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15.02.2018 - Ausgabe: 1/2018

Schoolyards as spaces for education - Seven criteria of implementation

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


"These days the German word Hof (yard in English) - in a construction-related context - does not have a good sound. We associate it with the idea of desolate wasteland. However, this has not always been the case. There were times when the house yard was the centre of the dwelling, correspondingly equipped and perceived as such. In those days, the main focus of the family was in their house and nothing seemed more self-evident than giving this life within one's four walls an intimate setting (...)."

When reading this statement, one could be led to assume that it is based on an up-to-date analysis of a sociologist whose melancholy view on the house yard strikes up a swansong for the modern schoolyard of today. But, actually, it refers to an assessment of the years 1907/1908, whose anonymous author [1] focuses on the general educational potential of the yard as such, while at the same time he or she complains about the great lack of design and usage, particularly in view of schoolyards. This 110-year-old analogy is convincing and in view of the history it is legitimate to ask why throughout this long period of time only little has changed for the better. But how, actually, can the schoolyard situation be improved?

As early as 1836, Karl Ignaz Lorinser had already made reform proposals " for the protection of health at schools" [2], and this many years before the statutory introduction of compulsory education. Apart from the deteriorating environment conditions through the growing industrialisation, the reform proposals also referred to the understanding of education, that is to say when, how often and to what extent children should and could be physically active. The schoolyard of the 19th century was understood as Prussian, that means as a mere compensation and activating break after the lessons in sitting position which often resulted in physical and mental fatigue. It was explicitly desired to frolic around and take some fresh air, but always under the strict supervision of several teachers. In former times, the design of schoolyards was characterised by minimalism. A schoolyard usually consisted of a large central area, sealed by different types of surface (paving stones, stone slabs, asphalt), or at least by crushed natural stone material, such as gravel, crushed stones, grit and cement.  It was there where exercises, military preparation and disciplining styles were practised. Due to the fact that the two World Wars took their toll, the appearance of schoolyards at that time was far from being perceived as educational spaces of well-being that provide cognitive stimulation, the promotion of social and emotional development and physical challenges, let alone aesthetic experiences in the living nature except for the obligatory courtyard tree.

It was not before the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s that the way of looking at schoolyards changed. One began to consider the schoolyard as a special and legitimate playing area and strived for a spatial zoning, for effective equipment where free playing and just relaxing should be possible. Now, the schoolyard is considered a space for adventure and experience [see Picture 3].

The third phase was initiated by the massive structural interventions of schoolyards after the German re-unification. Children should be involved in the design planning of schoolyards and the respective environment instead of being provided with a finished educational product created exclusively by adults. Since then, the school and its spaces has been generally considered as an environment of interaction, where the students were enabled to enjoy the different adventure areas, where thus their self-education and activity as well as their autonomy and participation skills would be promoted.  However, in practical terms, Phase 3 also implied that schoolyards would no longer be spaces of simply frolicking around. In fact, they were to become educational spaces, created beyond professional competence, in an ecologically sensual (aesthetic experience of nature), socially cooperative (pro-social behaviour), body and exercise-friendly, cognitively stimulating and, all in all, in a health-promoting way.

Against this background, the schoolyard design is also part of the participatory school development [4,5] which requires, in consequence, from the manufacturers of playground devices to get involved in this process in a more pedagogically advising, but less advertising and selling way. And indeed, the manufacturers should see this innovation as an opportunity instead of regarding it as a risk. Because this material educational offer, as in this case here, does not necessarily tap the children's and youngsters' full potential, but gains a particular value through the joint and social interpretation of the devices which leads to a reinterpretation of their usability. And that is how suddenly the normal swing converts into a long-throw catapult [see Picture 6]. Comprehensive professional advice does not only mean offering products for sale (here: the sale of playground equipment) but should include participating in the process due to the fact that education basically consists of common action (interaction). Schoolyards have an explicit potential as spaces for systematic interaction, stimulated by fitness and playing devices.

Here, the increasing demand for all-day schools provides structural educational advantages, such as the longer stay in a formal setting which hence implies a stronger space bond and finally more impact on the students. A simple calculation example shows the following: The regular programme of 3 sports lessons per week would come to 11-13 hours of schoolyard time including all breaks at all-day schools. That is to say, if the design concept of the schoolyard is good, the possibility to implement the above-mentioned specialised education qualities is four times higher. Therefore, the key question is how to proceed systematically to achieve this objective?

One of the best scientific answers to this question ever given is the "7 C's" [7], that is to say a list of seven criteria for the optimal design of movement and playing spaces for infants and children which could also be applied to the interests of youngsters and hence to the design of schoolyards.

The first "C" represents the word character and refers to design, appearance and aesthetics.  Nevertheless, it is comparatively irrelevant whether the design is implemented on a modern, organic, practical and modular basis or in light of recycling issues. The decisive point for children and youngsters is to consider evolutionary beauty dimensions, which are architecturally and aesthetically feasible, such as proportion and symmetry. However, the design must not be too complex because too many details will not establish a welcoming atmosphere and cause feelings of discomfort. Or in other words, according to the aesthetic measure created by the American mathematician George David Birkhoff: The aesthetic result depends on the density of the elements of order and constant complexity (M=O/C). In short: Beauty is a side effect of the human craving for order, in other words, beauty is what is symmetrical because symmetry provides order and thus a feeling of safety. However, this biologically objective beauty is faced by a subjective beauty influenced by socio-cultural aspects, which might change in the course of history and lead to a situation that a design concept of a schoolyard is assessed as beautiful in China whereas it is rejected in Germany. That means, the decisive point for aesthetics is also the "ethics of beauty". The right thing is the beauty itself, or shall we say the beauty itself or everything that should and could be, because beauty also includes a moral aspect. Here too, the manufacturers of playground devices must be flexible in their way to deal with the children's expectations to achieve a more subjective "beauty compliance".

The second "C" is directly linked to that and refers to the word clarity, that is to say the spatial clarity, zoning and overview. In concrete terms, neither more nor larger equipment, but fewer devices installed at the right place to create opportunities for movement and playing as well as satisfaction. What looks clear and decent at the drawing board, need not necessarily please children or pedagogues. Some practical reasons could be for example running tracks, which are interrupted by positioning a large device leading to a considerably impaired visibility for the supervisor responsible, to a fragmentation of large surfaces and an over-excitation of senses. Thus, smart is beautiful!

Instead, it is important to take into account the connectivity, that is to say the connections and corridors between the spaces.

Based on the philosophical poem of Christian Morgenstern, the meaning of the word connectivity is the following:


One time there was a picket fence
with space to gaze from hence to thence.

An architect who saw this sight
approached it suddenly one night,

removed the spaces from the fence,
and built of them a residence.

The picket fence stood there dumbfounded
with pickets wholly unsurrounded,

a view so loathsome and obscene,
the Senate had to intervene.

The architect, however, flew
to Afri- or Americoo.


The bottom line is this: Connections between the different zone divisions must not only be mere traffic routes, but be considered as part of the total package. They should be an incentive to move on them and not just the way to the ultimate destination. Instead the way itself is part of the destination, called education.

All this contributes to the change, that is to say to the change and its transitions. The Latin saying variatio delectat (diversity pleases) applies insofar as the difference between the spaces not only refers to size and number of devices, but also to their purpose: modern schoolyards are not supposed to be "party fitness areas". The idea is to create quiet and refuge areas where the free game can be combined with creative tasks, for example in the form of an outdoor workshop and where besides the workshop area also living nature is an important aspect, which changes in the course of the year. The "green classroom" can serve as a model here. Fun and enjoyment through a variety which is shown interstitially, through the equipment, nature and the relief.

The fifth criterion, challenge, is the greatest challenge in the design of a schoolyard, because not only the children look for challenges, but at the same time also the youngsters, who pursue their own interests. Here, risky, dynamic and simultaneously "chilling" devices for youngsters are to be taken into account as much as the fact that primary school children still like playing hide and seek, enjoy catch and racing games on open spaces and look for opportunities to seesaw, slide, swing or climb. In other words, the degree of challenge depends on the user (here: heterogeneous children and youngsters), but not on the buyer. However, this has to be clearly communicated, in particular to the school authorities, during the consulting process.

The next closely related criterion is the chance. This should include, in particular for primary school children, the opportunity to change the room by themselves, to manipulate the spatial construction and to give it an unmistakable character according to their own ideas. A prime example would be a technically flawless standard movement and building site.

Seventh and lastly, a school with its schoolyard should never be an isolated area, but include its environmental conditions, such as a nearby park, a green area, a playground or the forecourts of public buildings. In other words, the context should always be taken into account. From an education-theoretical perspective in general and more particularly from the movement-pedagogical point of view schoolyards should always be accessible and explorable for "the world out there", and this in spite of the danger of vandalism. Hence, not only the teaching staff needs to be convinced of the high value of spatially upgraded playground equipment, but also and above all the school authorities and municipalities, of which the same children and youngsters who spend their mornings and middays at the schoolyards need a permanent playing area the whole day through. The schoolyard - understood as a seed of joy in movement - can thus be seen as an opportunity to influence children and youngsters in an educationally valuable and systematic manner while at the same time their actual education can be continued autonomously and intrinsically outside the classroom. The more joyful the schoolyard experiences are, the more actively other spaces will be explored in other areas outside the educational environment. While the schoolyards are the starting point of guided educational paths, the (hopefully) more risky open spaces in the city and municipality are just as important for the best possible development of a child.  This is how the whole municipality/city will become a unique moving and playing yard...


List of references:

(1] Without authors's names (1907/1908). „Der Schulhof“ ("The Schoolyard"). Zt. Neue Bahnen (New approaches), 19 (7), 316-320.

[2] Lorinser, K. I. (1836). Zum Schutz der Gesundheit in den Schulen (For the Protection of Health at Schools). Berlin: Enslin.

[3] Dietrich, K. (2004). Schulhofgestaltung konkret - Schulhofprojekte und Vorgehensweisen zur Realisierung. Ein Workshop-Bericht anlässlich des Ganztagsschulkongresses in Braunschweig (Concrete schoolyard design – schoolyard projects and methods of implementation. A workshop report on the occasion of the All-Day School Congress in Brunswick). In U. Rother, S. Appel, H. Ludwig, G. Rutz (Hrsg./Publishing Company), Investitionen in die Zukunft (Investments in the future) (Pages 119-124). Schwalbach, T.: Wochenschau-Verlag.

[4] Derecik, A. (2013a). Freiräume im Schulgebäude. Informelle Tätigkeiten von Heranwachsenden in den Pausen von Ganztagsschulen (Open spaces inside the school building. Informal activities of adolescents at all-day schools during school breaks). In R. Hildebrandt-Stramann, R. Laging & K. Moegling (Hrsg./Publishing Company), Körper, Bewegung und Schule (Body, Exercise and School). Part 1: Theorie, Forschung und Diskussion (Theories, Research and Discussions) (Pages 179-198). Immenhausen: Prolog-Verlag.

[5] Hildebrandt-Stramann, R., Laging R. & Teubner J. (2014): Bewegung und Sport in der Ganztagsschule. StuBBS: Ergebnisse der qualitativen Studie (Exercise and Sports at All-Day Schools. Results of a qualitative study). Baltmansweiler: Schneider.

[6] Bindel, T. & Schwarz, R. (2017). Sport-Räume (Sports Rooms). Entwicklungspotentiale, Problematiken und pädagogische Möglichkeiten. Zeitschrift Sportpädagogik (Potential for Development, Difficulties and Educational Options), 41 (2), pages 2-7.

[7] Herrington, S., Lesmeister, C., Nicholls, J. & Stefiuk, K. (2008). 7 C's. An informational guide to young children’s outdoor play spaces. Available since 04.12.2014 under http://www.wstcoast.org


Photo: Prof. Dr. Rolf Schwarz


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