow archway for a secret den

4. Build a bug hotel to increase biodiversity

5. Sow a wild flower area

5 Health Benefits of Natural Play Gardens

1. Burning off excess energy means better sleep

2. The outdoor, sensory experience is a great way to learn

3. Wild play encourages a healthy lifestyle and participation in sport

4. Natural gardens promote care for the environment

5. Spending time together has a positive impact on the whole family