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...
Important aspects regarding the design of playgrounds on school yards
By Prof. Dr phil. Ahmet Derecik from the Institute of Sport and Movement Science at the University of Osnabrück
This article presents empirically-based aspects which should be considered when designing playgrounds with permanently installed devices. They are based on the findings of a study on the development of movement, playing and sports in all-day schools.
The adventure intensity which depends on the availability of exciting experience and movement, is an important factor affecting the attractiveness of playgrounds on school yards. Children need "manifold challenging and adventurous movements instead of standardised activities such as climbing, rising, balancing, jumping, winging and swinging, etc." (Breithecker & Städtler, 2007, page 22). Besides the possibilities offered by near-natural niches with mobile play materials, the offers of playgrounds with permanently installed devices can promote the sensory-motor development of children. In the following, this article presents empirically-based aspects to be considered when planning the design of playgrounds with permanently installed devices, based on the study on the development of movement, playing and sports at all-day schools (see Laging, Hildebrandt-Stratmann and Teubner, 2014).
Designing playgrounds with permanently installed devices
Nowadays, catalogues for the design of school yards offer a wide range of firmly mountable playground devices, which are meant to encourage pupils to be physically active during school breaks. In the following, some suggestions are provided by presenting some devices considered to be appropriate. These include, inter alia, the typical balancing beams, swings, horizontal bars and monkey bars.
In general, the typical balancing beams are only occasionally used and occupy a relatively large area. With some types of artificial balancing beams the challenge to balance from one end to the other is too big which makes the balancing act rather impossible. This is the case, for instance, with rotating timber beams. On some school yards, balancing beams can be found which are installed on springs and which are relatively easy to handle if the spring setting has an appropriately hard suspension. If artificial systems are installed, it is important to make sure it has a stimulating design which motivates the children to both balancing and at the same time inspires their imagination, something that can be achieved by specific artificial arrangements.
At secondary schools, the balancing beams should meet the specific needs of the kids of this age. A tree trunk spillikins formed by natural tree trunks, for instance, is the ideal balancing installation for young adults. Previously made balancing experience can be intensified on the tree trunk spillikins in terms of collective balancing, jumping, evading and catching. These complex movement requirements are suitable for the kids and increase the attractiveness of the balancing pleasure with natural materials.
Swings exist in all kinds of different variations. They offer a valuable elementary movement experience and are difficult to be substituted by natural play materials. It is the type of the swing which determines whether they are equally used by boys and girls or mostly by girls. The typical bar swing and its different variations is generally used more frequently and in a more purposeful way by girls than by boys.
Swings can help them to fulfil their desire for a controlled risk experience and to escape the force of gravity. The typical bar swings are particularly suited to grant girls their own playing space which, of course, may also be joined by boys. In case joint action of both girls and boys is intended, it would be ideal to have an area with a number of different types of swings installed side by side.
Although in practical terms swinging is very popular, the equipment of schoolyards with swing arrangements often calls for improvement. In most of the cases two swings are not enough for all pupils. If possible, the number of young adolescents being able to swing simultaneously should be increased. The attractiveness of swinging could be increased by so called contact swings, that is to say, when the swings are installed opposite each other, so that the users can see each other while they are swinging and possibly also touch each other's feet. Then swinging not only requires more power and dexterity but also agreement and coordination with the counterpart who is becoming a game partner" (Schottmeyer, 1984, page 20).
In case it is not intended to create specific areas for girls, consideration might be given to beam swings with a big tyre seat (cantilever swing) which offer a more attractive movement challenge for boys and maybe also for young adolescents. Due to the great height of the swing and the possibility to swing in all directions, this variation is particularly attractive. Another advantage of such cantilever swings is the opportunity to foster the coordination of moves and swinging rhythm between the several simultaneous users which promotes both individual swinging experience and social interaction between the students and is controlled by the perception of body experience. The same applies to the nest-seat swing, which provides enhanced protection and which is therefore more suitable for younger children.
Regardless of the swing type, the pivoting range must always be taken into account. The children's walking areas and safety areas should never cross the pivoting range of a swing. Therefore, it makes sense to install swings rather in niche areas. In addition, the arrangement of swings in niche areas offers a suitable opportunity to withdraw in small groups which is especially popular among girls and quiet boys. Thus, the conscious placement of the swings can to a certain extent control and promote the social interaction and communication between children.
Apart from the swing areas, a special benefit for the promotion of free spaces on school yards, particularly for girls, can be achieved by the installation of horizontal bars. While on school yards of secondary schools it is often football fields that are installed especially for the boys, the installation of horizontal bars in a separate area as a space particularly for girls can be a not to be neglected aspect when it comes to spatial planning, apart from the installation of swing areas. Horizontal bars and swings are currently experiencing a renaissance after they had often been considered old-fashioned and dismantled and removed from playgrounds and substituted by timber systems. (Coenen, 20017, Page 298). But obviously it was not taken into account that girls usually like these place-bound devices. So they are still an effective tool for the creation of open spaces for girls. In these movement areas, particularly girls, but also some of the boys, put into practice the different types of swinging and rolling. At the same time, horizontal bars serve as a safe hideaway place and communication niche where children can talk about their topics and, if necessary, escape the high social density of schoolyards. To make this possible, it is important that the horizontal bars are installed in a separate area, but not too far away from the other play areas.
When installing the bars, it should also be taken into account that they are mounted at different heights. Furthermore, an increased attractiveness could be achieved by substituting, for instance, one of the bars by a robust rope.
In addition, some ropes could be fixed horizontally to trees or high poles for swinging. This is not just an interesting movement opportunity, but also suitable for linking different elements and overcoming obstacles.
Monkey bar systems usually consist of different permanently installed playground devices which, according to their design and ground conditions, offer different possibilities for climbing, jumping, sliding and moving hand over hand along the ropes. On big and stimulating monkey bars, basic movements are integrated in a concept of run and catch games for different age groups equally involving both girls and boys. Thus, monkey bars promote the playful interaction between boys and girls at a shared place. If, moreover, the ground consists of sand and has clear limitations, the radius of action could even be increased by run and chase games.
Although monkey bars are particularly suitable for dynamic games, they also serve as a place where to have a rest or a chat. Especially net systems designed for moving hand over hand and sitting are particularly suitable. As a matter of fact, children mostly use them to relax on them instead of moving along. In general, youngsters enjoy recovering from school and dynamic games by allowing themselves some quiet moments.
Especially large spider webs offer stimulating spatial conditions for recreation or group communication. Older children usually develop first signs of an increased willingness to communicate with their peers, a situation which can be complied with by creating sitting areas in the monkey bars. Youngsters usually interact and communicate in gender-homogeneous groups.
While monkey bar systems are increasingly considered as standard equipment of primary schools, there is a lack of appropriate offers at secondary schools. Children who had monkey bars at their disposal while they attended primary school, will miss them when they change to secondary school, if they are not available there. However, simple small monkey bars from the catalogue are not suitable for secondary schools, because they don't offer the relevant age-appropriate challenges. The higher and more risky the design, the more older children and also young adolescents will play on them. (see pictures 9 and 10).
Meanwhile, more and more school principals come out in favour of the benefits of exciting and effectively tailored climbing opportunities in line with the recommendations of the Statutory Accident Insurance (2002) according to which climbing scaffolds can be considered as a preventive measure helping to prevent accidents. The Fridtjof-Nansen-Primary School in Hannover is a prominent example. They have installed an exciting and challenging rod scaffold. Although it is nearly 5 metres high and frequently used, no accidents have happened so far. Besides, the Gemeinde-Unfallversicherungsverband (communal accident insurance association) in Hannover has accepted this arrangement given the intention to promote children’s ability to secure themselves in calculable and challenging risk situations (see Städtler, 2010).
In summary, the following aspects should be considered for the playground planning
Above all, playgrounds on school yards should always be installed at enclosed niche sites and offer mobile play materials (see Derecik, 2015) which should, however, be complemented by permanently installed devices. Especially suitable for this purpose are swings and horizontal bars which, in addition, are very appropriate to create particular areas for girls. Modern und stimulating big climbing scaffold systems usually offer many playing options for both boys and girls. Selected permanently installed devices could thus be very useful and popular among children. Furthermore, the arrangement of the devices towards each other could influence the social interaction and communication and control the frequency of time (spent) alone and team games. Beyond that, the playgrounds should always be equipped in an age-appropriate way, that is to say, the older the students, the more risky situations should be offered.
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Laging, R., Hildebrandt-Stramann, R. & Teubner, J. (2014). Bewegung, Spiel und Sport in der Ganztagsschule – StuBSS: Ergebnisse der qualitativen Studie. (Movement, games and sports at all-day schools – StuBSS: Results of a qualitative study
Schottmeyer, G. (1984). Der Spielplatz als Treffpunkt – Soziale Funktion des Spiels. (The playground as a meeting point – the social function of playing). Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk e.V., München (Editor.). München: Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk e.V. München (German Child Welfare Organisation, Munich).
Städtler, H. (2010). Bewegte Kinder - schlaue Köpfe: Auf die Freiräume kommt es an. (Moving children – smart thinkers. Open spaces are the essential. In playground@landscape, 3 (6), 16-23.
Picture: Ahmet Derecik