Changing lifestyles and working environments make it that children spend increasingly more time at school. Accordingly, the school building and the relevant open space are not only learning but also important living spaces...
Sport in the schoolyard – exercise options for children and young people
For many people, the memories of the environment in which they spent the breaks during the former school days are not particularly rosy. There was a desolate concrete waste, perhaps with a couple of benches, a basketball net or a ping pong table located somewhere within it; there might also be a painted Nine Men’s Morris field - but usually there was not much more. Running and racing was often forbidden here because there was too much risk of falling and then being injured and the supervising teacher would be unable to adequately control what was going on. Although such situations may seem to be part of the distant past, all too many school playgrounds still exhibit essentially the same appearance. This is a problem, because encouraging children to take exercise has now become more important than ever. The problem is particularly acute when there is limited availability of sports centres and stadiums and these can only provide restricted access for school sport purposes. This means that the exercise and sport needs of children must be catered for at their schools.
The main reason why so many school playgrounds are not designed to be activity-friendly is, as is so often the case, the lack of money. Of course, it is not exactly cheap to construct an attractive and interesting playground but there are many ways to obtain financial assistance. The opportunities offered by a school playground can be extended if it is made available for use outside school hours - during afternoons, weekends and school holidays. The exercise area then becomes more than just a place in which a finite number of children spend their breaks as it can also be used by a much wider public. By extending the potential range of users in this way, a whole new dimension of options is opened up. Suitable sports fields can be placed at the disposal of sports clubs - this will considerably extend the user community.
But what form should a sport- and exercise-friendly schoolyard take?
There is no doubt it is not easy to design an attractive school playground. It is important to offer a diversity of exercise options that are also age-appropriate for the many different peer groups at a school. A synthetic turf mini-football field is undeniably worth putting in but should not be the sole element on offer as it can only be used by 20 - 30 children at once. A primary school playground that has a handful of swings and a see-saw is also not the ideal arrangement as these can also only be used by a small proportion of the children at one and the same time. It is essential that most of the school pupils have the opportunity to use the exercise facilities during breaks and can thus also interact together. Playing football is, of course, one of the favourite playground diversions for boys but the provision of a handball or volleyball field will encourage more children to take part, particularly girls. Also suitable for the somewhat older pupils is equipment for climbing and balancing, pull-up bars, monkey bars and the like. Although older children will often tend to prefer to use seating options and areas to which they can withdraw, many can also be tempted into taking more exercise if an attractive range of options is provided.
Running, jumping, racing and rumpus should not be banned from school playgrounds so in order to reduce the risk of injury, appropriate safety surfaces need to be installed in the areas in which such activities are permitted and also in the play and sport areas. Sports facilities in the playground can also be used in physical education lessons. Children can be taught not only how to use such facilities but also the rules that will reduce the risk of their being injured. Sports equipment, such as balls, should also be made available to the children.
Then there is the question of what forms of sport and exercise are most suitable.
There is naturally a wide diversity of strategies for providing sport and exercise options. The primary objective, however, should always be to ensure that children can use these during breaks without having to change clothing or becoming dirty. As to what children themselves would like to see - the best way to find out is to ask them. Nowadays when new school playgrounds are being planned the children are also consulted as to their wants. The advantages of this approach are that it not only ensures that the facility will actually subsequently be used but also that the children treat it with respect and look after it. In situations in which the aim is to make a school playground available to a larger circle of users outside school hours, it is also advisable to invite parents, local residents and sport clubs to have their say.
Examples of school playground design
School playground design has become a central topic that is now of concern to many. Not only attractive sport and exercise options need to be provided; there are other facilities that can also be considered, such as niches where children can withdraw, seating, green areas, school gardens, plants, the general aesthetic effect - the best school playgrounds offer a little bit of everything. The German environmental organisation Deutsche Umwelthilfe and the urban regeneration foundation Lebendige Stadt together launched a school playground design competition in 2015. They were looking for playgrounds that are "inviting, attractive, child- and adolescent-friendly locations and thus of exemplary character". They received submissions on 536 school playground projects. Many images of the winning playgrounds can be seen at www.deinschulhof.de.
The Sports Association of the State of Hesse has also started a school playground project and will be holding three events that will actually be held in successfully redesigned schoolyards. In addition to presentations, there will be also tours of the relevant playgrounds - in Butzbach on 18 April 2016, in Gernsheim on 19 April 2016 and in Neukirchen on 25 April 2016. For more information and to register to attend, please go to http://landessportbund-hessen.de/bereiche/sportinfrastruktur/veranstaltungen-seminare/schulhofseminare/ .
The provision of locations for exercise and sport has become more essential than ever. In urban areas specifically, more and more young people together with the elderly are turning into couch potatoes. Today's readily accessible digital entertainment options, the move to whole day schooling in Germany and the wealth of alternative leisure time activities mean that sport and exercise are not adequately on the agenda of many children. It is possible to counteract this trend by improving the design of school playgrounds to enable children and young people to rediscover the pleasures of sport and active play. It is to be hoped that sport- and exercise-friendly school playground designs will prevail in future and the old barrack- and prison-like schoolyard concepts will be finally consigned to the dustbin of history.