Wes Fleming spent several months researching and working with educators to design natural play spaces which he hoped would inspire pre-schoolers to let their imaginations run wild. It took just a few minutes for the award-winning gardener to get the best feedback he could have wished for.
"A little girl was showing her mother the new garden for the first time,'' Wes explains.
"She was so excited she made her mum close her eyes, before leading her around by the hand and telling her to open her eyes at certain favourite places in the play area. To see a child so enthusiastic about what we had created was an incredibly satisfying."
That excited pre-schooler is just one of hundreds of children who will benefit from a joint project between Fleming's Nurseries, Ballarat City Council, UnitingCare and kindergarten group ECKA.
The KinderGARDEN scheme will see five local kindergartens get their playgrounds overhauled and remade into inviting natural play spaces over the next few months. Features included in the Fleming's designed play spaces include tunnels made out of old trees, natural mazes, slippery dips built into small embankments, covered sandpits as well as vegetable and herb gardens, mini-orchards and chook runs.
Deakin University has been studying how the first KinderGARDEN, installed in Eumemmering, has influenced play. Their preliminary findings indicate children are getting greater levels of physical activity and making a wider range of movements now than before the Fleming's overhaul.
In particular the movement of balancing was only observed in children after the greening has taken place, despite the fact a plastic balance beam was part of the in the previous play area. Children are also climbing, stepping up and down, running, walking and riding bikes to different areas more often than before.
Wes, who last year won the top prize at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in London, was inspired to be part of the project in an effort to educate children about the importance of the natural environment in today's increasingly built-up urban areas.
Also, as dad to three-year-old Aurelia and seven-month-old Miette, he has a genuine interest in creating positive play and educational experiences for young children.
"I have gotten so much out of the project too, just learning about all the developmental changes that go on between birth and four years of age and how it is such a massively important time for learning,'' he said.
"I didn't realise, but when I take my three-year-old to a traditional plastic playground near our place I can tell you exactly what she will do and in what order. It's just repetition and she's not using her mind at all.
"We have designed our gardens so children have lots of different options in the way they can play in an area, it gives them so much more room for imagination."
The process of designing the playgrounds was inclusive and involved Wes and Ben sitting down with staff, parents and children at each centre to ask what they would like to see in their garden. Council safety regulations were also met and a unique natural play area was created for each location depending on the space available and the natural elements already present in the garden.
Wes said it is often the most basic features of the play spaces which prove to be most popular with children.
"In one garden we built a mound and put grass on the top and that has become one of the most popular parts of the playground,'' he said.
"The children run up it, roll down it, take their trikes and cars up and down it. It is a simple feature, but that simplicity allows them to decide how they want to play."
Wes says the Victorian project is "a great starting point" and he hopes more pre-schools and kindergartens embrace the concept of natural play areas.
"We have had emails from lots of childcare centres wanting to learn about what we are doing, so there is definitely interest out there," he said.
"My hope is that by teaching children about nature we will educate their parents too. How great would it be if a child went home and told their parents they shouldn't cut down a tree in their backyard because we need trees to breathe and store pollution? That's the kind of awareness we are aiming for in the long-term."