Can you help with my Oz trip?

kangarooI’m en route to Australia, where I’ll be giving talks to childcare agencies and children’s rights bodies, working with public health officials, and networking with child-friendly city projects. And I’m looking to you, my readers, for  your ideas about how to make the trip more worthwhile.

The focus of the trip is children’s outdoor play and independent mobility. Inevitably, there will be wider discussions about risk, and planning, and parenting, and the nature of childhood down under. So tell me: what should I check out with my Australian friends, contacts and colleagues? What are your observations of Aussie politics, and its planning system? What about its parenting culture? How much does play feature in the thinking of schools, and early years and childcare services?

Perth mapThis is my third trip to Australia, but it’s the first time I’ll have the chance to explore Melbourne, the county’s second largest city. I did spend some time in Perth (its fourth largest city) a few years ago. The sheer size of the conurbation was staggering. Wikipedia says Perth’s population density is just 800 people per square mile. By comparison, my home city of London is almost 20 times as dense.

I’m thinking, that level of density cannot be good for helping neighbourhoods to pass the popsicle test. And I’m sure I read somewhere that Australia’s child obesity rates are growing faster than almost any other country’s (though can anyone back that up with a reference?) On the other hand – or perhaps not – almost every municipality in Western Australia has its flagship destination play space. Some had seven-figure budgets – with design features (and car parking) to match.

Faulkner playground, Melville, Perth I will try to post once or twice while I am there – but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts.

39 responses to “Can you help with my Oz trip?

  1. Hi Tim,
    I would love to work with you in some capacity! I am currently based in Albany, WA, after moving from Scotland (where I met you in Crieff – conference, Auchlone) but work all over Australia – it is a HUGE country!

    • Hi Niki – how nice to hear from you (and that conference still lives in my memory). I may be coming to WA in May – am definitely coming back to Australia. Get in touch if you think we can make something happen.

  2. Hi Tim. I only read your blog for the first time yesterday. I’m sort of new to Australia, and I’m a parent with young children. So, I’m happy to tell you what I’ve experienced and observed, but the political end is for someone else.

    Melbourne has many wonderful neighbourhood parks/playgrounds, though not every neighbourhood has one within walking distance. Some fantastic adventure playgrounds have been built by community groups, maybe ten years ago. Look for Melbourne Playgrounds online, great resource. Camping seems to be popular with families, especially near the beach.

    Melbourne has a culture that offers many educational and fun activities for families/children, indoors and outdoors. Much is funded by government monies. I find the parenting culture to be, overall, involved and nurturing, and also a bit care-free (compared to US) in allowing children to explore on their own. (Of course, there are pockets where you’re more likely to find parents struggling, and some do buy into the fear-mongering but I think that’s a minority.) In our neighbourhood, children ride bikes/walk to school, but not to the shops, and not to the park. The shops are close enough for the popsicle test via bicycle, but not walking. Melbourne suburbs generally have a strip of shops for each neighbourhood, but again not always close enough for a popsicle.

    School children have large backpacks and homework every day, as well as scheduled afterschool sports and other activities. Not much unscheduled free time. School recess time, I believe, is still an hour, including lunch. (There is a growing number of families choosing home education.) Families in our area have all the latest gadgets and kids spend a lot of time in front of a screen, There does seem to be an emphasis on providing play ‘things’ rather than free exploration.

    I hope my observations are helpful, and at lease maybe they can add to the discussions. Thank you for the work that you are doing for childhood.

    • Hi Jackie – thanks for taking the time to give such a full reply. It is really helpful to have that real-life perspective, especially as you can compare things with the US. I’m planning to have some wanders around the CBD at least, and will also hear about some projects in some of the more disadvantaged parts of the greater Melbourne area.

  3. Hi Tim
    I think you will find many sites of interest around Melbourne (mostly good!) and would be happy to take you to see some. I’m a landscape architect in Geelong.
    If you havent already you could check the online resources at

    Most of the ones on there are in Melbourne however, as Play Australia has only recently set it up.

    Highly recommend a visit to the Childrens Garden at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens (I’m sure I could arrange a walk around it with the designer), also Hays Paddock, Birrarung Marr, CERES, and some of our own design.

    My office overlooks an excellent Youth Precinct beside the waterfront thats also worth a look.

    Let me know where you will be speaking!

    • Hi Perry – thanks for the reply and links. You can find out where I’m speaking from my events page – email me if you need more info. I suspect the Playgroup Australia talk this thursday afternoon will be of most interest to you (the VicHealth events are focusing more on children’s active travel). That’s a very generous offer to meet. I do not have too much time for visits, but could you email me any times this week when you may be able to meet me for an hour or two – perhaps a cycle tour? I have seen the Children’s Garden before – it is delightful.

  4. Hi there Tim, looking forward to hearing you speak at the Vic health conference on the Monday. Delighted to finally meet with you as I have been very interested in the progress you have made in the UK “Rethinking childhood” Congratulations on your work for and with children. If you would like somewhere to stay away from Melbourne, you are welcome to come and experience some Australian hospitality,have a night and 2 days at our home near the beach in Frankston. To see the work I am doing with families on the Mornington Peninsula, google “Narelle Debenham” or I am also happy for you to use the “FrankstonTV Natured Kids” 2 minute clip to help promote the importance of Nature play for the health of families and our environment. (It is also an example of what is already happening here) Just lift it off the internet. I can be contacted directly by email . Let me know if you have a spare moment while here. kindest regards from Narelle Debenham P.S
    I have many political contacts if you need to follow up.

  5. Hi Narelle – thanks for the generous praise and encouragement – right back at you. Your hospitality offer is very generous indeed – but I have made other accommodation arrangements. However, I’ll drop you an email to see if we might be able to meet in Melbourne, as well as at the VicHealth event. There’s some lovely footage on that video!

    • Sounds great, we can possibly grab half an hour on that day of the Vic Health presentation if you have time to spare. I was hoping to take you to the Cranbourne Botanic gardens. (Would be able to do in a morning or afternoon) if you can send me your email, I can send you a copy of the training programs I am running to inspire Nature Play in communities around Australia. You may want to share these with other key players while here. Kind regards from Narelle Debenham

  6. It’s true what they say Tim about childhood obesity being on the rise in Australia. You would think our wonderful climate would see children outside all the time but unfortunately this in not the case. For many parents winter is either too cold and wet … heaven forbid they supply their child with a rain coat or parka every day, and as for summer … too hot! How many times have I heard from a parent “My child doesn’t like to wear a hat!” or “They get too hot wearing a hat” or “Surely it’s too hot to go outside”?

    In my own experience of teaching kindergarten I believe that if we left the decision up to the children about where they wanted to play, they would choose outside over inside any day! Hmmmm … I think I just solved a big problem here …. Dress children appropriately and let them make more decisions!!!

    Donna :) :)

  7. Hi Tim
    You can contact me via my e-mail and I am sure we can make something happen. I am in the process of arranging 4 conferences with Claire as keynote speaker in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth – all in November 2011! I will be looking at conferences etc for 2012 and maybe we can work together. My e-mail is or you can catch me on Facebook. I am still spreading the message about taking children outdoors allowing them risk and challenge etc……have been to some amazing places in Australia but also very sad to see so many artificial, ‘plastic’ play spaces with nothing to challenge the children. I am however heartened by the number of people who are making changes.

  8. Australia I think needs a national play strategy. Apparently all the states have childrens commissioners, the WA one recently published a short report on the importance of play for children – not sure if the others have. But there needs to be a federal approach. Although much discussion on issues, as in UK, of obesity, too much screen time, over scheduling, reduced access to play places and play time in and out of school – its not all been put together yet – if you see what I mean. Recently attended the Parks and Leisure Australia conference in Fremantle – much made of the link between Health and being outside – recognition of the latest western societal issues of depression and diebetes and how doctors in UK prescribing exercise instead of pills – but Australia (and PLA) very sports oriented, Sports well funded and supported – Play didn’t/doesn’t get much of a look in. Play falls between departments it seems – all somebody else’s problem. Need to link up Health and Planning, including Sports and Rec. At the local level play spaces provided by local government but access to play spaces – too much traffic, distance from home, parental fear – an issue – no point having a fab play space if you can’t get to it. Need guidelines for developers to improve opportunities for street play, easier access to, as well as better play spaces. Also local government don’t seem to provide the same range of play services as UK – no adventure playgrounds here (well a couple in Melbourne is all) no playworkers. As you note local governments here very fond of the big ticket destination playground – which is ok as part of a range of play provision that recognises the importance of the local play in childrens lives as the place they have access to most often – funding very thin for local play spaces. But very hard to get ‘critical mass’ of kids in a local play space which make it appealing for children to want to go to as a social experience because things so far apart and hard to access – I think thats why importance of improving school grounds so important and why larger play spaces more popular to visit. Heard on the radio today that Australia is reporting to the UN on the Convention on the Rights of the Child – but concentrating on other issues around most vulnerable children in Australia i.e. children in care, children in detention, and indigenous children (which are really important obviously) – no mention of the articles on play – but I only got a news sound bite so there may be more – but this convention needs to be supported in the same way as the Rights of the Disabled Person seems to be – all local gov’s have to have a DAIP (Disabled Action and Inclusion Plan) need the same for children and play. Lots of grass roots action, lots of excellent examples of doing things better, lots of information around but people wanting to change need to be able to find it and be supported in changing and a national approach would help make this more accepted and widespread and taken more seriously (instead of just being a soft issue as it is seen at the moment unlike hard issues). Hope that make sense?

  9. These last couple of posts reminded me of a major, annual, family-attracting event that was on last week–The Royal Melbourne Show. Although the Show is intended to be a showcase for agriculture, the carnival rides and the ‘showbags’ get most of the attention. It is an expensive event where people end up spending too much money, as nearly everything but the agricultural demos requires paid tickets. My family went and we enjoyed seeing the animals and learning about agriculture, and the only ride we went on was the giant ferris wheel. There we could see hoards and crowds in the areas where the rides were, and I know from walking around that the showbags were the thing. To leave the Show without arms full of showbags would be breaking the tradition. ‘Showbags’ as I understand, are a tradition where companies offer samples of their products, and in the past, I think it was for free. This year, the cheapest showbags you could find cost $5-$20, and they were all full of chocolate bars and other sweets. It is paradoxically hilarious to see parents leaving the Show with their arms (and prams) full of large bags full of lollies and commercialised ‘stuff’. It has got out of control, I think. Makes me wonder what people/government really want to do to resolve the diabetes/obesity issues.

  10. Hi Tim,
    Sorry you are not coming to Canberra as there is a quiet movement here of interested educators who have been inspired by you and people like Claire Warden. Our school has transformed one of its playground to become much more natural and child centred and we are now bushwalking with preschoolers each week taking advantage of the natural reserve behind the school. It is not easy.. we need people like you to help our educate our community – P-12 environment means there are high school staff who really have little experience in the notions of play and its importance.
    You are welcome in Canberra.. any day :) Make sure you check out the Ian Potter’s children’s garden at Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens.

  11. Hi Tim – well oddly enough, I’ve just arrived in Sydney! Will be here for a month doing lectures and talks at various Uni’s and events in Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane, largely based on the schools work featured in ‘Lost Adventures of Childhood’ and meeting academics and practitioners interested in setting up ‘playwork’ in Australia. Drop me an email if you think our paths might cross! Shelly

  12. Hi Tim, we live in Orange a regional NSW city of approx 40,000 people about 4 hours drive west of Sydney. We have 2 children, a girl aged 9 and a boy aged 8. We have recently moved from a house on a decent sized block (900 m2) close to the town to a cul de sac in a new estate on the edge of town with a wetland over the back fence. The difference for our children has been amazing. Even though in our previous place there were children around they were never seen outside. in our new house the 15 or so children on the street are always out playing. It is much more like my childhood in the 70s, though I do notice that not all children let their children explore the wetland alone. Sally

  13. Just listened to your piece on ABC in Aus via the miracle of Facebook. I’ve been mulling over a playscheme / summer camp idea along the lines of Gever Tulley’s work (50 dangerous things… Tinkering School etc.) and it’s good to hear you feel there is a movement towards riskier play in the UK, as my big worry is whether the market is ready for 50 Dangerous Things Camp! Can I quote you from the audio?

    I agree heartily with all you said, and v interested to hear an OT’s opinion on this too. Re: being in Aus, I think Jennifer Kable of Let the Children Play is based there and she’s an inspirational outdoor practitioner. Helen Tyas-Tungaal is in NSW is you make it that far (you may have met her at the LTL international conference last year); she’s a retired headteacher who’s done stacks of school grounds and play projects. Jennifer and Helen can both be found via Facebook and blogs. Do you know of the Wild Playgrounds New Zealand (am sure you do)? they are also fab but I guess just a little bit out of your way.

    Have fun, and do let us know how you get on.

    Julie Mountain – Play Learning Life and LTL

  14. Hi Tim, We are working here in Melbourne with a Pod model which is very similar to the Children’s Scrapstore PlayPod in the UK, only calibrated to an Australian education market. Our organisation is called Play for Life and you can find us at We would be keen to connect with you and tell you more about our work and how we are utilising Pods in primary schools as gateways into communities. We are also doing some work with Play Australia in creating Australia’s first Play Charter – for kids, by kids.

    Please get in touch if you would like to catch up for further chats.

  15. Hi Tim

    I’m in Sydney so not much help on the Melbourne side of things, but I do know that the pilot program for Australia’s first preschool along Forest School lines – called a Bush Kinder – is now operating:

    There is also another wonderful preschool doing terrific things with outdoor nature play:

    There is also the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation which is doing wonderful things with schools helping them to grow, harvest and prepare their own veggies. The program started in Melbourne and there are all manner of flourishing kitchen gardens in schools there – you can find out more on their website:

    ‘The fight against the obesity epidemic starts with our children – and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program is an innovative and practical way of getting children involved and developing healthy habits for life.’ – from the website

    I look forward to reading more about your trip to Australia,

    Jenny @ Let the Children Play

  16. Hi Tim
    When are you in Melbourne? Claire Warden from Scotland is the keynote speaker at a series of conferences about nature education and how this transfers to Australia.The two of us will also be leading workshops on risk and evidencing the National Quality Framework at these conferences to be held in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth in November. We will be promoting nature kindergartens, bush schools and other opportunities for children to have access to ‘wild’ nature.

  17. I’m from the UK and still visit there regularly. I now work as a family counselor in the outer east of Melbourne (I’m a psychologist, social worker and family therapist). My biggest special interest is children’s violence towards their parents. I see links between this and issues such as over-protectiveness and over-indulgence, which links to some of the lifestyle issues. The outer suburbs of Melbourne are incredibly car-focussed with pathetic public transport and distances between places that are too far to walk. I also think that parents here are more protective than in the UK. I constantly find that parents living in relatively safe areas are too afraid to let their children play outside (sometimes not even in the front garden!). Children are also sometimes growing up with paranoid fears of strangers and abduction. Thus I see many children and young people who seldom go out. This makes conflict within the family more extreme (both with parents and between siblings). Computer addiction is a big issue and I’m seeing more young people (teens and 20s) ‘virtually’ retiring from the real world. It’s all a bit depressing at times! I just found out about the conference by chance and not sure I can get there at such short notice.

  18. Hi Tim,
    its great you are coming to melb, but its also great to hear all that is happening here alreadyvia the previous posts, Im a phsyio in a community health service and wanting to do more with health promotion and active play.I’ve been doing my little bit, also working with local schools and kinders.I hope to catch you on mon. when u r next in sydney they have just put a fantastic play space in darling harbour with lots of water and imagination.I’ve heard the one at cranbourne is worth a visit. Judy

  19. Hi Tim
    I’ve only just seen this request on your website, and I know you are already in Australia because of your tweets from the VicHealth conference. I met you earlier in the year at the Coram’s Fields event on street parties.

    Play, children, oz and the UK is a combination that ends up being a never-ending source of discussion for my wife Catherine and I. We both grew up in Brisbane and now live in London with two small children. We lived in Melbourne for a year (including working for VicHealth as a writer) so know it pretty well too.

    The key to understanding play opportunities for kids in Australia is still transport. Children in suburban and urban areas get driven, and the implications of this on their sense of agency, their health, their expectations and their development are well known to you.

    Earlier in the year I was asked to review Children and Their Urban Environment for the Riba Journal. It was an interesting global trawl, but I was frustrated that the authors’ prescription on how to improve cities for children failed to take sufficient account of the implications of density – low density places start a long way behind as far as I can tell, but there is often a cultural sense that these places are in fact better for children because of the privatised back yard and perceived sense of freedom this brings.

    One anecdote: my sister visited us with her two children earlier this year (she lives in Brisbane). She’d never come to London before, and very openly said how it confounded her expectations. She couldn’t believe how much more active her kids were able to be in inner London compared with inner Brisbane. On returning home she bought scooters for the kids and even got a folding bike for herself having not cycled since she was a child.

    Anyway, you wanted advice on contacts and projects, not a life history – my brother in law Geoff Woolcock is an Associate Professor at Griffith University’s Urban Research Programme in Brisbane, with a specific interest in child-friendly communities. He might be worth looking up (he may well be at the conference you are attending).

    Enjoy your travels


  20. Great to hear you are coming to Oz
    I wrote an article inspired in part by your work recently for the Institute of Public Affairs journal
    are you coming to Sydney?

  21. Was sad to be missing your talk today as just heard of it through work channels today – as part of the Urban Strategy Team at Frankston City Council as an Architect. Michael my partner runs a Wildlife Park on the Mornington Peninsula Moonlit Sanctuary and we just in the process of planning a play area incorporated in the open release area and learning area. The Sanctuary runs tours at night when Aussie animals are awake – its seems to keep the magic alive and fascination in interaction between them and wildlife. Very Special – we would welcome your visit if you have time on your visit.

  22. Great to meet Tim, thought you might like this video of ours, it is part of a series we had made in 2009:

    We hope pur recently live Walking Maps migth inspire children and their families of both load walks and explore the walks of others. Many walks include what we call the ‘local treasures’ that often lie hidden away and will hopefully draw people out into their neighbourhood. Here are a couple:



  23. Thanks to everyone for all these incredibly helpful, generous, positive, thoughtful comments and offers of help. I’ve been overwhelmed! I’ll try to respond to at least some of you in more detail once I’ve caught my breath after the VicHealth events.

    I do want to say a public thank you to Kathleen Brasher at VicHealth, who has been a consummate host, and a lively, charming companion. Also to Jenny, Lois, Adrienne, Karen and everyone else who I met at the Playgroup Australia conference – truly a jaw-droppingly energetic and energising event. I won’t forget Bollywood by Night in a hurry! I’m having a few days to myself before the Sydney/Wollongong/Sydney legs next week. G’day for now.

  24. you have helped – off to take up the one action challenge…
    thanks for sharing.

  25. Hi Tim

    Are you still in the Illawarra? If so, I would love to meet up. I quote your work in my papers/books.
    Dr Tonia Gray
    Associate Professor
    Faculty of Education – Health, Outdoor & Physical Education
    University of Wollongong
    Northfields Ave, Wollongong, NSW. 2522

    P: +61 2 4221 3875 I Mobile 0427 331127 I F: +612 4221 3892 | E:

  26. A postcript to my visit, courtesy of the BBC website. Yesterday it posted a feature article entitled “Why are so many Britons leaving Australia?”. According to Prof Roger Burrows, a sociologist from the University of York who has looked into this, part of the answer is the way Australian neighbourhoods are planned. Many Britons, he says, discover that life down under “is not about living by the coast in the sun – it’s about living in a dull flat in suburbs that don’t have any real infrastructure.”

    • Hi Tim, interesting to hear that the brits are leaving our suburbs. i do agree that our urban environment town planners could learn a lot from our dutch friends and their woonerf neighbourhood concept! with our backyard getting smaller our streets should become communal places. yes we share our streets with cars but with our shrinking backyards they should be communal spaces ,park lands pathways and play spaces,our cities are becoming denser and we need to be aware of living our lives more communally. We are in the process of piloting a neighbourhood program to make use of our public space more effectively in Frankston. can contact me for details via . Hope you and your family are well Tim. call by the beach if passing anytime. Kind regards from Narelle x

      • Hi Narelle – hope you are enjoying your spring, and thanks for this. (I’ve merged your posts – hope you don’t mind). Good luck with your project, which sounds like it’s making good progress. I’ll drop you an email – and all the best to your family.

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