Melbourne Adventures Part 2: ArtPlay at Birrarung Marr

I first came across ArtPlay by accident while on holiday in Melbourne in 2016. I’d been looking for good parks to take the kids to and Birrarung Marr came up. It’s a lovely playground between Fed Square and the Yarra River. But what of course grabbed my attention most was a building labelled “ArtPlay”.

A quick google search told me that ArtPlay was an initiative of the City of Melbourne offering a variety of children’s programs from structured school holiday workshops to regular weekly events. I was a little bit floored.

There I was in Sydney, toiling away in a warehouse with zero budget to create the same type of programs that were being funded and produced by the city government here in dedicated space in Melbourne. I was there over Christmas and the didn’t have any events on, but I vowed I’d be back.

And that’s what brought me to ArtPlay Back Yard last week. The “Back Yard” program is a free weekly session. That’s right, another FREE program. The premise was simple but wonderful. (It was also extremely frustrating but we’ll get to that later.) At the back of the centre is a shipping container filled with loose parts (similar to those on offer at Abbotsford Convent’s Sensory Art Lab or that one might find at a Pop-Up Adventure Playground). Think tubes, old DVDs, ropes, plus lots of natural materials (sticks and stones).

As seen above, the sessions have different themes and this one was called “Making Me” – and the kids were encouraged to make versions of themselves out of the materials.

For whatever reason (perhaps our previous “under the sea” activities)  Luella decided she wanted to make herself as a whale, later dubbed “Lu-whale-a”. The reserve features a bevvy of giant rocks, perfect for creating on – or with. Luella draped black fabric over the rocks to create a whale body and then set about creating a face out of various materials.

After creating herself, she moved on to make a whale version of her little brother (“Niko-whales” which doesn’t have quite the same ring).

Once again the volunteer playworkers were wonderful, asking her open-ended questions about her creations and finding ways to extend her play. They encouraged her to continue building a seascape, including a giant eel emerging from the ocean (the fabric-wrapped tree below).

And in proving that sometimes the simplest activities are the most engaging, Luella spent the second half of the play session “painting” on the rocks with water. (It helps that these are especially cool rocks, with indigenous carvings hidden throughout.) She and the new friends she’d made had a blast playing Archaeologist and searching for hidden bones and symbols.

Another absolutely delightful morning of creative play. So what was the frustration I alluded to earlier? The fact that I’ve been trying to get a nearly identical program up and running in Sydney for several years.

I know at some point my posts here are probably going to sound like bitter whinging, but here is a screenshot from an actual proposal I sent to Canterbury-Bankstown council in April 2017.
I spent hours working on that proposal, visiting shipping container sites to obtain quotes and discuss specs. The council never so much as emailed me back. I wrote grant applications via the C-B council as well as Inner West council, flatly rejected. I have approached councillors and countless council staff  as recently as this past November, regarding these ideas, only to be continually shot down or ignored.

So, while the Sydney vs. Melbourne debate is a tired one, it’s hard not to feel like we’re losing out when it comes to local funding of creative kids’ programs. And with such a clear example of how well a program of this nature is thriving, what’s stopping Sydney from taking up such a project?

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