Reflections on trends in the cultural history of the playground
Kindergartens - flexible movement areas for girls and boys
By Rosa Diketmüller and Barbara Gungl (tilia staller studer og)
Three girls are shouting: "We are going for a ride!" while they are already galloping into the bushes. In the meantime two boys and one girl who are holding each other's hands come running out of the shrubs of the west side. Two of them are holding little sticks in their hands with which they are hitting the tree trunks. Here and there they pluck leaves from the shrubs. One single boy is running after them and shouts: "Police!" Suddenly he abandons the persecution, runs across the hill towards the sloping wooden wall with the climbing rope, climbs up to the slide and slides down slowly. Meanwhile a "cat family", consisting of three girls and one boy, are playing home in the small playing cottage. They are hugging and cuddling each other until one girl suddenly jumps up, runs to the fruit bed, picks some berries and brings them back to the house. Then she feeds the "kittens" with the berries. Suddenly all four children jump up, run to the hill with the slide and quickly slide down repeatedly.
While the children are playing they are laughing a lot. Other children are attracted by their laughter and join them, too. In groups of two or three they slide down the slide, run up the hill again or climb up the rope on the wooden wall. In the meantime a ball is rolling down the slide. Everybody is laughing. However, in the same way as the hustle began, it suddenly ends. In small groups the children are running away in all directions back to the playing cottage, the basket swing, into the bushes or down the hill to the mobile devices on the hard court.....
These or similar situations can be observed in the outdoor areas of kindergartens. The diversity of playing options for the girls and boys varies and depends on the equipment of the respective kindergarten. However, in any case it represents their urge to move, liveliness, creativity and spontaneity.
What kind of outdoor areas do kindergartens provide? What does the spatial equipment have to consist of to guarantee a multifaceted range of playing options, which motivate children to enjoy and act out their urge to move? What kind of playing options would contribute to their healthy physical and cognitive development? Does a big garden automatically trigger the children's natural urge for movement? These are just some of the investigated issues which were part of a multi-year research project of the Centre for Sports Science at the University of Vienna / Department for Movement and Sports Pedagogy with the collaboration of tilia, the Consultancy Office for Landscape Planning.[i]
In eight kindergartens of Vienna and Lower Austria the girls and boys were observed on three different days while they were playing in the respective outdoor areas of the kindergartens. These observations have been documented in writing. Those children whose parents agreed, were equipped with accelerometers to record their movement intensity and the number of steps per day. In addition to that, the children had to create so-called mind maps, i.e. drawings of their activities in the gardens while at the same time interviews were conducted with the kindergarten teachers.
In a first step of the evaluation all activities documented in the observation protocols were summarised, that is to say from seesawing with their dolls on the animal see-saw to balancing on the wooden frame of the sandbox, from jumping in puddles through picking leaves and flowers on the lawn to the imitation of tailbacks while riding tricycles and go-carts on the existing "roadways".
The further analysis of the observations included the elaboration of landscape plans of the respective kindergartens identifying the different places where the girls and boys carried out their respective activities and analysing the type of activity and gender attribution (girls and/or boys together or separate). Besides, particular attention was given to the important sidewalks and running paths used by thechildren in their gardens.
Thus, "mappings" were created with colour codes and pictograms which show the activities the children carried out so that one can see which parts of the garden are preferential play areas for girls and/or boys and which parts are less frequently visited or were not given any attention at all.
Due to the fact that in four of the eight above-mentioned kindergartens some further observations were carried out after some pedagogical, temporal or spatial interventions had been realised, we also gained information on changes in the play behaviour or in the activities of the children in their respective garden. The following example should make this clear.
During the first data-collection phase, the children were not allowed to enter the large fringe areas with shrubs and trees at the southern boundary of the kindergarten. The opening of this blank area was a central topic of discussions with the kindergarten teachers. Apart from the recommendation to realise certain adjustments in the facility's equipment (new devices, removal of the playhouse and of one tree,...) we had intensive discussions about the understanding of child supervision. Is it really necessary to have a constant eye on the children? Are they allowed to play behind the bushes? How do pedagogues have to deal with this issue? The spatial results of this discussion are clearly visible on the mappings of the second survey phase.
According to our findings, it was above all the southern fringe regions with the shrubs where the children liked to play both run and role plays and also nature games with materials they found in the bushes. But, generally speaking, the playing sites were spread throughout the whole garden.
Also the accelerometer information evaluated in relation to the age, gender, native language and body mass index of the children, reflected these changes. They led to a highly significant increase of mobility and movement intensity of the children. Although we had still to allow for the previously recorded differences between the sexes, fortunately all the groups of children showed a significantly increased physical activity and particularly the girls and children from a migrant background were benefiting significantly from these measures as far as their movement behaviour is concerned.
It was a basic principle of the project to assume that a larger garden would entail an increasing physical activity and motion intensity of the children. Although the results tend to point in the same direction, the findings also showed that at the same time some other parameters have to be considered.
One of the kindergartens incorporated in the project provides the best possible outdoor area for children. The large and near-nature landscaped garden provides numerous playing options. Each kindergarten group has its own outdoor area. Here the pressure on the utilisation of the areas and the play devices is substantially lower than in other kindergartens. But the results of the accelerometer data collection and of the survey did not necessarily show more physical activity nor motion intensity. Quite the contrary, the average figures regarding the number of steps and the time children spend in practising physical activity in a moderate to intense way were more in the lower range compared to other kindergartens.
Under the aspect of a healthy physical development of pre-school children, according to various studies it is recommended to walk between 7,000 and 9,000 steps per day (Tudor & Locke, 2011), but at least 6,000 steps per day (Titze et al., 2010). Regardless of the intensity, children up to the age of 4 should at least move about 180 minutes per day, and regarding the 5-year old at least 60 minutes per day of high motion intensity are recommended (Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2013).
In the kindergartens we examined in the course of the study the children walked up to 1,000 steps and more per 30 minutes.
Nevertheless, health promotion is only one quality aspect among others of kindergarten outdoor areas. Especially the last example of the kindergarten with the extensive outdoor area with good facilities and group-related garden use shows that a lower utilisation pressure benefits the relaxation effect because children can play undisturbed and experience nature which encourages their creativity and at the same time reduces conflicts. In this kindergarten, a targeted and systematic promotion of the basic motor skills takes place in the indoor spaces and gyms and is being complemented by an additional day in the forest, not least because of the discussion about the results with the kindergarten teachers.
In summary the study shows that the "whether" and "how much" of physical activity is determined by the setting of the respective kindergarten, which depends on a multitude of interactions between size of the outdoor area, spatial equipment, the manner of supervision, time structures, social factors, such as sex, ethnic background, role model effect of pedagogues etc. If the kindergarten management and the pedagogues are appropriate experts who create spaces of possibilities for the children, the kindergarten can make an important contribution to a comprehensive promotion of physical activity and health. Through wide-ranging experiences with their bodies and the natural environment, children can try out their skills in close contact and interaction with nature and others and hence experience their self-effectiveness. In view of the fact that children are spending more and more time in day-care centres, it becomes increasingly important to have well designed and looked-after outdoor areas and gardens.
The design concept and spatial equipment of kindergarten outdoor areas should always consider a wide range of fundamental sensory and movement experience to provide children with comprehensive opportunities for development.
It has proven helpful to analyse the usefulness of traditional prohibitions or restrictions, time and organisational structures, as inappropriate regulations often influence the use of interesting offers, such as climbing facilities, swings, hills, sand-mud areas or natural elements. Furthermore the devices must be installed in a way that game and playing structures will not be interfered with and children can change between the different devices without any problems. This will have to be taken into account, above all, when devices are upgraded or exchanged. And it is advisable to ensure that the open areas will be designed in line with the respective needs and to guarantee flexibility of use instead of installing ready-to-use design concepts or arrangements to ensure that children can try out their effectiveness for example while they are digging, building or designing an object. It is important to create flexible open areas for girls and boys which help them to uphold and stimulate their pleasure in physical exercise and their interest in being active.
Finally it depends on the good coordination of these different spatial, pedagogical and organisational aspects with which the kindergarten teachers make an important contribution to the physical movement biography and the healthy, holistic and sustainable development of children.
Literature and references:
Diketmüller, R., Gungl, B., Lischka, J., Mairinger, F., Mayrhofer, R., Spörl, S., Studer, H. (2016): KinderGärten - Freiräume für Mädchen und Jungen, Wien (Kindergartens - flexible movement areas for girls and boys, Vienna.)
Report Card Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2013. Online under: www.activehealthykids.ca,
Titze, S., Ring-Dimitriou, S., Schober, P., Halbwachs, C., Samitz, G., Miko, H.C., Lercher,
P., Stein, K.V., Gäbler, C., Bauer, R., Gollner, E., Dorner, T.E.& Arbeitsgruppe
Körperliche Aktivität/Bewegung/Sport der Österreichischen Gesllschaft für Public Health (2010). Österreichische Empfehlungen für gesundheitswirksame Bewegung. Wien. Eigenverlag (Working Group on Physical Activity/Movement/Sports of the Austrian Society for Public Health. Austrian Recommendations for Health Promoting Movement, Vienna. In-house publication.
Tudor-Locke C., Craig CL, Aoyagi Y, Bell RC, Croteau KA, De Bourdeaudhuij I., Ewald B, Gardner AW, Hatano Y, Lutes LD, et.al. (2011). How many steps per day are enough? For older adults and special populations. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8, 79.
[i] Project title: „KinderGärten – Freiräume für Mädchen und Buben (Kindergartens - flexible movement areas for girls and boys)“; Cooperation Project between the Centre for Sports Science at the University of Vienna / Department for Movement and Sports Pedagogy and tilia, the Consultancy Office for Landscape Planning.
University of Vienna: Rosa Diketmüller (Project Management), Jenny Lischka, Franz Mairinger, Stefanie Spörl.
tilia: Heide Studer, Rita Mayrhofer, Barbara Gungl.
Contracting authorities: The Federal Ministry for Education and Woman, the Federal Ministry for Health, the Federal Ministry of Defence and Sports - Sports Section, Funds for a healthy Austria , City of Vienna/Municipal Department 57 - Promotion of Women and Coordination of Women's Issues, Land of Lower Austria, - "From Nature to the Garden".
Other partners: MA 10 - Viennese Kindergartens, Land of Lower Austria - kindergarten.
See further information: http://kindergarten.univie.ac.at/
technisches büro für landschaftsplanung (consultancy office for landscape planning)
schönbrunner straße 31/2/1, 1050 wien (Vienna)
Picture: Traffic role plays at the kindergarten (source: tilia)