Just over a year ago, Alec Duncan from Child’s Play Music wrote two fantastic and memorable blog posts about Katanning All Ages Playground. You can read them here and here. I was mesmerised. The structures are unique and quite different from anything else I had ever seen.
When I realised that an old school friend lived just over an hour from Katanning, I knew I had to visit and see for myself what this playground was like. An online search reveals very little about the All Ages Playground. It was modelled on the Grant Park Playground in Monash, South Australia. A Facebook page has lots of positive reminiscent comments left by the 300K visitors per year that made Grant Park a go-to playground in the Eighties. The Play Scapes blog has a nice post and the YouTube clip is definitely worth watching.
Katanning is a smaller version of Grant Park and it is unclear who actually constructed it, when, or how it came into being. My gut feeling is that it must have been well-before the Nineties which is when concerns around playground safety and litigation burst onto the scene. The smell of the steel and sweat on my palms reminded me of my childhood experiences playing on the zig-zag, the witches’ hat and climbing frames of the Seventies. The narrowness of the structures and heights also took me back down memory lane.
The structures that haven’t been removed are suitably robust. Sadly, it seems that year-on-year the playground is being dismantled. As the structures become unsafe, they are being cordoned off or removed altogether. They are not being repaired and the replacements can only be described, at best, as disappointing, mass-market affairs and out of character with the original All Ages Playground.
For example, in the photo above, the big rope with a knot at the end, has not been replaced. It’s a steel equivalent of a giant tree swing and similar structures can also be found in adventure playgrounds – a good example being the swing platform at Glamis.
Naturally, one doesn’t travel halfway around the world simply to look at the playground and take a couple of pics. I took my time to try out all the different slides, rockers and seesaws and swings. The scariest bit is climbing the ladders. These days, in modern playgrounds, you feel safe and protected when climbing to a height. At Katanning, the degree of exposure is absolute. So although I was only climbing to perhaps two-thirds of the height of the Macquarie Lake Variety Playground Mineshaft slide on any one structure, it felt a lot more challenging. Put it this way, there was NO WAY I was going to let go or mess about.
As time went on, I began to adjust to the exposure and it began to feel more normal. What this told me is that when we push ourselves we can acclimatise. Just like being on a rock face, you adapt to the environmental conditions in which you find yourself. It did make me chuckle as I realised that even the 30ft structures would be considered “hazardous” by some overzealous safety officers and would probably require helmets and being roped up.
As I wandered around, testing, exploring and photographing, I was intrigued by the designs. Every slide was slightly different. For example, in the photo below you can see the overlapping steel plates. This is like a rumble strip. Above you can see gentle waves. The biggest slide, which is out of use, was a double one that people could go down side–by-side.
The structures were deceptive. Generally speaking the biggest ones were like gentle giants. Although the steps were exposed, the actually incline of the slides was surprisingly gentle. I think using hessian (burlap) sacks would make for faster rides. I’m sure at least one person will have tried sitting on a skateboard to go down one!
The “satellite” above looks like one of the fast playground rides where you are whizzed around. The challenge here is not running on it to make it go round. It’s not a particularly fast ride. It’s working out how to get into the structure. There’s no gate and no steps. You have to hoick yourself up and in through the horizontal bars. Or simply hold onto the outside… which I saw a group of children doing.
The big tractor tyre swing was a big ambling structure. It takes a lot of power to get it moving and swinging high. I couldn’t get it to swing much more than a foot either side of the A-frame – and that was standing up and going for it. Thus there is a lesson here about the arc of a pendulum and its oscillation.
Yet, some of the most innocuous looking structures were much wilder. The gate post below is a great example. It whizzes around very quickly and in full flight, you need to hang on very hard.
A curious quirk is that the structures were really hard to photograph with my iPhone. The scaffolding-like design means that they blend into the landscape quite well. There’s no garish colours.
All-in-all, this was a thought-provoking visit, tinged with sadness. I was reminded once again, we have packaged and canned so many experiences – traditional adventurous ones or otherwise – that any element of physical risk is hugely diminished. I felt Katanning Playground reminded me of the need for diversity of playground experiences and to question terms such as “safety”, “danger”, “risk” and “hazard” and all those other negative connotations that are routinely uttered alongside play. Perhaps its time to review the playground standards, not in terms of safety language but in terms such as “freedom”, “positive memory creators”, “space to be”, “enabling”, “empowering” and “fun.” That may help us rethink what the purpose and function of a playground actually is.