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14.02.2020 - Ausgabe: 1/2020

73 exercise-friendly playgrounds were redesigned in Lower Austria

By DI (in) Birgit Pogats (Austrian company NÖ Familienland GmbH)

© NÖ Familienland GmbH

73 school playgrounds were redesigned in the past four years in the context of the Lower Austrian promotional campaign called "Schoolyards and playgrounds in motion". The main objective of this initiative was to create close-to-nature school grounds as learnscapes for children and young adolescents that would encourage them to be more physically active and at the same time would meet their needs. The initiative focuses on a fundamental redesign or, where appropriate, on a partial refurbishment of the relevant school grounds by taking into account the different all-day school types.

In the context of the promotional campaign which is based on a cooperation between the Federal Province of Lower Austria, the company NÖ Familienland GmbH and the "Nature in the Garden" campaign, the Federal Province of Lower Austria (NÖ) invested a total of 4 million euros between 2015 and 2019 in the construction of playgrounds and open school spaces. However, the main focus was on school playgrounds which were funded by up to two thirds of the overall project costs incurred (maximum 40,000 euros). 

It was the province of Lower Austria which assumed the additional costs for the co-participation processes laid down in the funding criteria, that is to say the planning consultation and the process support by the NÖ Familienland GmbH, Spielplatzbüro project team.


Participatory planning process - a shared path

The participation of future users in the planning process represents one of the main pillars of this support programme.

Whenever an open school space has to be redesigned, extended or newly created, it is advisable to identify the wishes and needs of all parties involved at an early stage in order to consider the needs of the future users in the relevant planning process. Participatory planning has proven itself in practice. It guarantees high-quality open spaces and a high level of user satisfaction. Involving children and young people in the planning and implementation of school playgrounds brings a sense of responsibility for what has been created and a higher level of identification with the school grounds. 

However, participatory processes only make sense if the implementation of the developed aims is realistic and the relevant financing will be guaranteed.

As a first step the school owner has to secure the content and financial aspects of the project before the start of the project itself. In addition, a clearly defined and binding time frame is also of utmost importance.

In this context the "planning or game research workshop" has turned out to be a tried and tested format for involving pupils in planning processes. Here, the needs of primary and lower secondary school pupils are assessed as well as design options developed by involving the young students. Creativity and the expression of opinions in an age-appropriate, educational and playful way are the preferred approaches to do so. Thus communication and cooperation are promoted by implementing democratic decision-making processes. Then the wishes and requirements of the adults as well as the results of the children's participation are described in a draft which will have to be implemented in a binding manner.

After the planning phase there are different ways of involving the pupils in the implementation process. One option could be a joint "planting workshop". A variety of future shade trees, shrub mazes and sweet bushes are planted in these workshops. Furthermore, simple structural design elements, such as a tactile path, simple pallet furniture or a herb spiral, can also be built together with the young students. 


Overall concept instead of furniture

An open school playground has to fulfil different needs in a usually very limited space available. It is therefore necessary to both consider the demands on the room or the wishes for use and also to check the local specifications (analysis of the existing situation) as well as the feasibility of the relevant project. However, the existing situation not only determines the structure, but also the quality of the room. The basic consideration is the division into rest and exercise areas. Above all, the arrangement of these areas is to be chosen according to the developmental needs of the pupils. The relationship between rest and physical activity generally depends on the age and sex of the pupils. 

Quiet areas include rest areas of all kinds: retreat niches and seating areas (e.g. open-air classes), rooms for observing nature (e.g. biotopes), opportunities for creative and formative play (e.g. painting on blackboards) and in the primary school area also sand pits and water play areas.

Active zones are used to let off steam. Above all they should include climbing walls, swings and other play equipment that encourages intensive play as well as ball game areas, running tracks, sports areas and so on. These can, for example, be oriented towards a busy street, but not directly towards a rest area. It is not advisable to mix quiet and active areas, as they would interfere or obstruct each other.

It should furthermore be taken into account that some activities are related to each other, such as the sand to the water play area, the ball play area or sports field to the grandstand. The individual areas can be connected via paths to create a sequence of different room types.


Exercise trains body and mind

Children need exercise and mobility. Free open school areas are places of encounter. It is here where the pupils learn and meet during breaks or in class. 

A well-structured open school area should offer both retreat possibilities and a wide range of physical activity. In addition to outdoor lessons (e.g. reading) and sports lessons, many children come to the schoolyard at the same time, especially during breaks. Then the focus is on physical activity. The urge to move, accumulated energy and tension must be lived out. It is here where the children of all-day schools spend a large part of their leisure time. 

Active zones are mainly used to let off steam. The playground equipment should therefore be chosen in a target-oriented manner while at the same time considering the motivating aspects. With regard to the classic playground equipment, it is particularly important to ensure that as many children as possible can play together. Simple board swings are not recommended. If there is enough space, several swings can be placed next to each other or a hexagonal swing can be set up. The nest swing offers space for several children. The main focus should be on shared experience. However, hammocks are also used for swinging and hanging out together and are particular popular among older children.

Varied climbing structures are challenging and can be extended by providing increasing degrees of difficulty. Climbing and reaching up high are the most urgent wishes of children. High platforms or houses on stilts with different climbing possibilities, rope bridges, balancing ropes, climbing walls, fire brigade poles, hanging routes and many other elements should thus be built according to the available space. In addition, platforms and houses on stilts are needed to fulfil the wishes of a large number of children. Rope play equipment (rope pyramids) in different sizes and heights as well as climbing and bouldering walls suitable for public use are further devices to allow climbing activities in the schoolyard.

Ground trampolines which are suitable for outdoor use, for instance, are becoming increasingly popular. These can in no way be compared with the sports trampolines in the gym. The floor trampolines comply with the valid play equipment standard EN 1176 and do not require any special training for teachers. In addition, small-format floor trampolines in a square or lined up behind one other enable several children to hop about all together in the school playground.

Hill modelling animates the playing children to run up and down. Wide slides and balancing sections, for instance, could make a hill in the midst of an open school space more attractive. In addition, balancing tracks could also serve as multifunctional play and seating facilities.

Many exercise and skill games can be played on paved surfaces in the school playground. In addition, paved surfaces (asphalt, paving) provide the children with the opportunity to paint their own playing fields (e.g. hopscotch). A basic equipment of mobile devices like spinning tops, stilts, pedalos etc. offers additional exercise impulses and should be available immediately (equipment shed, equipment box). 

The entrance areas of schools are on the one hand the business card of a school and on the other hand the waiting area for children and parents. Depending on the space available, seating and simple exercise offerings (e.g. balancing beams) could be offered here.


Free open spaces at schools - inclusive play

A broad spectrum of play and movement possibilities is the best prerequisite for realising an inclusive open school space. Especially for children in wheelchairs, active activities such as wheelchair-accessible sand play tables, a nest swing or a wide slide that can be reached via ramps with the possibility to change seats should be planned. Paved paths between the play and usage areas and the right choice of floor covering enable autonomous access to individual "barrier-free" play and movement possibilities. (https://www.noe-familienland.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Dokumente/Downloads/20190607_Spielen_ohne_Barrieren_-_webversion.pdf  )


Making more open school spaces available

Mostly in urban areas, but also in rural areas, the limited availability of open spaces within the municipalities is a fact which represents the need for more open school spaces. The interlocking of school areas with the immediate vicinity invites to using the available open spaces as informal learning and meeting places also during school holidays. Municipalities are obliged to provide sufficient play and leisure facilities for their citizens. 

Of course, it must always be considered whether the spatial structure (vandalism, compulsory supervision) allows an open space and to what extent (all day or only outside school hours). The undisturbed operation of the relevant schools as such should always be the main focus. As part of the "Schoolyards and playgrounds in motion" promotion campaign, around 30 public school grounds have been redesigned since 2015. Above all this means financial relief for the municipalities in terms of providing sufficient open spaces.


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