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19.12.2014 - Ausgabe: 6/2014

The activity-friendly school playground − more important now than ever

By Stefan Eckl (German Institute of Cooperative Planning and Sport Development; ikps)


Schoolyards and playgrounds are back in the news. Ignored for many years by urban planners, the introduction of all-day schooling in Germany has revived the discussion on how the recreational areas in our schools should be designed.

"Some would be happier if it was simply the brains of children that went to school − but what you get is the whole child" − this is a perhaps somewhat sardonic way of describing the discrepancy between the ideal of holistic education and the predominantly intellectual emphasis actually placed on schooling that many educators deplore. In view of the serious health problems and deficit in terms of coordination skills that are being diagnosed in our children, the promotion of physical training and exercise is gaining in relevance.
Large urban conglomerations and even small and medium-sized towns have become wastelands with regard to outdoor play options, and one searches them in vain for the sight of happily playing children. One important and valuable countermeasure to this would be to open up and redesign the bleak, asphalt-covered playgrounds in schools and make these into multi-purpose and attractive exercise, meeting, learning and experience spaces that are adapted to the needs of children and young people.

The relevance of school playgrounds in the urban context

In densely populated urban areas, school playgrounds are often one of the few available open spaces that can be used for play, sport and exercise. The external facilities of schools are relatively generously proportioned; they are also hazard-free and readily accessible. School playgrounds are also to be found in almost every neighbourhood of a town or city and are distributed across the whole of a community, meaning that they represent an important element of any concept that aims at creating a play- and exercise-friendly urban environment. Another positive aspect is that children know well enough how to get to school − even younger schoolchildren can independently find their own way to these potential play and exercise spaces.
But the surfaces of school playgrounds are frequently completely covered in asphalt; they are grey, bare and boring areas that offer no incentive for free play and exercise and are thus not perceived as play, exercise and meeting spaces. In order to make schools more sport- and exercise-orientated, playgrounds are being increasingly remodelled so that they can play a role as exercise, communication, learn and sensory experience spaces and can even be employed as a public area in which the whole neighbourhood can come together (Hahn & Wetterich, 1998). The modernisation of 'lifeless' playgrounds represents not just a significant benefit for everyone involved in school life, but also creates an additional amenity that can be used for non-school related sports activities.

The importance of play and exercise for the development of children

Play, sport and physical exercise not only have a positive effect on motor skills but also on the cognitive, social and emotional development of children. "For the purposes of improving education, it should be ensured that as many children as possible have the opportunity to participate in informal exercise, play and sports activities − for example, by means of the provision of exercise spaces in their immediate environment.“ (Burrmann, 2008)
A number of studies have been conducted by physical education researchers that consider the concept of the 'school playground' from various perspectives. Without going into detail on the related educational, anthropological, development-psychological and psychomotor aspects, many come to the conclusion that there is an ongoing decline with regard to exercise, development of consciousness, environmental awareness and learning and go on to stress the relevance of healthy physical growth and exercise to the holistic development of children and adolescents. In summary, it can be concluded that exercise spaces themselves determine to some extent "the nature of the informal exercise, play and sports activities indulged in by children, the experiences they make during these activities and what outlooks and abilities they develop as a result" (Burrmann, 2008). This indicates the major need for the provision of exercise spaces that are designed to be stimulating and versatile.

The functions of school playgrounds

Current concepts of physical education at school require that playgrounds are capable of fulfilling a wide range of purposes. The following figure provides an overview of some of these purposes that are relevant to a sport- and exercise-orientated school playground area.

In addition to their core role as a place providing the opportunity for play, sports and physical activities, playgrounds and exercise spaces that are future- and needs-orientated have a range of other functions. They can, for example, have an important purpose as a communication space. They can be a stage on which contact and communication occur in a wide variety of forms − on the games field and during the coordination of play, while personal discussions and social interactions can also take place here. There also need to be areas providing for rest and relaxation, where the natural environment can be experienced and where self-expression and personal activities are possible. When it comes to the redesign of a school playground, it is thus essential to bear in mind the extensive education-related potential that the redesign can have.

The activity-friendly school playground − from theory into practice

Those responsible for the planning and reshaping of school playgrounds need to be aware of site-specific characteristics and the interests and needs of the relevant user groups in order to be confident as far as possible that these will subsequently approve of the reconstruction work.
The best approach is thus to consult with residents in the planning phase and take account of as many different interests as possible. This will reduce the risk that the result will prove unacceptable and that expensive remedial work will subsequently be necessary. This cooperative approach to planning involves a process of decision-making in which stakeholders, users, planning and local experts are involved from the very beginning. The early and continuous involvement of the various local stakeholder and target groups when identifying needs, designing the site and during all other planning and implementation phases provides the best possible chance of creating an amenity that both meets requirements and will be accepted by the relevant persons. One of the potential problems here is the heterogeneity of interests of the individuals who make up this body.
It may at first sight seem to be an impossible task to get these individuals to cooperate within a local planning group as they will have their own different perspectives, ideas and needs. Hence, the success of any such cooperative planning process will be determined both by the extent to which this heterogeneity can be taken into account and on the method of working employed. It is important not to avoid conflict during the early stages − differences of opinion need to be brought to light and discussed and suitable solutions need to be found. It is essential that there is a constructive and amicable atmosphere in which discussions can be conducted while a willingness to compromise, honesty, impartiality, openness, a sense of responsibility etc. need to be encouraged.

A practical example − exercise-friendly playgrounds in the Gross-Gerau region

The Gross-Gerau region in the south of the German state of Hesse is home to 27 primary schools, a secondary and middle school, six integrated comprehensives, five upper level secondary schools, four special schools and two vocational schools. Its regional sports development plan in 2006 also focussed on exercise facilities in public areas and a closer look was taken at the potential offered by school playgrounds. The concluding report states: "The school playgrounds in our region [...] should be opened or made available for sport, play and exercise activities outside normal school hours. […] In addition to making school playgrounds generally available, the planning group also recommends the successive refurbishment of monofunctional playgrounds to convert these into amenities that are more exercise-friendly and close to nature in all schools. The planning group also urges the regional authorities to actively commit to the refurbishment of school playgrounds and to assume the responsibility for this task." The regional assembly subsequently acknowledged the conclusions presented through the sport development plan and ratified the proposed objectives it put forward, including the creation of activity-friendly school playgrounds.
As a result of this political resolution, 14 school playgrounds in the Gross-Gerau region underwent renovation in the period 2009 - 2014, at a rate of roughly three per year. This development was facilitated by a school building regeneration programme during which school canteens or extensions to existing buildings were constructed while the playground areas suffered as a result of being used as construction sites. What could be easier than to restructure or redesign a playground during refurbishment work?
The associated planning was and still is coordinated by the construction and technology section of the local school and building authority and the regional sports representative. The planning activities for a playground redesign always take a similar course. To ensure that plans are as needs-orientated as possible, teachers, pupils and parents meet with the local authority, regional and parent-teacher association representatives in workshops lasting several hours to exchange ideas in what an activity-friendly school playground should be like. The meetings are supervised by the ikps from Stuttgart. A landscape planning agency is then commissioned to incorporate all proposals in a master plan that is presented to all stakeholders in a further meeting for them to vote on. The group also defines priorities for the realisation of the project.
The regional authority next processes the plans and arranges to make the concepts and ideas into reality. For 2014 and 2015, for example, a total of €2.8 million has been set aside in the regional budget for the detailed planning and redesign of school playgrounds.
With its 'Activity-friendly school playgrounds' programme, the Gross-Gerau regional authority is entering new territory and this programme can serve as a model for other local school authorities. The regional policies here recognise the importance of sports, play, exercise and recreation in its schools and, without major political opposition, have managed to put in place a programme from which all its school pupils will benefit. This is all to the advantage of education in Gross-Gerau; the activity-friendly school playgrounds have since become an identifying characteristic of the region. The intention is thus to continue with the programme in coming years to ensure that all local school children profit from it.


Dietrich, K. (1992). Bewegungsräume. Sportwissenschaft, 16(4).
Burrmann, U. (2008). Bewegungsräume und informelle Bewegungs-, Spiel- und Sportaktivitäten der Kinder. In W. Schmidt (ed.), Zweiter Deutscher Kinder- und Jugendsportbericht. Schorndorf: Hofmann.
Hahn, H. & Wetterich, J. (1998). Bewegungsfreundlicher Schulhof. Bewegung, Spiel und Sport in der Schule (Published by the Ministry for Culture, Youth and Sport of Baden-Württemberg). Weilheim/Teck.
Hundeloh, H. (1995). Tägliche Bewegungszeiten als Schutz vor Unfällen. Sportpädagogik, 19(6), 8-9.

Photo: German Institute of Cooperative Planning and Sport Development; ikps

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