The playground is used by some of the most disadvantaged children in the community. (Supplied: Stavros Sakellaris)
When you are a kid living in a high-rise building, there’s not a lot of room for physical play.
Many of the children living in the Atherton Gardens Public Housing Estate in Fitzroy in inner Melbourne come from disadvantaged, often refugee families.
Since the early 1970s, a playspace in the grounds of the estate has given young residents the chance to take risks, get dirty, and make new friends — and it has just received a makeover.
The renovated playground is no ordinary off-the-shelf space. Instead, it is a sustainable sculpture made by Victorian artist Benjamin Gilbert.
Benjamin Gilbert wanted to create a substitute for the wilderness for kids to play in. (Supplied: Stavros Sakellaris)
The structure, Coal Flowers, was made from recycled steel and rubber conveyor belts sourced from the mining industry, with solar panels that will power the site.
Gilbert described his creation as a “dystopian treasure island”.
“It’s intentionally drab in colour so the kids activate the space — instead of things being bright and colourful, the kids are the action,” he said.
“Given a lot of the people who use the park are new arrivals, there’s a sense of renewal and rebirth of life, to thrive, with the Coal Flowers rising out of the formerly contaminated soil.
“We’re surrounded by quite a few high-rise buildings which is unusual for Australia and they have to observe this object every day, so it has to give back [to them].”
Gilbert was also behind the Acorn playspace at the National Arboretum in Canberra, as well as several other public sculptures around the country.
But at Atherton Gardens, his design is part of a decades-old adventure playground known as Cubbies.
Cubbies has supported generations of children living in the high-rise commission buildings. (Supplied: Stavros Sakellaris)
“Traditionally adventure playgrounds have included a lot of bent nails and bonfires and things like that, so different to a public playground,” Gilbert said.
“For me the best adventure playground is not something that’s been designed, it’s wilderness.
“In lieu of wilderness, given it’s not readily accessible in the middle of the city, our substitutes are playgrounds.”
‘This is our playground’
Six year-old Helina said her new playground is the best she has ever seen.
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“I’ve never been to a playground like this,” she said.
“And you don’t even have to drive a car, you can just walk. It’s easy peasy.”
Helina, whose family comes from Ethiopia, lives with her mother and brother in a high-rise building in the Atherton Gardens estate.
“This is our playground,” she said.
“We don’t have areas to play in in our buildings so we come here all the time.”
What is an adventure playground?
The adventure playground philosophy dates back to early last century.
Also known as “junk playgrounds”, they are fenced off spaces where kids can play freely, often using found objects and recycled materials.
There are thought to be at least 1,000 such playgrounds in Europe, but just five in Australia.
Cubbies claims to be the first — it was started by a group of Fitzroy residents in 1974, shortly after the Atherton Gardens high rises were built.
“We had grotty old cubbies here and there was dirt and sheep and chickens and all the rest of it,” Cubbies chair Margaret Harrison said.
“Then modern rules and regulations started taking over and so we thought that one thing we needed to do was find the children something really creative, to really stretch their imaginations.”
Since the 1970s, Cubbies has run on the goodwill of volunteers, and supported generations of children living in the high-rise commission buildings.
“This playground services some of the most disadvantaged children in the whole community,” Ms Harrison said.
“They come from refugee backgrounds, some of them don’t have fathers, there’s eight to 10 children in families and they really needed somewhere to play — this is their backyard.
“It needs to be somewhere safe, secure and directed play at some stages, because some of these children are quite traumatised.”
Cubbies will now be handed over to Save the Children to operate.
Ms Harrison said its legacy was simple.
“So much fun, that’s the message the kids will get,” she said.
“Look at them now — screaming and running. If they just have smiles on their faces, that’s enough.”