The Dolphin Den (a.k.a. BrookDen) is a natural, safe and thriving area of outdoor fun, adventure and learning. It was funded and developed by PTA money and volunteers. There are climbing trees, hills, sandpits, dens, bridges and a mud-kitchen which are seamlessly linked, lending themselves to hours of outdoor creativity for children of all ages. The Den is a part of every child’s week at Brookburn school.
There was a piece of neglected, overgrown and littered woodland within the grounds of Brookburn Primary School in Chorlton. It had been talked about for years as having potential to be developed into an outdoor play and learning space for the kids. In 2013, Firouz Thompson (the then PTA chair) decided to take the initiative and really push forward to make it happen. After much research, planning and strategic thought, as well as the help of a LOT of volunteers, the joy of outdoors is now part of Brookburn everyday.
Motivation & Strategy
Creative play is central to every child’s learning and social development. And creative play outside in natural environments has been shown to have even deeper social and emotional benefits. Studies have shown that children’s concentration, learning and academic performance is stimulated by having natural, green environments in which to play and learn.
This evidence was fundamental to driving this project forward.
Expert advice was sought and found in the form of May Molteno, from Pathways Consultancy who has over 15 years experience developing parks and green spaces across the North West for community benefit. A report was devised which looked at the potential of the wasteland, best use and how it could be adapted, as well as the practicalities involved in such a project. This culminated in an action plan which was presented to members of the PTA, staff at the school and not least some of the school children, who were invited to input their ideas of what they would like to see in an outdoor area.
The area we wanted to use presented several challenges. It was covered in brambles which had grown and also dumped building rubble. Bricks and pieces of concrete could be seen clearly through the thin topsoil and fly tipping was evident. However, the potential was clear. In terms of providing a possible place to play it had several exciting advantages – it was hillocky – with changes in gradient for excitement and challenge, it had three trees with low spreading branches – great for building dens around or climbing in, there was a thick hedgerow – good for hiding in and providing an exciting range of loose play materials. Plus it was right next to the school – easily accessible for use every day.
How the local community got together and helped to make it happen
The project was heavily dependant on volunteers, and we needed a lot of help from parents. But this wasn’t going to be enough. We also needed help from the local community and used Twitter to do this. This turned out to be our key to finding invaluable input from local businesses. Rosa from the Horse & Jockey Pub offered hands-on help by volunteering her time. This was fantastic but in addition to this, she talked about the project at the Chorlton Traders meeting. This unlocked access to both practical and financial help from Barclays, with their staff coming to lend a hand, donate gloves and also match-fund proceeds from the school disco to contribute to the den.
The team from Southern Cemetery played a crucial part in providing a team of men to help on several occasions. In addition to this, they turned up each time with a truck-load of wood chippings which became the pathways connecting the separate areas of the den.
Other community help came from Etchells newsagents providing free soup and bread to feed the hungry, often soaked and muddy teams of volunteers, and Halifax who also match-funded the proceeds from a Robbie Williams fund-raiser we held.
The headmistress and deputy head got their hands dirty as well as many parents – too many to mention, but some who came every single week to help create this special place for the kids. The teams of novices were expertly led by Andy Sheridan, a woodland management volunteer co-ordinator. He knowledgably and enthusiastically guided the volunteer groups each week for 13 weeks to efficiently dig, saw, build, plant and create. We also enlisted help from a willow weaver, Joe Gregory to lead volunteers in making willow igloo-like structures for the kids to play in, as well as weave willow decorations.
Each year class had also an involvement from building junk music area, ceramic masks for totem poles, painting stones and tins, willow weaving leaves and flowers and making signs out of twigs.
The end result!
We have our very own natural playground and the children love it! It is maintained by the PTA – with Charles Mead taking the lead for us as a committee. He is chief in charge of ordering sand, organising more woodchippings from our friends at Southern Cemetery and arranging teams to maintain the area. We hold regular ‘Den Days’ where parents, grandparents and families help out – clearing rubbish blown from the Ees, chopping trees, relaying our dry riverbed and replacing totem masks – among many other jobs. All hands willing turn up – with shovels and wheelbarrows where possible to ensure the Den remains a space the children love to play, explore and learn.
The den and allotment have a Facebook page dedicated to volunteers who look after these spaces. Visit www.facebook.com/brookburnallotment for more details or contact us. Please get in touch if you have any specialised skills or interests or if you just have enthusiasm and want to help maintain the Den.