Not just playing around; why Nature’s Playground at Adelaide Zoo works so well

A bit of perspective is always interesting. It’s been just over two years since the launch of a pioneering Fleetwood playground design and construction project, so we thought it would be enlightening to take a look back with a retrospective Q&A with a couple of our key partners.

At the end of 2016, after a lot of interesting work and detailed planning, Adelaide Zoo opened an exhibit for visitors called ‘Nature’s Playground’.

Featuring a custom four-metre high elevated walkway with timber pods, the space includes wheelchair access for a unique visitor experience irrespective of age or mobility. The walkway and pods also incorporate challenging play experiences as well as lovely, elevated views throughout the Zoo and across to Adelaide’s CBD.

For myself at Fleetwood, I have to say it was one of the most satisfying projects I’ve been involved with. Given the use of certain materials to meet very specific design objectives, and through collaborating with some great partners, I personally learned much that I’ve been able to take with me into other projects.

A myriad of environments to explore within Nature’s Playground.

For example, the design aesthetics specified the use of timber, so we had to make the right choices around durability, affordability, and constructability. We recommended rough sawn green timber for the walkway to provide enhanced gripping and traction. As shrinkage can occur, the correct size for timber boards was a must.

Finally, we wanted the bridges which connect the timber pods to feel as open as possible. So rather than opt for more obvious balustrades, we used a stainless-steel web net with low visibility, to allow for a greater feeling of fun and freedom.

As a design technician, I act as the link between designers and the engineering/construction process. With Nature’s Playground, the finished exhibit resembles the very earliest design sketches, something I’m thrilled about

This is our client engagement model DE2 (DesignExecute2) in action. It’s a set of processes that ensures the final outcome matches the original design intentions as closely as humanly possible. For Fleetwood, that’s just about our highest objective (along with Exceptional Client Experience – aka ECX – of course!).

I recently chatted with Jeff Lugg, General Manager of Operations for Adelaide Zoo, and Amanda Balmer, Director of Wax Design, to reminisce on the design and construction elements of Nature’s Playground, and reflect on how the site has been received and enjoyed – two years on from launch day.

Jeff Lugg, General Manager of Operations at Adelaide Zoo
Amanda Balmer from Wax Design

Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:

Mark Jol: First off Amanda, can you tell me some more about the original design vision. What was the inspiration behind Nature’s Playground?

Amanda Balmer: The entire playspace at Nature’s Playground is based on the planet’s major biomes. When you consider that variety, the beauty is how these biological communities provide lots of different educational play opportunities for children to learn through the natural environment. That’s why within the exhibit you see a creek which represents aquatic systems focusing on water play, a sand pit which demonstrates a hot desert, and a rope climb, walkway, and timber pods which make for immersive play opportunities in a sort of recreation of forests of the world.

Natural swings, slides, and rope bridges add to the textural variety.

MJ: How did your team arrive at the early design sketches for the walkway and timber pods?

AB: It was a case of working really harmoniously with Jeff and the Zoo to bring their original intentions to life. From the start, they were interested in an elevated walkway to mimic animals moving through trees, along with a focus on natural products. From there, we were able to design timber pods, interactive play elements, and the use of ropes and investigative and sensory experiences like musical chimes to unite the entire experience into an immersive whole.

From our perspective, the best thing about Nature’s Playground is how strong and complete the philosophy is behind the design vision. It’s been fabulous to see this come to fruition so successfully working with Adelaide Zoo and Fleetwood.

Zoo visitors off all ages and abilities can enjoy a fast-pace or a gentle stroll.

MJ: Jeff, if I can turn to you and get your take on the vision at play here, if you’ll pardon the pun…

Jeff Lugg: (Laughs) Very good, yes! Well, I can very much echo Amanda’s sentiments here. Ultimately the playground is about connecting children to nature through play, while enhancing the overall zoo experience for all of our visitors. With walkway lift access, we wanted to create an accessible, innovative, and nature-based play environment for children. But the reality is – people of all ages love the space! Adults and teenagers often enjoy the playground and the walkways, it’s not always just a case of mum, dad, or the grandparents relaxing in the shaded area with a coffee while the kids go exploring – although that space is very much used and appreciated, too.

MJ: On paper or in theory, a case can be made for just about anything. But now you’ve had a couple of years to let things settle in, what’s your view on why the playground really works?

JL: That’s a good question. In practice, people just love the whole space. It really does impart a connection with animals and nature. Despite being “a playground” with whatever connotations that may imply, we see our visitors become very immersed in all of the elements. Being able to get up high with that elevated view of the zoo and parklands, we believe it really adds an entirely new and different dimension to the zoo experience, which is fantastic.

In terms of why it works, I should mention as well that we conducted extensive community consultation and engagement which definitely influenced the design and briefing process. We took ideas from children and ideas around inclusivity into account, so all of that plays a role in how much people actually enjoy the end result.

Timber pods along the walkway mimic treetops with views across the Zoo.

MJ: How has the playground fared since Day 1 in terms of durability?

JL: When you consider the space is open 365 days a year from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm, you can see how it’s a massively high usage area. We’re happy to say it’s been very robust. The walkways and platforms, for example, are as good today as they were on the opening day.

MJ: How has the playground impacted Adelaide Zoo overall?

JL: It’s been remarkable and very positive for us. Since opening, we’ve recorded our highest visitor numbers and an unprecedented increase in Zoo membership and patronage. From feedback, we know our visitors love it, and many of them return again and again to enjoy the playground.

Durable, safe materials for bouncing and playing at ground level.

MJ: Amanda, Nature’s Playground is now the recipient of a number of awards, is that right?

AB: It certainly is, which is a wonderful testament to all the good work and collaboration involved. I believe we’re up to around seven awards now, including such distinctions as the ‘City of Adelaide Prize People’s Choice Award’ and the ‘Parks & Leisure SA Award of Excellence’.

Certainly the awards are very satisfying, but to see the design vision come to life, to see visitors get so much out of the playground, and to know that Jeff and his team have been able to benefit the zoo enormously as a result of Nature’s Playground… well, these elements, or metrics if you like, are what make the whole endeavour most rewarding for all of us.

MJ: That’s fantastic to hear, and a great way to close out this chat guys. Thank you both so much for your time and enthusiasm today.

Elevated walkways built with green timber featuring stainless-steel web netting.
The play space features different areas representing the planet’s major biomes.

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