Sensory Play Garden, National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire

National Memorial Arboretum

Russell Play were entrusted by The National Memorial Arboretum to conceive a new play garden, befitting of a national site of remembrance, as part of their new planned Remembrance Centre development.

The National Memorial Arboretum opened in 2001 and covers an area of 150 acres at Alrewas, near Lichfield in Staffordshire. It is intended as a permanent place of remembrance and a living, growing tribute to service men and women for future generations. The Arboretum raised sufficient funds to successfully realise a new £15.7 million Remembrance Centre and sensory garden. The new centre features exhibition galleries, a restaurant, gift shop and a cloistered courtyard with garden leading to the wider Arboretum.

'Globe' rope climber and 'Helix' forming hand of sundial commemorating Armitice Day at the Sensory Play Garden, National Memorial Arboretum

Play area design concept
The sympathetic approach Russell Play took in their design concept of the play area resulted in us being successfully awarded the tender. As well as offering play value, our design had to be environmentally sensitive, educational, ‘inclusive’ to all and above all, to symbolically represent elements of life, renewal, freedom and remembrance. We decided that it should not follow a ‘traditional’ idea of a play park with conventional swings and slides but rather, it should be designed as a garden with sculptural and sensory elements that symbolised the various themes. We worked closely with the Arboretum on the final design, and it was important that it encouraged children to learn about remembrance and the wider Arboretum site.

'Globe' rope climber, basket swing and poppy shaped Baubles at Sensory Play Garden, National Memorial Arboretum

Sculptural play equipment
The landscaping and placing of the play items was as important as the items themselves. Much of the sculptural play took its influence from existing memorials within the Arboretum, in particular the boulders of the Normandy veterans, the tree walkway of the BLESMA Garden and the multiple engravings around the site. At the entrance is a holed feature stone with engravings, and looking beyond and through this, a 4m high 3D spatial net within a globe-shaped timber frame can be seen. This climbing frame, known as the Globe, was chosen to visually represent the earth and the idea of the world coming together.

Sensory path in the Sensory Play Garden, National Memorial Arboretum

Over to one side, a large helix climbing pole stands in the centre of a raised grass circle forming a sundial clock. Its oak sleeper perimeter makes a time circle that commemorates Armistice Day and has a sleeper inscribed with 11.11.11 signifying the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. On the other side, there is a memorial walkway with engraved oak sleepers depicting a poem. There is a sensory pathway, a willow tunnel and a 1.5m high mound with a stainless steel cascade slide.

The colouring was deliberately restricted to a natural palette to complement the leafy setting, with mostly grass surfacing, natural coloured wood, stone and in some cases, stainless steel reflecting the colours of the surroundings. The only coloured play equipment is a group of six poppy red balancing baubles which encircle a central black one to represent the shape of a poppy, the symbol of remembrance.

Poetry carved onto sleeper steps on Armistice Day sun dial at Sensory Play Garden, National Memorial Arboretum

The steel play equipment is from the Russell Play Silhouette range and has been specifically created to have a tasteful sculptural look, while at the same time providing playful shapes for children to balance, climb and slide on. There is also a seating area where visitors can sit and look out over the garden and the hedgerow and trees beyond.

Installation was completed in late summer 2016 ready for the official opening in October 2016. The design works in perfect harmony with its surroundings and has been very well received by those that work at the National Memorial Arboretum and its many visitors. Russell Play are extremely proud of the final scheme and we feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to contribute to the Remembrance Centre development.

Armistice Day landscaped sun dial featuring 'Helix' sculptural play structure in centre

Sarah Oakden, Head of Marketing at the National Memorial Arboretum, said:

“Creating a play scheme which appeals to our younger visitors but which is sensitive to the nature of our site was a real challenge for us. We want families to feel welcome and free to explore in a safe environment but we mustn’t forget that some people are here for quiet contemplation and to remember a loved one.

We have very high standards for our memorial designs and therefore we must ensure that non-memorial assets are given the same careful consideration in their design. We knew therefore that finding the right scheme for us wouldn’t be easy but we were delighted at how Russell Play interpreted the brief and how they imaginatively designed a Sensory Play Garden befitting of our nationally-important site.

Children are introduced to the basics of remembrance through sensory exploration and discovery, and simple symbolism subliminally hints at memorialisation and the importance of design in our wider site. Most importantly, the new garden has hours of traditional play value and we are delighted to see so many of our younger visitors enjoying what we have created for them.”

Carved sleeper on sun dial with Armistice Day date at Sensory Play Garden, National Memorial Arboretum