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15.06.2016 - Ausgabe: 3/2016

Improved design of outside areas and playgrounds to improve educational promotion

By Jun.- Prof. Dr. Rolf Schwarz, Dipl. Päd., Institut für Bewegungserziehung und Sport (IfBS - Certified Pedagogue at the Institute for Movement Education), Pedagogical University of Applied Sciences, Karlsruhe


What does the pedagogical-spatial design of the outside area of a nursery school and of playgrounds have in common with the evolution of mankind? The clear response of a scientist is: simply everything!

The history of mankind often refers to the outdoor mobility and flexibility of human beings. There are only a few life forms which can move away to such far distances in such a persistent way as human beings can. There are hardly any species which may use their hands in such a filigreed way, for instance in order to rebuild (play) material, and no other species have so far been able to settle in each and every area or habitat on earth, be it horizontally or vertically (Schwarz, 2014).

On the basis of bone density measurements as part of paleoanthropological studies and current observations of societies without any technological support, such as the Canadian Amish communities (Bassett, Schneider & Huntington, 2004), it was established that an adult human being - due to typical characteristics and lifestyle - walks between 15,000 and 25,000 steps every day. This goes far beyond the recent WHO recommendations (World Health Organization, 2010) and is due to the mere fact that human beings are geographically mobile and flexible even if they have no mobility equipment (i.e. cars, stairways, lifts) at their disposal.

According to recent studies, children in Germany would move much more, if they had the opportunity to do so. A nursery school study (Schwarz, Ungerer-Röhrich & Przybilla, 2016) shows that 2.5- year-old children already walk between 6,000 and 8,000 steps every day, based on an average wake time of about 11 hours. The age-typical average step length is 40 cm (+/-5cm), which corresponds to a daily walking distance of approximately 2.4 to 3.2 km! As children get older, they walk more so that 3.5-year-old children walk about 9,000, 4.5-year-old ones about 10,000 and 5.5-year-old children about 12,000 steps a day (Schwarz, 2015). The 6.5- year-old, however, struggle to keep up with this average value, if at all, as they will soon go to school which leads to predominantly seated activities. Therefore, the number of steps children walk every day generally decreases from the age of seven.

It is evident that the human species is an organism which may discover and explore its different habitats by physical activity, not only due to the evolutionary development but also in terms of individual history and individual personal development. But apart from this bipedal way of locomotion and from travelling large distances, human beings are also able to change and design building structures, when geographically bound, according to their own needs by using their unique and highly complex hand functions and elaborate tools. Wherever human beings are active, they adapt their environment to their individual requirements in an optimum way. Human beings are able to do both, change room and move in it. On the one hand, the homo movens is an architect and creator of social space in his natural environment who moves around in a specific bipedal way (locomotion).On the other hand, he moves the space itself by his body especially equipped for this purpose, in an active and structurally creative way (hand function). As a moving and active architect of his space, which, on the other hand, has an influence of change on the homo movens himself, he could also be called a social "mototect" or "activitect". Movement creates rooms and educates human beings and the better the rooms, the more flexible and easier educational promotion!

The uniqueness of the movements and activity types of the homo movens is particularly relevant during childhood, at the beginning of a child's individual personal development. Because then structural changes are not made due to the necessities and requirements of life like having somewhere to live and go hunting. Children’s interaction with the environment is playful, creative and constructive. Therefore, it must be a main concern of a society to provide a maximum of support regarding both the environmental conditions (i.e. public playgrounds, the outdoor area of a nursery school) and the promotion of the movement behaviour of children (movement games). However, the scope for children to develop their movement behaviour has shrunk dramatically over the past 30 years. Increasing building activities and fragmentation of play areas, increasing digital media offerings as well as unstable family structures are risk factors for a healthy development, as shown by the following figures related to space narrowing.

  • Around 75 per cent of all German residents live in urban, very dense neighbourhoods with 80 cities having to be considered big cities as they have more than 100,000 inhabitants (Statista, 2016; Destatis, 2016).
  • Within the past 13 years, the living space within Germany has increased by 20 per cent to 46.7 sqm per capita (Statista, 2014b). Never before in the history of the FRG has the living space per capita been so large. The trend is towards an in-house life style, especially with regard to pupils and students. (Vortisch et al., 2016)
  • People need room for their cars. The local road network alone covers 3.8 per cent of the total surface area of the FRG (Statista, 2014a) while the number of cars is continuously growing with 53.7 m cars registered (Kba, 2015) and 10.65 m children, which equals 5 cars per child. Then again, approximately 23 hours a day these cars are stationary so that the private and public space requirement has to be regulated by the specific garage and parking space regulations of the municipalities. In addition to that, every car requires a surface of between approx. 11 and 20 sqm, distributed over approx. 4.8 m units. (Quantum, 2012).
  • This leads to an increasing demand for living, road and economic areas, which in turn results in land conversions ("consumption of land") of currently 8 sqm per second or 104 football fields per day within the Federal Republic of Germany (BMU, 2013).

So it is not surprising that the reduced possibilities to do sports may inter alia have an effect on the physical constitution of children and youngsters. According to the definition of obesity and adiposity of AGA (2014) and the current epidemiological data of the KiGGS study,  6.2 per cent of the 3-6 year old German children are overweight (BMI percentile 90 - 97) and 2.9 per cent are obese children (BMI percentile > 97 - 99,5). Among the 7 to 10-year-old children, this value even rises to 9.0 per cent overweight and 6.4 per cent obese children up to 17 per cent of overweight and 6.4 per cent obese people among the 14 to 17-year-old adolescents (Kurth & Schaffrath-Rosiario, 2007).

Until now, the movement and sports sciences have focused primarily on the extent (how much), frequency (how often) and intensity (how strong or intense) of children's physical activities. But now, the obvious question to be clarified is where these children and adolescents have the opportunity and are allowed to do exercise.

Therefore, playground and exercise areas, such as public playgrounds and outside areas of nursery schools, will have a significant role in the future. The dual advantage of institutionalised outside areas is that, on the one hand a defined activity space is required by law and - on the other hand - that, with professional trainers and supervisors these activity spaces turn into useful educational areas. Physical exercise should not only be promoted for its own sake (much and manifold exercise), but always be regarded as a holistic approach. The promotion of human physical activity provides a successful basis for a cognitive, social-linguistic, emotional and physical-sensual personality development.

This is confirmed by a study currently conducted by the Pädagogische Hochschule Karlsruhe (Pedagogical University of Karlsruhe) about the necessary planning criteria regarding the promotion of an integrated child development. Conclusion: If certain parameters are considered, a pedagogically well-structured outside area has the potential to substantially influence the development of a youngster's personality. According to an initial evaluation, these parameters are described as follows:

  • Bushes, shrubs and hedges must be integrated into the playground concept; that is to say not only the aims and objectives of adults, such as sight protection, fencing function and aesthetics should be considered. But it is also important that children have the possibility to pick off and use them as source of material for their favourite games of building and designing. Experienced exhibitors of the GaLaBau-fair in Nuremberg may give some useful tips which plants are suitable.
  • The ideal-typical terrain does not only consider hills for aesthetical reasons, but, in the best of cases, it is also taken into account how they may interact with other playground tools. Children need worthwhile pull-factors, for instance considering the top of the hill as a useful bridgehead to discover further useful game elements such as the playing tower, the tree house, the sandy area etc.
  • Interaction between the different playground tools is essential. Large tools must be designed to function in a complementary way with the smaller adjacent tools. A playing tower, for instance, should include small caves, niches or little houses to park a truck inside, which is needed to transport the wood from the nearby shrubs, which then must be heaved by a slewing crane onto a half-height platform up the hill for further processing. As already mentioned: children are fantastic activitects.
  • Natural landmarks and artificial play features must go hand in hand: square and plane areas with a mere collection of playground tools will not be used by children in its original design. They will radically change such designs, not because of vandalism, but simply because they are not suitable for children. For instance, children need swings from which they may jump over the adjacent elevated terraces instead of swings which are "protected" by conventional heavy gravel. They need beams and bridges which connect worthwhile(!) destinations instead of simply spanning the airspace.

In the course of this study, an advisory concept was developed, which not only presents scientific evidence, but which also considers - in a participatory way - the practical needs and ideas of children, parents, educational experts and – last but not least – of the educational authorities and institutions.

Also with regard to public playground areas there are a lot of data and findings available which show how to increase the attractiveness of playground areas for children and also their adolescent brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents (for instance: Herrington & Lesmeister, 2006, Blinkert, 2014).

  •             Accessibility: the best possible playground tools are of no use, if the relevant playground area is not easily accessible from all districts within its village, municipal and urban development concept. Because if it is too difficult to reach, no cross-generational and valuable playground area can be created. That is why in the future, manufacturers of playground equipment must also be (co-) city planners!
  • No risk no fun: away from the safety education back to the willingness to take risks. Movement experts know what exactly makes the difference. The first option is about avoiding risks, the second means to consciously create challenges, which can be mastered with fun(!) as long as the relevant age is taken into account.
  • Zoning: Playground tools are always only as good as their interaction with the direct environment. Therefore, a clear designation and installation of different areas (parcels) is required. Seen from a neuronal level, people need orientation. An area with a clear room allocation and flowing borders generates a feeling of spatial security.
  • Connectivity: on the one hand, organic ways and manifold corridors shall connect these playground areas and, on the other hand, separate them. A circular path with small paths finely branching off and occasionally wildly meandering,would be an optimal solution.

Photo: Prof. Schwarz

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