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15.10.2016 - Ausgabe: 5/2016

Playing and exercise areas from the development teacher's perspective

By Assistant Professor 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


Why do playing and exercise areas also include playgrounds?

In order to build playgrounds which are not simply good but more or less perfect and particularly suitable for children, it is important to reflect on these three questions:

Why do human beings move at all? Why do they often do that in a playful way? And what should development-assisting playing areas look like, if they are to cater for this natural behaviour?

Why do human beings move at all?


In any case, human beings need energy to move, although the production of energy itself requires a lot of effort and resources, which in prehistoric times without any supermarkets offering high-caloric foodstuffs or fast-food restaurants or motorised vehicles was very difficult and sometimes even dangerous to secure. Sometimes, it may also cause negative stress (distress) to muster the energy for physical exercise, in particular if energy input and benefit are not in balance. And not to forget: saving energy has always been the foremost principle of evolution. The further evolution of all beings is based on the indeterminate equation that the benefits must outweigh the input. In other words: only if the energy input leads to sustainable and survival benefits for our own organism and to a higher level of behaviour potential, our cellular system will legitimise the respective effort. In short: Human beings are only prepared to move, if it really makes sense (Schwarz, 2014).

We as adults can, however, often observe scenes like this:  two children running behind one another, climbing up the ladder towards the play tower almost simultaneously, running across the rope bridge to the connecting tower and finally sliding down the chute at full speed.  Children usually repeat such activities until they are totally exhausted.  And it is absolutely clear that this behaviour is neither aimed at finding food, nor at territorial struggles, nor at any reproduction rituals. Apparently it just seems to be a wasteful consumption of energy. Is it because they are children of prosperity? An evolutionary theorist would consider the following questions: what is the motivation for such high energy input? What exactly is the benefit and what sense does it make?


Why do human beings often practise physical activities in a playful way?

Robert Oerter's developmental psychological theory (2011) provides a reasonable answer to this question. According to his findings, playing is a relatively low-risk possibility to test out one's own abilities and limits in comparison to what the world around us may confront us with. Whereas playing offers possibilities for second attempts, to learn from mistakes, to find deviations and to turn unfinished techniques into practical competence through numerous repetitions, the sometimes unrelenting serious character of reality rather excludes second options. This is all the more important for children, because their abilities are less competitive and not yet strong enough in comparison to the demands of the adult world. To add even greater tension to this fundamental thought: if children were not allowed to play, they would be deprived of their opportunity to prepare themselves for life in a relatively protected space. Human beings, particularly children, must be allowed to play, because otherwise they would be deprived of the chance to develop their full personal potential slowly and without any fear. A development teacher would put it like this: the high energy children usually invest in playing does definitely make sense because it holds the chance to produce even more, and to some extent slumbering energy. Thus, they will benefit from their full potential over the long term.

With this in mind, it is correct that every playing child is a potential child of "prosperity", because - at least for the moment - the way a child is playing shows if he or she feels well.  Playing is an excellent indicator of children’s well-being and an important method used by child psychologists for diagnostic purposes (Mogel, 2008). According to the Geneva-based Commission on the Rights of the Child, playing has become a justiciable right for children on a global level. This right can be claimed, but not be removed and represents the basic foundation of a beneficial society. Basically, this does not only apply to children, but also to youngsters and young adults, people in the prime of life or elderly persons. Life is challenging at every age. What is most important, is to know how to tackle these challenges in a creative way and to find appropriate solutions (Havighurst, 1953). Unresolved development problems endanger the healthy personality development or even make it impossible. Playing serves as a kind of preliminary test which helps to develop positive self-esteem and self-effectiveness in order to be well prepared for emergencies (Bauer & Hurrelmann, 2015). That is why, on the one hand, the different generations have their own specific games, but on the other hand, there are also timeless games which link the different age groups because of the typical human need for continuing self-improvement and development.


And what do development-friendly areas look like, in consideration of the human movement behaviour?

In terms of a meaningful concept for playgrounds and playing areas, it becomes clear that it is almost impossible to create the "perfect" playground. From the development teacher's perspective, it is also clear, however, that going to the playground must be worth the effort. Only if the challenges of the play contents are within the target persons' possibilities, they can be perceived as manageable and will thus be accepted as a game. In this context, many play area investigators have taken over the term "affordance" (Gibson, 1979). In short, this means that the perception of an offer made by the environment must have a highly stimulating character which clearly speaks for itself. The decision, whether something is considered to be worthwhile or not, depends on the competences of the respective person.

For adults, it seems obvious that a bench represents an invitation for them to sit down on it, because they have the necessary height and motoric skills. But for a young child a bench would rather be a balancing object. In the opposite case, toddlers may consider a simple hill as the most important playing object of the day. Because it fulfils the baby's need for physical development and for finding a balance between courage and fear whereas an adult would rather regard it as an obstacle. And in the third case, a youngster would probably use a bench as a base for his or her spectacular skateboard performances or simply as a chill-out place, sitting on the backrest of the bench with their shoes on the seat, as for youngsters the most important thing is to look cool. As the saying goes, the lid must match the pot. Therefore, the respective environmental signal must produce the necessary incentive effect for doing exercise. In the context of playground research, this means that it should be taken into account that the available playing area is suited for the needs of its target group.

Hence, these scientific findings should have significant consequences for the practical planning of playing facilities, because according to them, an optimum playground concept always includes an appropriate analysis of the motoric abilities and the social, emotional and cognitive skills of the respective target group. From the development teacher's perspective, as a minimum standard, a residential area with, for example, 600 registered households should be surveyed by means of questionnaires and interviews. Otherwise, the construction of playgrounds would just have an alibi function for the local planning authority.

This has recently been the case with an improvement project of the local parents' initiative of Ladenburg (Rhine-Neckar area). The catchment area of this typical playground of the 1970s includes about 1,200 persons of different ages with different jobs and interests. The Pedagogical University of Applied Sciences in Karlsruhe has assumed the responsibility for the participative consultation process (between the local council for youth affairs, children, parents, local residents and the building authorities) and carried out a representative survey in this residential district. The results of the study showed that the City Council was not aware of the fact that, according to the needs of the target group, the new playground should be much larger than the former playground (1,000 sqm instead of the existing 582 sqm), that only 40% of the children's needs were in line with their parents' ideas and that sometimes parents have completely different ideas about an educationally valuable playground in comparison to what can be found in the related scientific literature. Furthermore, it showed that children were only allowed to go alone to the playground on very few days (only 30% of all visiting days) due to the dangerous traffic situation in the surrounding area, but not because of the new playground project itself. In general, parents are very concerned about the type and extent of accidents which could happen to their children. If the persons involved had not been informed about these facts in advance and if the results of the survey had not been communicated in the citizens' convention, there would have been significant damage to all parties involved. Probably, the very qualified offer (affordance) of the manufacturer would not have been accepted, because the achievement of specified targets could not be guaranteed. This would, in turn, have resulted in immaterial damage to the children who would not have been able to benefit from the excellent playing offer because of their parents' worries. And finally the municipality shouldering the costs would have suffered because the investment of a five-digit amount would not have turned out satisfactory to its residents.

But what does the development-friendly playground – which is suited for the needs of the respective target group - look like? The best solution arose from the idea to create a playing space instead of a playground. What is the main difference between playgrounds and playing spaces? In historical conceptual contexts, public open spaces are "flat wide streets" (Greek: πλατεία οδός, to be read "plateia hodós"),located in the city centre and clearly framed by houses and buildings. And due to the fact that in ancient times public meetings, markets and trading took place in the city centre, town squares were used as meeting points for everybody, also for playing children. Therefore, the playground itself is not a modern invention. It has always been there. Although children only played in those public spaces where adults allowed them to. As for instance documented in the psychological game theories of Oerter and Mogel, children usually only play where they are allowed to and where they feel safe and secure because the respective socio-emotional conditions are fulfilled. From a historical point of view, open public spaces are a kind of cultural object created by adults with the respective architectural parameters and regulations and children as accessories.

Space is much more than just an open public space, not just a mere place, a quadrant or a number of geographical pixels on a map. Extended space has a vivid character, because it is possible to play there actively, pass through it, get into it, climb on or creep into it, touch it, listen to and look at it, sniff it out and sometimes feed it, if one wants to understand it as a whole. Space is multi-dimensional, it is a grid of the sensually perceivable. That is what gives space sense. That is why it needs time for experience, the joy of discovery and playing as a means of adopting it as one's personal living space. Though it has - especially in urban areas - a more objective side due to rules and regulations, it retains its individuality in the world that those who use it have made of it through their movements and their sensual perception. Looking at it from a playing and movement-pedagogical point of view, Space is


  1. no rigid enclosed room but a dynamic comparative, which can be actively designed for its purposes.
  2. By their own physical movement people create space that they experience  with all their senses.
  3. The quality of our sensual experience depends on the speed we choose; being slow creates space identity.
  4. That is why both adults and children will never perceive rooms as rational-mathematical cubes (Euclidian space), but will always look at them from a sensual-emotional, that is, esthetical point of view.
  5. In this sense, rooms or spaces cannot dissolve; they are socially designed and redesigned. The practices of active room or space design are, at the same time and always, a kind of self-formation.
  6. Social spaces convey a feeling of cultural preservation and absorption; how much, depends on their degree of structuring.
  7. Spaces with no social intervention (neither indirect-symbolic via signs nor directly interactive due to being under control) can also give a natural impression (natural development).
  8. Social spaces can be conflictive with individual spaces (room divergences), as real ideas of space (e.g. the nursery, the school building, the urban district) do not necessarily coincide with subjective ideas about such spaces ("my school, my neighbourhood, my playground,..."), which may lead to the perception of different subspaces in one space.
  9. Space for playing and movement or exercise consists of many subspaces, which, on the subjective perception level, need to be linked up to a coherent network.


In the context of these nine space definitions sufficient movement and exercise areas are indispensable for the full development of playing space. Without space there is no such thing as movement or exercise, without playing there is no development. We cannot pretend that the thriving of a society is dependent on no more than the gross national product. Instead we should ask ourselves which type of playgrounds we want to build in bigger, all-encompassing playing, movement and exercise spaces to help motorically fit, socially acceptable, emotionally balanced, physically mature, and finally, healthy people. This is a question which cannot be answered by play equipment manufacturers alone, nor can it be implemented by science. Here, we have to involve those for whom such equipment is meant as well as political decision-makers on both the communal and nationwide level so as to find the necessary legal solutions. Successful, i. e. pedagogically valuable playground design is therefore part of a bigger space, which needs more than only play equipment. It needs useful green areas and some landscaping. To achieve an ideal playing area design, it needs


  • consulting, which includes all stakeholders of a residential and living area and which does not only plan for a short but at least for a medium-term period. 
  • diagnosing, analysing and appropriately interpreting the exact development needs, resources and limits of both those who will play there and the playing space itself.
  • linking neighbouring paths, streets, open spaces and green areas (corridors) with the playground, thus making the whole a coherent playing, movement and exercise area for those on their way to it and reaching it.
  • abstaining from the idea that playing should be assigned to an isolated and sealed off space ("games island") and realising that human beings would play wherever they are and at any time, if only they were allowed to.



  • Gibson, J.J. (1979/1982). Perception and Environment. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. German issue 1982: (Wahrnehmung und Umwelt. Der ökologische Ansatz in der visuellen Wahrnehmung. München: Urban & Schwarzenberg.)
  • Oerter, R. (2011). The Psychology of the Game. An action-theoretical approach (second edition). Weinheim: Beltz. (Psychologie des Spiels. Ein handlungstheoretischer Ansatz (2. Aufl.). Weinheim: Beltz.)
  • Mogel, H. (2008). The Psychology of the Children‘s Game (third edition. Heidelberg: Springer (Psychologie des Kinderspiels (3. Aufl.). Heidelberg: Springer.)
  • Havighurst, R. (1953). Human development and education. London: Longmans.
  • Schwarz, R. (2014). The early Movement Development. Munich: Reinhardt  (Frühe Bewegungserziehung. München: Reinhardt.)
  • Bauer, U. & Hurrelmann, K. (2015). The current debate on the highly productive way to cope with reality. Journal for Sociology of Education and Socialisation, 35(2), 155 – 170. (Das Modell der produktiven Realitätsverarbeitung in der aktuellen Diskussion. Zeitschrift für Soziologie der Erziehung und Sozialisation, 35 (2), 155-170.)

Photo: SMB




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