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Designing exercise-friendly schoolyards

by Melanie Kopp, Anke Hanssen-Doose, Annette Worth (University of Education Karlsruhe)


Physical activity is very important for the overall development of children and adolescents. The relevance of movement is increasingly discussed in the context of learning and success in school, because movement, playing and sports specifically support the development. Thus, the general question of the exercise-friendly design of schoolyards arises.


Study results on the exercise-friendly design of schools

In the context of the fitness module study (MoMo, see www.motorik-modul.de) since 2003 data have regularly and consecutively been collected on children, youngsters and young adults regarding their physical and athletic activity, physical fitness and health. In the survey wave from 2009 to 2012 a total of 1,955 children and youngsters of primary and secondary levels I of an age between 6 to 16 years were questioned on the opportunities for physical exercise at their schools which they had to assess from their own point of view as "very good", "rather good", "rather bad" or "very bad".

The results of the study show that children at a primary school level (796) assessed the conditions to a large extent (94%) as rather exercise-friendly. Only 6% of the children surveyed assessed them as rather bad or very bad, whereas at an increasing age, the opportunities for physical activity are perceived as less good. Although the majority (84%) of the 1,159 children surveyed at secondary level I still assesses the conditions as very good or rather good, the percentage of children and youngsters who assessed them as bad is substantially higher at 16% (see picture 1). This means that one in every five children at secondary level I is dissatisfied with the conditions for movement, playing and sports at school.

In the past 10 to 15 years many efforts have been made to improve the conditions for physical exercise at German schools (1). Nevertheless, the results of the MoMo-Study show that regarding the exercise-friendly design of schools and schoolyards there is indeed "much room for improvement".


The schoolyard as a space for movement

The conditions for movement refer to the school as a whole and depend on the design of the space and its usage. An important place for movement is the schoolyard. The times in which German schoolyards just consisted of a large and tarred area are definitely over. Today, schoolyards offer many more opportunities for physical exercise, playing and sports, at least at first sight.

The pupils usually experience security and inclusiveness through their spaces while at the same time they are challenged and promoted by the spatial structure, the materials and learning arrangements. Thus, the changeability of the spaces plays an important role (2), also regarding the creation of new incentives (for exercise). This could, for instance, be achieved by mobile stone and timber materials or by modifiable devices. The appropriation of space usually happens by moving one's own body, walking, running, climbing, hopping and feeling. The way of appropriation of spaces strongly depends on age and sex and other cultural, social and personal and individual aspects. The natural urge to move changes with increasing age. Children love playing games with simple rules, such as hopscotch, catch games or role plays whereas the adolescents prefer more complex games such as streetball or beach volleyball. In comparison to girls, boys are more open to the appropriation of open spaces and easily feel "trapped" in small rooms. They prefer free spaces to play football or burning ball which satisfies their exploration urge and reflects their aim to discover new things. This may be achieved by a varied and imaginative play and movement area. Girls usually use their spaces in a less physically active way. However, they like re-shaping rooms to gain new experience. For this purpose, playing devices, flowers, shrubs, hedges and places of refuge are very suitable. In general, girls are more people-oriented whereas boys are more practically oriented. Girls play more often in age-homogeneous groups whereas boys prefer age-heterogeneous and big groups [3].


Using schoolyards as educational spaces

Generally speaking, school is increasingly gaining acceptance as a living and learning space as well as a space for gaining experience for the girls and boys. Hence, there are different requirements regarding the design and usage of schoolyards. In pedagogical terms, this means that a schoolyard should also consist of a working and recreation area in addition to spaces for movement and playing. Attractive and multifunctional schoolyards with defined marked-off areas for physical exercise and with „green zones“ are actually used more frequently and in a more diverse and more intensive way than unshaped schoolyards [4]. Stimulating and variably usable design elements promote the motoric development and contribute to an increasing physical activity of the students. Being able to retreat and to experience moments of release is particularly important with regard to the temporal expansion of school days at all-day schools, just as much as the undisturbed interaction with classmates. The requirement that spaces should be useful working areas means to create spaces for theoretical and practical work (workplaces, work surfaces, school gardens, etc.) and to provide appropriate places for holding outdoor lessons outside in the shade.


(Re)Designing schoolyards

When (re)designing schoolyards, the following aspects should be considered [1, 5]:

  • modifiability, multifunctionality and simplicity of the schoolyard
  • age-appropriate offers and facilities for children of all ages 
  • diverse and stimulating attractions to move which promote the motoric development (balancing, climbing, dangling, etc.) as well as different soil properties (asphalt, bark mulch, natural stones, timber, grass, etc.) and varied ground (slopes, little hills, even surfaces etc.)
  • Orientation towards the interests of boys and girls, for instance, by creating opportunities for free games and organised large group games
  • Usability as a working space
  • Integration of near-natural recreational areas, for example through hammocks
  • Offers which promote the senses and sensory perception, for instance through a barefoot path


Furthermore, the existing statutory provisions and standards have to be met.

All these different requirements could be implemented in an optimum way in the concrete re-arrangement of the schoolyard if both technical and product know-how as well as the knowledge of the legal requirements and of the interests of everybody involved – particularly of the students – are being considered. For this, it is necessary to have a control team lending support through the entire process of the different project stages which are described as acting school development [6] by Ungerer-Röhrich and Bodner. All user groups should be involved in the process to ensure that, apart from the students' interests, also the perception and utilisation interests of the teaching staff, the staff of the after-school care centre, support teachers, school social workers and the maintenance staff are taken into account. The orientation towards the specific interests and needs of the students is only possible if they are involved right from the beginning of the process, for instance through surveys and onsite visits, drawings or pictures, peer-to-peer-interviews or non-verbal proceedings. Hence, the control team develops different proposals based on the data collected and considering the general requirements as well as the local conditions and the available budget.



The planning and implementation phases of a movement-oriented, stimulating schoolyard offering comprehensive pedagogical usability is an exciting process which requires wide-ranging expertise. The design process of the “desired schoolyard” implies a time-consuming and extensive planning process which cannot be compared to the creation of a schoolyard “off-the-shelf” based on the first idea coming along, because the first-choice school yard considers the wishes and visions, the needs and interests of all users: students, teaching, pedagogical and maintenance staff. If the schoolyard is considered as an element of the school development which is in line with the school profile, it is an ideal showcase regarding the pedagogical work of the school. The reward for the time-consuming process and financial expenditure of the re-arrangement is reflected by an increased usability and actual use right up to the increased joy of moving children and youngsters will have at school.



[1] Coenen, G. (2007). The schoolyard as a space for movement. In R. Hildebrandt-Stramann (Editor), Basic Knowledge

[2] Nissen, U. (1998). Childhood, gender and the appropriation of space: socio-theoretical contexts of gender-specific spatial appropriation . Beltz Juventa.

[3] Schäfer, G. E., & Schäfer, L. (2009). The space as a third educator. School architecture in  interdisciplinary discourse, 235-248.

[4] Zierer, K. (2003). Primary school as a pedagogically created living space. Outdoor facilities as an example. Schneider-Publishing Company Hohengehren.

[5] Worth, A. (2005). More opportunities for movement and experience through the optimum schoolyard desgin. Primary School. (12), 32–35.[6] Ungerer-Röhrich, U. & Bodener, L. (2012). School development with movement. Sports lessons (63), 5, 136–142



Picture: BSW


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