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School and break rooms -school and break dreams Participatory discussions, decisions, design and construction

By Rolf Heinisch (Graduate Engineer, Swiss Federation for Landscape Architecture, company ecovia)

© Rolf Heinisch

The Wauwil School in the canton of Lucerne has built a new schoolyard and added an extension to one of its school buildings. All students were closely involved in this transformation process from the planning stage to implementation.

"This is our tree house", says Nora proudly. She runs to the big tree in the break area and climbs up. "We always wanted to have a tree house", says Ladina and slides down the fire ladder. Matteo also smiles contentedly: "Nothing was built that we didn't want." A cascade system has been installed in the playground fountain, a second goal and small stands on the football pitch. The children show the covered slide and stop at the climbing scaffold which consists of many interlocking tree trunks. The Wauwil school has completely redesigned the elementary grade's playground and has also added an extension to one of its school buildings. In the context of the so-called School and Break Rooms - School and Break Dreams Project, all students were closely involved in both building phases. " That was worth it", says Headmistress Ursula Matter. "And what is more: In addition to the concrete solutions the outcome yielded a tremendous lot of good things."

250 learners were involved in this process, skilfully guided and instructed by drumrum Raumschule and ecovia GmbH. The 'drumrum Raumschule' association raises the awareness of children and young people at a regional, national and international level for the construction challenges of our time by public and private workshops, participatory school projects and cross-border cooperation. The drumrum Raumschule promotes children's interest in approaching the topic of building culture in a playful way and in taking part when it comes to shaping their own living environment. Depending on the topic, the project team consists of architects, scenographers, colour designers, designers, pedagogues, craftsmen and cultural workers. The ecovia GmbH's part was then to assume the responsibility for the implementation of the measures evaluated. They planned the new play and break area and were responsible for the participatory design and building processes in their capacity as construction and project managers. The ecovia project team includes landscape architects, craftsmen, designers and gardeners. 

So on the one hand, much input for the new extension was elaborated in this participatory planning process, while on the other hand, many ideas and wishes for the exterior space were formulated, which will be the focus of this article. 

In addition, the Wauwil School has won the Swiss School Prize with this project as well as other prizes at cantonal level (Children and Youth Award, Recognition Prize of the Elementary School Education Department). The local school is a mainstay for the municipality. "People work and stand together as one" was the tenor of the laudation for the Swiss School Prize. 

Learning and chill-out room, large windows, colourful walls, bold design of the toilet facilities, these were the ideas of the students that were developed for the new building and which have finally been implemented. For those who are interested in the overall process, we recommend the following video, which was financed by the prize money of the Children and Youth Award.



The schoolyard project

The pupils developed ideas and suggestions in workshops. They carried out on-site inspections and analyses, researched on the Internet, built models, tested playground equipment and experimented with colour combinations. 

A large tree house, a cascade system in the playground fountain, a second goal as well as small stands on the football pitch, a large slide down to the kindergarten and more opportunities for climbing turned out to be the central wishes of the children. 

For us as landscape architects the spatially limited open space as well as the limited financial resources represented a major challenge. Finally, the ideas of the pupils should be practicable and buildable while at the same time they should meet today's safety standards. Our intention was to encourage children and young people to be physically active in a joyful way and to design the environment in a natural way, an intention which was supported by both teachers and students. In the past, the children went out into nature, played in woods and meadows, dammed up the brook and gathered numerous experiences of nature. Today, nature is less frequently visited. For us planners, it is thus important to bring these attractive nature experience areas into the settlements. In our planning processes we hence consider the creation of "wilder areas", such as climbing mountains, sand play and mud areas, willow jungles, but also quiet zones which allow relaxed games and undisturbed conversation. Implementing these ideas in the Wauwil project was only possible to a very limited extent due to the limited space available. Nevertheless we managed to consider some of the aforementioned aspects by creating for instance a spacious climbing facility made of naturally grown, irregular logs which - thanks to its special design - integrates itself very well into the near-natural environment. In addition, this concept allows a large number of children to balance and play together in a limited space, and even sudden play pressure is absorbed by the specific structures and converted into a flowing play rhythm. And children who are able to balance backwards are also able to calculate backwards! Although the funds were very limited, we managed to realise the most ardent wish of the pupils - the tree house - albeit in a simplified version. It is particularly this tree house which is now being used very frequently while at the same time it considerably enriches the general exercise offerings.
And while speaking of exercise, respectively exercise deficits: When referring to a representative study of the motor skills of young people in Austria our planning motto "more physical activity" becomes even more important. According to the study, in girls the motor development in the area of coordinative abilities is already completed by the age of 10 and performance deficits already occur from the age of 12 which is quite a shocking result. As early as ten years ago, the German Child Health Foundation adverted that "The world of our children is becoming more and more a sitting world".

This worrying trend must also be counteracted in the school environment and thus in the schoolyard area. It is here where we as architects and planners also bear a great responsibility. 

The topic "with each other" was also kept very high in the project implementation. Thus we considered the inclusion of the future users of the system in the implementation phase as a natural part of our activities right from the very beginning. Parents, teachers, caretakers, children and young people were invited. On one Saturday, more than 100 volunteers followed this offer and, motivated and untiring, lent a hand in the implementation. Such a large march naturally requires a professional work planning and construction management. Our institution has many years of experience with such construction days or participatory construction sites and was thus able to carefully organise and manage the large number of people.

So on that day, shovelling, picking, drilling, concreting and planting was done with great enthusiasm. While doing so each participant became part of the project and took responsibility for what was created. Usually these events are the highlight of the project implementation. And that applies to this case as well. In addition, "construction days" with all parties involved also help to reduce the overall construction costs. Besides they help to take responsibility for outdoor areas and are furthermore the best prevention against vandalism. Participation brings identification. In sum, exercise-friendly and experience-oriented playing and break areas that are close to nature represent a sustainable investment in the future!

Also the headmistress was very satisfied with the progress and results of the project School and Break Rooms - School and Break Dreams. "I would always involve our students so closely again. Because one can only benefit from such participatory processes."

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