By Marilyn Smith
As Melbourne suburbs accommodate ever more town houses and apartments in higher density living, expansive backyards are increasingly receding into the past. Children are rarely free to roam and explore the areas around their homes in ways that older generations remember. The role of play has diminished and so many children’s lives are now as densely organised as the areas we live in.
Whenever visitors come to Arlington they are struck by the large and rambling play grounds and the unique environment they create for children, who immediately respond to the possibilities.
Engaging in play is the basis for creativity and valuing new ideas. Playing, making believe, acting, experimenting, tinkering, building, improvising – all of these are forms of play we value and encourage at Arlington. They are the pathways to new connections, generative mistakes, unintended outcomes and life-changing inventions. This respect for children’s play and an understanding of its significance has been fundamental to the School’s approach to learning and is based on the pioneering work of Friedrich Froebel, who was a key influence on Margaret (Greta) Lyttle’s thinking.
At Arlington the gardens are not partitioned off into playing fields, there is no asphalt, tree trunks are not wrapped in protective padding and there is real dirt, as distinct from the “evil matter” banished in so many advertisements for cleaning products. The ground is undulating, there are hills and ditches and many big, old trees. There are bushes and grassy areas that can’t really be called lawn.
For many children who live in homes with small backyards and courtyards this is paradise.
The School’s distinctive physical environment is a setting in which children can further their independence and physical competence. The garden has uncultivated and dense shrubberies with ropes from which to swing, trees to climb and places to construct cubbies; the open workshop has real tools for the children to use.
While children are able to test themselves and grow in confidence in this environment they do not do so unsupervised. We have a number of measures in place to provide for the wellbeing of the children and these vary according to their age and development. The children are taught to use the grounds and equipment safely and are regularly reminded of the need for each one of them to exercise self-care and care for others.
It is important that parents understand and accept the nature of the environment at Arlington and its connection to the overall approach to learning at Preshil.
Recently an expert in “Creativity in Schools” asked how we go about teaching creativity at the Primary School. I talked about many aspects of our program, about art and playmaking, about music and enquiry-based learning but quietly I knew that our environment plays an enormous role by offering our children a joyful place where they are free to imagine, to dream and to play.