Wes Fleming is best known for winning the top gong at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in London, but the third-generation nurseryman now wants to green pastures much closer to home.
Fleming believes that people are in danger of losing their appreciation of natural places, and wants to encourage young children to spend time in green and stimulating outdoor spaces.
Last year Fleming joined with early childhood researchers at Deakin University to transform a “concrete prison”-style playground at the Eumemmerring Early Childhood Centre.
Donating plants and landscaping expertise, his nursery turned a bland area dotted with uninspiring plastic toys into a more sympathetic place for children to roam.
And Deakin researchers saw results: the children used a greater range of physical movement and experimented with more challenging play.
The makeover created levels within the play area and children were challenged to step up and down, negotiate across inclines and touch natural elements, like plants and mulch.
“Even though I’m a father [of four], I didn’t know that between one and five is when kids develop the most,” says Fleming.
“This is to let kids get down and dirty, there are so many wrapped in cotton wool and they need to get out from behind the telly.’’
Since the Eumemmerring project, Fleming and his staff have contributed this year to the greening of three more kindergartens in the Ballarat region – Buninyong, Wendouree and Mount Clear – and plan to do three more next year.
The changes to the kindergarten play areas include shade trees, aromatic plants, fruit trees, herbs, weeping cherries, slides, chook runs, climbing ropes and landscaping that encourage children to clamber and explore.
Deakin lecturer Dr Anne-Marie Morrissey said kindergartens and childcare centres often removed natural elements that were considered “risky”, which resulted in artificial spaces that were dominated by plastic equipment.
“My real concern is around the childcare centres because children can spend most of their waking days in these plasticised environments, and it can be for four or five years of their lives,” says Morrissey. “We strongly feel there are benefits to having natural play spaces.”
Adults were often concerned about risk, and the commercialisation of children’s services meant there was a pressure to design cheaper play areas that were easier to maintain, she said.