A dry creek is just what its name suggests. It’s a simulation of a stream which has dried up, leaving stones and other mainly natural materials for children to use in their play. I’ve been seeing lots of examples in Australian early years centres and playgrounds which make my mouth water. They set a high standard for others to follow and are useful for considering what would work best in your own context.
There are many reasons why dry creeks are common place. They offer an open-ended area for play where the only limits are the children’s creativity and imagination particularly when loose parts are added. Dry creeks offer a form of water exploration which cannot be experienced indoors. It can be part of a wider approach to water management within an education setting, offering water without it being wasteful.
In the photo above you can see how some logs have been added into the design as an invitation to explore and move them within this area. This is in the 2-3yr old zone at Kookaburra Korner Early Education Centre and are designed and installed by Inspired EC. Look how the round pipe feeding water into the area comes from a higher level part of the creek in a different part of the outdoor space. This means there is going to be cause and effect play happening if children at the higher level stop the flow…!
The higher level dry creek is much narrower and more defined in that the boundaries are fixed in concrete and not loose. Then the creek narrows and moves into a heavy duty gutter half pipe. By changing the width and depth of the creek, the speed of water flow will be altered. If you look at the photo, the dry creek is also a boundary feature, separating the sand from the path. This also allows children to add sand to the creek. There are also tough plants nearby which provide children with more materials for their investigations. I love how a little billabong has been created, to capture water on a temporary basis.
Where the water ends up matters. If there is no natural drainage then a puddle will form. This can be a lot of fun but bear in mind the need to avoid water from stagnating. In the 0-2yr old space at Kookaburra Korner, the water from the dry stream ends up in a mud pit where it can drain into the ground. If you look, the raised level of the creek is lower and the feature more gentle than the 2-3yr old space. By this I mean small stones have been used to create the boundary and the rounded stones in the creek itself have been sunk into concrete rather than left loose.
The dry creek at Milford Lodge leads to a large concrete basin. An informal shallow paddling pool can be created. When not used to collect water, this area also doubles up as an extra space for wheeled toys. The pump enables children to add water to the dry creek. Learning how to work and use a pump is a good challenge for little children.
When visiting Perth, I had the opportunity to visit some playscapes designed and installed by Nature Play Solutions. I’m probably stretching the concept of a dry creek here, but it is a lovely creative example. The water source is a drinking fountain. So the amount of water entering the system is small, but sufficient to keep a wide age-range of children engaged. From the fountain, the water lands on the table and pours into the landscaped channel at ground level. You can see the water flow can be blocked with a gate.
Next, the dry creek enters a “boulder run” before running into the sand pit. If you look in the photo about you can see that children have been creating water channels in the sand. This enables children to make connections in their play – water moves into the sand play and vice versa thereby increasing the play possibilities.
The Children’s Garden at Melbourne Botanic Garden has a huge semi-dry creek. I call it semi-dry as children are using it constantly so it tends to have water permanently flowing around the creek system! The source is featured in the photo above. It is a fountain feature except when you press the button, you are never sure where the water may spout up! It’s deliberately designed to add in a little fun and naughtiness! It is at a height where toddlers can explore it as well as older children.
From this beginning, the water takes a main pathway which changes in texture as it travels along. The photo above shows the wide stream with the stoney bed. Below, you can see how the creek becomes progressively more sandy around the island area. The overflow ends up in a pond.
Like a train track, the creek occasionally splits. Below is a smaller dry creek. Without stones on the bed, the water can flow more smoothly here. This reminds me of storm channels. One thing to consider when planning a dry creek is where the water flows naturally in the space. So having a channel which follows the natural line of water means that when the rain pours, the creek is helping with the drainage of the space. If you look, the borders of the channel have no stones or logs need by. The angle of the surfaces gently lean so that the rain water flows into the channel.
Another key element often found over dry creeks are bridges. These can be simple affairs created by children such as putting a plank of wood across to formal structures. I rather like the re-purposing of old banister posts in the bridge below, by Inspired EC. Common sense says, watch out for trolls which like to live under bridges.
At the Morton Aboretum Children’s Garden there is another example of a dry stream. I love the combination of fixed and loose parts. It’s also big enough for little children to sit or stand in too. I like the boulders at the endues, providing a place to sit and hang one’s feet in the water. If you look carefully you can see that the ground surface is very compact. This minimises the amount of surfacing which ends up in the dry creek.
Creating dry creeks
Get permission. If you intend to install a dry creek it is important that you seek permission from the owner or manager of your establishment and if necessary discuss the matter with your local authority. The reason for this is that you do not inadvertently want to dig up a drain pipe, electrical cables or other things lurking below the surface. Furthermore there may be planning considerations around drainage and run-off which are affected by your plans. So ask first and get good advice.
Think about the type of stone used. Common sense says that river stones which are smooth and rounded are a good choice. Will your dry creek be representative of your local landscape or provide a good contrast. Consider the environmental impact of ordering stones from the other side of your country or beyond! Use local suppliers where possible. Another thing to consider is the placement of special stones – those with an unusual shape, colour, form or texture which add interest.
Soft landscaping. Decide whether or not you need a planting scheme around your dry creek. Plants soften the landscape and provides more loose materials for floating, sinking, mixing and movement. However, it can also restrict access and end up being trampled by keen children wishing to move around the creek. Plants can sometimes be planted in the soak up or drainage area – take professional advice here as different countries, locations and climates have different plants which can do this job.
Water supply. Many dry creeks work perfectly well using water stored in a small 10l or 25l container. Yet a water barrel pump, water fountain or some of the other examples in this blog post are popular with children.
The above photo is from an outdoor nursery in Sweden. Children sometimes fill this with water. Other times, it’s a place for small world play. It can be filled with sand, soil, gravel or any other loose material. A parent who was an engineer designed it so that water is recycled within the system.
Get professional advice. A landscape architect, playground designer or other specialist will be able to advise you on costings, sourcing the material, risk benefit assessments,project management and advice about keeping the dry creek well-looked after.
If you can’t afford professional support, then it is still possible to make one. Jennifer Kable has lots of examples on her Let the Children Play blog to get you thinking. Don’t forget to look at Pinterest too. Squiggle Mum has a super post about how to make a dry creek. The same principles apply in the UK. Just choose native plants to border the stream. The Hush Garden at Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning has a dry creek that was created by Donna and Sherry and their pre-school community including the children. Remember you do need a gentle incline and drainage or soak-up area.
Perhaps surprisingly I see very few dry streams in Scotland. Yet our climate is made for them! So any Scottish or UK examples are gratefully received. Feel free to add a comment below.