In a muddy corner, a team of children are busy collaborating as they carve out roadways for trucks, build volcanoes in the dinosaur-inhabited landscape, and trap water from the waterfall for lakes and rivers – and, of course, more mud. Nearby, two children work quietly and industriously on an elaborate village in the sandpit. Some sit and collect leaves, while others run freely through the space, stopping to clamber over boulders and balance across rows of logs.

This is another morning in the new garden at Gowrie Victoria Clare Court. A once flat and uninspiring space, the large area has been transformed into a natural wonderland for messy and explorative play.

Early Learning Manager Bree McCabe says the long-awaited garden redevelopment – made possible thanks to Maribyrnong City Council and the Victorian Government – has been opened to the children, who are busy discovering the different spaces.

“The shared garden is a really important space in our program and we wanted to build more opportunities for risky and messy play, as well as sensory exploration,” Bree says. “Some of our families live in apartments and most of the housing in Yarraville only offers small back yards, so we really wanted to make this a welcoming space with lots of natural materials, shade, plantings and gathering spaces.”

The outdoor space features three sprawling shade trees that are listed as protected by the municipality. These have been included in the redesign to create unique spaces for playing and gathering. “The biggest focus for us has been keeping the space natural and using what we can pull from the earth, respectfully,” Bree says. “Some big boulders were found during the works and have been incorporated into the design for climbing and seating. We’ve also included logs and sleepers for further climbing opportunities, and recycled materials where possible. This has all changed the dynamic of the space.”

The gently sloping garden includes a water-play area where children’s imaginations can run wild, creating everything from waterfalls to mud pies. A large sand-play area is connected to another water pump and adjoining gazebo, named The Workshop. Climbing equipment is also woven into the design. Yet to be finished is the central vegetable garden, dining area and yarning space, where the service’s foundation stone now takes pride of place. “There is also plenty of planting to be done and that will really add colour and softness to the space,” Bree says.

The different spaces are connected by flat and winding pathways to make the area accessible for everyone. “This was very important for inclusion and equity as we don’t want any of the children to feel restricted as they make their way around the garden,” Bree says. “We have always encouraged movement between the rooms, which all open out to the garden.”

Risky play has been a major priority in the redevelopment, ensuring children could explore their limits and boundaries, and learn to keep themselves safe. “The space now presents a variety of opportunities for risky play,” Bree says. “We really welcomed the big rocks and logs in the space, and it’s great to see the children pushing their limits and recognising how far they can go.”

Other areas, such as the water-play space, are perfect for encouraging collaboration and the development of social skills, Bree says. “It’s just so lovely to see how excited the children are to be outdoors again, connecting with each other and the natural environment.”