A champion of outdoor play

A champion of outdoor play
Rhonda Dredge

Children like playing outside in places where they can make the decisions about what they do, when and where.

Local resident Barbara Champion has been awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the King’s Birthday Honours list for championing outdoor play.

She is the former head of Play Australia which supports children’s rights and those of play professionals.

She is outspoken about the fact that the community can be too risk-averse and parents not supportive enough of their children’s right to be outside.

“So many children are completely controlled by their parents,” she said. “They don’t learn how to get on.”

She says that play professionals, often in middle management positions in councils, need support in realising their ideas.

“It took 10 years for Port Phillip Council to get a skate park created,” she said. “It was a big issue. They were dealing with complaints. They did great work.”

The issue for most councils is managing the risk and reducing liability in public spaces but at the heart of the debate is the recommendation that children spend at least two hours a day playing outside. 

Ms Champion is in favour of pushing limits in playground design.

“Twenty-five years ago, there was no knowledge about natural materials,” she said.


Everything was manufactured abroad out of plastic and metal. Now play equipment is made locally.


Gardiner’s Reserve in North Melbourne is a case in point. As a local resident, Ms Champion has seen it transformed to house a large sandpit with a freeform climbing frame in the centre made out of recycled timber.

Slides run down from pole houses and even the swings are hung from a slab of wood that appears to have been dragged straight in from the bush. 

Ms Champion’s favourite playground is the new one on Southbank Boulevard that pushes the envelope further and was many years in the making.

“It was contentious when it started. It’s an example of where kids can learn to manage themselves. Things look unsafe and they have to work out firstly if they’re safe or not.” 

“It looks as if it will fall over, and you won’t be able to balance on it. It’s quite delicate, like climbing a tree branch that might break. You have to take a risk.”

During the lockdown the community made makeshift structures such as BMX tracks on vacant land, but councils moved in to destroy them.

“People will get upset and contact me. I will do my best,” Ms Champion said.

“A woman rang me from Kensington. They had a wonderful swing created in a tree. The council decided to remove it. The parent who made the swing was an engineer. It was the safest I’d seen.”

 She said the council was worried about liability and there was nothing she could do about it.

Ideas spread by osmosis, she said, and Play Australia organised an event last year at the Southbank playground that attracted more than 70 landscape architects, engineers and members. •

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