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A special playground: The Erich Kästner-Schule in Oelde

By Christine Wolf, wbp Landschaftsarchitekten GmbH


The LWL School for children with learning difficulties in Oelde, with its funding priority of physical and motor development, is the central learning and development hub for circa 180 children and young adults with a physical disability or multiple disabilities. The new school building, part of the Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) (landscape federation for Westphalia-Lippe) received special recognition at the German playground awards because the school grounds are not accessible to the public.

“The entire design concept, to unite both the inner and outer elements to a uniform whole, was particularly successfully realised, according to the judging panel,” as per the rationalisation, which went on to explain that it “was especially [convincing] in creating, in particular, the complex, well thought-out and carefully considered equipment range for the promotion of play and exercise, as well as experiencing nature. This led to commendation of that which everyone involved in the planning process was motivated by: Namely, to support the children’s and youths’ development goals, such as language and communication, motor skills, perception, cognition, social competency and emotionality, self-realisation and lifestyle through the design of the environment. The outer area was divided into usage zones and designed according to the requirements of the various age groups, and attention was paid to ensuring there was a good synergy effect between the indoor and outdoor areas.

The planning process took place in very close collaboration with teaching staff. The results of this process were placed before the pupils and parents for discussion. In addition, the teachers took on an important intermediary role in the process; they asked the children during lessons what they would like to see included, and passed this on to the planners. It became clear during the process that the pupils of the Erich-Kästner-Schule placed great importance on being able to use ‘normal’ play and exercise equipment.

The pupils, all circa 180 of them, can spend their entire school lives at the all-day school (11 years). There are three school levels: The lower level (introductory year and years 1-4), the middle level (years 5-8) and the end level (years 9 and 10). The introductory year can be viewed as a bridge between nursery and school, and gives the pupils the chance to increase their abilities in terms of physical, material and social experiences. The end level gives adolescents the opportunity to do an apprenticeship in tandem with school (e.g. horticulture).


Clear use of space

The way in which the buildings are laid out on the school estate allows for very clearly defined areas of use, and facilities with varying levels of activity.

In the entrance area and in the vicinity of the assembly hall there are generously proportioned ‘free’ areas for breaks and play, where children can let loose, play and communicate, which can also be used as parking areas for the minibuses, or as multi-purpose playgrounds. The buses are parked here in the mornings and evenings, while in between the large area is used for ball games and go-kart races. A room was requested to be placed nearby the assembly hall and as a connecting link to the adjacent outer area. It could also be used as an open area for break time and for meetings. Clusters of trees and seating opportunities make it an inviting place to spend some time. The seating pedestals can also be used as a stage.


Subsequently, various differentiated play, exercise and lounge areas were included, with different facilities in each, such as a wheelchair parcours area, a climbing area and a large sand play area with the opportunity to mix sand and water. An awning covers part of the sand play area. It protects children from direct sunlight and creates a protected play area for them. The Eastern, somewhat distantly situated open area, contains a garden and nature observation point with various garden plots (berries, herbs, etc…) and plant areas, one of which is a raised bed, which can be passed under by wheelchair users. In the most remote part of the area, and thus the most peaceful, there is a ‘farewell garden’ with a memorial stone created by an artist (Mr Düchting). On the far side, adjacent to the forest, is an artificial field (top of the children’s wish list) and an apprenticeship garden for the senior class. In the inner part of the school grounds a small courtyard near the therapy rooms was fitted with a bare foot path for therapeutic purposes.


Accessible learning and play

An absence of barriers naturally plays a primary role at the Erich-Kästner-Schule. The flat school grounds do not offer many obstacles and, with the exception of the play hills, all of the equipment in the free areas is accessible to wheelchairs: Ramps open up the entrance to the sand play area, the raised plant bed can be passed underneath, there is a wheelchair merry-go-round and a wheelchair parcours course which was specially designed and realised for this school. The zoning of the outer area, the play elements and equipment were all agreed in close collaboration with the teaching staff, as well as the choice of materials procured (predominantly wood). All those involved in the process wanted a varied school and play landscape.

A particular highlight is the wheelchair parcours course, which was planned in great detail and eventually realised in close collaboration with the school, and is brightly coloured and challenging.

The building and free areas create a natural design entity. The existing school building was used as a template when it came to selecting the materials and colour scheme for the surfaces, furnishings and play equipment. The warm tones of the yellow bricks make an appearance on the surface. Fall protection surfaces and wood employ a warm play of colours. Even the choice of trees surrounding the assembly hall was colour co-ordinated, with a variety of maple tree selected due to its copper coloured foliage, which blended harmoniously with the surroundings.

Instead of simply stringing together playground equipment, a play and communication landscape has been created, bringing the various individual pieces together into a peaceful and natural whole.The design of the outer area is also not static; it can be changed and expanded upon.

The children and adolescents feel in very good form and take full advantage of the varied exercise facilities to test themselves, but they also know to appreciate areas to which they can retreat to get some peace and observe nature.


Please also refer to – the Erich Kästner-Schule in Oelde website >cf. Link at www.lwl.org


Photo: Fotos: Claudia Dreyße, Dortmund


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