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‘Sharpening the saw’ in the Nation’s Capital

In his 1989 book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, American author Stephen R Covey wrote about the importance of ‘Sharpening the Saw.’ His message was that if you want to evolve and grow your skills, either as an individual or as a business, it’s essential to stay sharp by continually seeking inspiration from outside your own spheres of influence.

It was this motivation that recently saw us embark on a special fact-finding mission to Molong Valley in Canberra’s north west, to visit an exceptional play space we had absolutely nothing to do with creating! Accompanied by Fleetwood Urban’s Director, Roger Joyce, we spent a fascinating day exploring the award-winning Pod Playground at the National Arboretum. We looked closely at the design, positioning and interaction between the various play structures, how each of the elements was constructed and, of course, the ways children of different ages experienced it. A few things really stood out.

While we were there, observing the way the kids used the playground, it was fascinating to see the intuitive way the kids used the space. In ways the designers probably never thought of! For example, this little girl was putting her hands in the water ponds nearby and running back to the ‘blackboard’ to make hand-prints. Kept her amused for quite a while as she played with different patterns!

Visually, first impressions were fabulous. The park can be easily seen from the carpark and there are a lot of ‘wows’ as you catch your first glimpse of the giant banksia seed pods, acorns and rope webs. There is no doubt they really spark the imagination and the majority of kids – and their parents for that matter – who are super excited even before entering the park.

The playground itself features four main sections – a toddler area, swings, adventure play section and net climb area. Landscaping, paths and gardens are cleverly used as natural dividers. There are also shade structures scattered along the length of the park.

We were so impressed by the scale of the structural elements, and yet the intimacy. So much thought through design…
Here is a great example of the intimacy of the design, the smaller scale elements that are so thoughtfully scattered through the playground, so accessible to little toddlers and the like, and adding another layer of design complexity and beauty. Wonderful!

Turning our attention to the actual structures, the level of craftsmanship is hard to miss. Coupled with the whimsical nature of the design – the exaggerated scale of the pods and seeds are the most obvious example of this – it feels like everything has been ‘created’ rather than manufactured, and the result is a real looseness and simplicity that translates directly to how the space is experienced. There’s also an intentional un-refinement of materials, such as the use of roofing branches and cedar cladding. In fact, the whole playground has this very organic nature and a lot of the construction seems almost built as you go. In a world often filled with ‘off the shelf plastic junk’ it was a real breath of fresh air.

We just loved the colours here. It is such an enveloping space to be in. This area is filled with 'moments of surprise'.

We were also really impressed with the toddler area. It’s this quirky space with small entrances accessing the inside of the Banksia seed pods, where little kids can move around in a tight sort of mini-maze. The scale of these is really clever, youngsters feel like it’s all just for them as everything is miniature!

The net climb area attracts kids of all ages, but the adolescents seemed to hang out there longer. It’s  like a large trampoline as it has a lot of spring. There are also three sets of swings. These were used constantly by all ages – proving, yet again, that swings are a great but often underrated play item.

The adventure play structure, with its net climbs and pods, is hard to miss as the visual highlight of the entire playground and instantly attracts the older kids. The largest of the nets makes its way up to the highest pods and the exit is via a plastic slide at the top. The designers have also used kaleidoscopes and wheels inside several of the adventure play elements – adding another layer of creativity and discovery.

Joel doing the worm tunnel. You got to get into it, to truly discover the magic of the space and of the design!

Spending the day at the Pod Playground was enlightening on so many levels. It’s always fascinating to take a step back and enjoy play stuctures created by our peers. It helps us to explore what ideas work, what ideas don’t and where the future opportunities and trends are likely to come from.

Recognising industry excellence, even when it’s not our own, is something we’ve always embraced – and we always will. After all, with so many clever businesses out there doing great things, we’d be crazy not to try and learn from them too.

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