November 25, 2010
Mel Alexander, Andy Higgins and their children Bronte, Banjo and Merri enjoy their backyard. Photo: Justin McManus
A TREE to climb, a clothesline to swing on and a woodheap full of spiders are enough to keep the average Australian child entertained at home for hours.
But a trend of low-maintenance, designer backyards is increasingly robbing children of such fun in the outdoors, a new book published by the CSIRO claims.
In The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard, Professor Tony Hall says the modern preference for highly landscaped yards, with clipped hedges and paving, is just one factor depriving a generation of children of interesting natural places to explore.
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''Informal space is important for children … in an increasingly designed environment,'' the book says.
It claims the Australian backyard is also dying at the hands of another - more overwhelming - trend, the building of ever-larger houses that leave little room for gardens.
''Up until the 1990s, Australian backyards were like what you saw in Neighbours, with swimming pools and barbecues,'' Prof Hall said. ''That kind of suburb is not being built any more. Instead, people tend to extend the house over as much of the block they can.
''Everybody in Australia should be concerned about the health and lifestyle implications of this.''
Professor Hall said front gardens and parks are no substitute for backyards, where children can run unsupervised in safety.
He said smaller backyards also contributed to environmental degradation, with vegetation around the house acting to absorb rain and cool the climate in summer.
''If you cover everything with hard surfaces, you have all the rain running off and wasted,'' he said. ''In our climate, how you manage the water locally is very important.
''Plants give off moisture, trees give off shade and it all adds to biodiversity and attracts birds and things. This being close to nature is important for enjoying your house, especially for children.''
He said the trend of bigger houses and small designer yards could be linked to Australians working longer hours and regarding their properties as investments rather than places to enjoy. He said town planning regulations should be modified to require less block coverage and houses shaped to have more windows that look out onto gardens.
Mother of three, Mel Alexander of North Coburg, said her family loved the outdoors and wanted to keep their garden bigger than their small house.
''We grow our own fruit and veg, the chooks give us eggs and there is everything from play equipment to an old bath we recycled from the side of the road,'' she said. ''The kids build things out of wood, play ball and keep themselves amused for hours.''
She said outdoor play encouraged her children to use their imaginations, socialise with other children and take an interest in nature.