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Play and sport in the open air facilities of Mahlsdorf primary school

By Claus Herrmann, partner hochC Landschaftsarchitekten PartGmbB

© hoch C Landschaftsarchitekten, Marcus Witte

Visitors can easily forget that they are actually in Berlin when they approach the extensive school grounds in the north of Mahlsdorf, surrounded as they are by this bucolic-seeming green district of the city with its small houses. In fact, Mahlsdorf is just a few minutes away from the city centre by suburban railway line. In view of the situation, where preservation orders, drainage problems and ambitious requirements imposed challenges when it came to creating the desired play and sport facility, it was soon apparent to us that this project would be both exciting and complex.

The primary school in Mahlsdorf was opened in 1937; the main building and its immediate surroundings are subject to preservation orders. There are also two more recent school structures and a new gymnasium. The school grounds that extend to some 16,000 m² are in the north of the rural-like district of Mahlsdorf, a part of Berlin unusually characterised by its many small houses rather than blocks of flats. The primary school has expanded over the years and now has 490 children with a total of 32 teachers and 20 day-care staff. The school places considerable emphasis on maintaining a peaceful but result-orientated learning atmosphere. For those working parents who need to leave their children at school in the afternoons, 'open whole day supervision' is provided to 6.00 pm.

The project involving the redesign of Mahlsdorf primary school that is the subject of this article has had a duration of two years to date and is expected to be completed in early 2020. The new gymnasium (since finished) built as part of the same project and the mobile class rooms (installed in 1994) were included in the concept for the outdoor space to ensure that the whole was given a consistent overall appearance.



The draft concept was based on the idea of creating clusters of green spaces with trees and play zones that would be like islands surrounded by a paved area 'sea'. This image of 'islands and paved ocean' is further reinforced by the use of an arcuate and rounded stylistic idiom, the purpose of which is to promote and direct the natural, spontaneous movement flux of children at play. The green and activity islands have been surfaced with grass or impact-attenuating gravel and ensure that the tops of the many pre-existing trees are unobstructed. The initial project draft placed considerable value on preserving as far as possible the many trees on the site. The trees have been integrated in the 'islands' as have zones for play and various other activities. To attenuate falls, the activity and play islands have been surfaced with sand or wood chips while the green islands have grass or shrubs. Parts of the adjacent areas in the western section of the original school facility have been left largely unchanged.


Features and vegetation

The fact that the trees provide shade is a particular benefit; these have been supplemented by additional trees and green spaces. Single shrubs have been planted in the grassed areas, with mainly indigenous flowering shrubs and shade-tolerant plants under the trees. The open space of islands and paved sea with its diversified and vibrant look contrasts effectively with the geometric forms of the adjacent buildings. Some of the islands are bordered by specially made, yellow-coloured curved concrete blocks and these have been well received. Apart from defining the margins of islands, they also help direct the motion patterns of the children as they dart during mobile play.

Existing benches and table combinations were refurbished and reinstalled.

The same was the case with existing mosaic paving ‒ this now has a new role to play in the peripheral regions. Most of the surface of the school grounds is covered by various colours of Arena paving blocks that provide for excellent drainage.


Play and break zones

The play zones for the children have themes appropriate to the various age groups. Dedicated to those in the first and second years are the anterior areas that are essentially part of the original old structures. There are sections covered with sand and fall attenuating materials with two large age-appropriate pieces of play equipment for dangling, climbing and sliding, while the children can also dig in the sand. The central and rear sections are designed for the older children. Provided for these are trampolines, soccer and streetball fields. The borders around the islands can also be used as seating or as balancing trails. Most of the combined play equipment is made of robinia wood. The two existing table tennis tables and various play houses have been renovated and reinstalled, as have the boulders that were previously on the site.


Sports facilities

The large soccer and streetball fields and a running track with long jump pit are located to the north. In order to conserve space, the latter is a combined long jump and running track. Both tracks are 50 m in length and, like the green soccer field, have plastic surfacing. 

The streetball field has an asphalt surface with coloured ground markings. All the six already present goals and ball safety fences were relocated and reused and supplemented by two basketball baskets and additional safety fencing.


School garden and green spaces

At the periphery of the site, the existing open space under the trees has been mainly retained and augmented. An area in which the children can play tag, hide-and-seek and other games under the trees has been created here.

The green spaces around the mobile classrooms on the eastern edge of the site were originally simply grassed areas with individual shrubs. The school and its own gardening organisation have in the meantime used this space to establish a school garden that will continue to be extended. To meet the wishes of the organisation, several berry-bearing bushes and fruit trees have already been planted. On some of the new 'green islands', small shade-tolerant shrubs have been planted below the trees, while there are flowering shrubs on the islands without trees.


Benches and lighting

Sections of the islands in the school grounds are bordered with individually designed curved concrete blocks while the benches and table combinations that were already present were refurbished and reinstalled. The arrangement of the benches now offers a wide range of options for meeting in groups, for spatially flexible learning in green classrooms out of doors. 

The main connecting route alongside the school building is already clearly illuminated by lights incorporated in the building façade. These are to be continued along the wall of the new gymnasium, while several light poles have been introduced to provide illumination for the paths to the mobile classrooms. The new access and maintenance route behind the mobile classrooms and gymnasium has light poles.


Fencing and topography

The whole area is now enclosed by new fences and hedges. The topography of the site to the north and east has been remodelled to conform to the needs of the existing situation.


Surfacing design

Used for the paved areas were the very characteristic Arena blocks that to date have been seldom employed in Berlin. These paving blocks are rounded and have a larger ratio of jointing area, providing for increased drainage. The tree islands are mainly grassed with individual shrubs to maintain the green character of the school grounds. The play islands are surfaced with sand or impact-attenuating gravel. Larger paving blocks have been installed in the approach area to conform to the requirements of the preservation orders.


Rainwater management

Despite the problematic clay subsoil of the site, effective drainage of rainwater is provided for by the grassed areas and the slightly lower-lying green islands together with various drainage ditches.



Thanks to the close collaboration between the school, the local authority of the Berlin borough of Marzahn-Hellersdorf represented by Frau Franke, the construction firm Fiedrich and a dedicated construction management team, we of hochC Landschaftsarchitekten have been here able to realise a quite remarkable design for the school grounds. The site with its special stylistic idiom has proved popular with the children and, because of its extensive variety of play and sport options, will hopefully represent an additional attraction for the residents of Mahlsdorf and their children for many years to come.


Key data

Grounds with sport facilities for a school subject to preservation orders in the Mahlsdorf district of Berlin

Area: approx. 3.5 acres

Gross construction costs: approx. €1.4 million

Planning and construction phases: 2017 - 2019

Planning: phases 1 to 8 - hochC Landschaftsarchitekten PartGmbB

Customer: Marzahn-Hellersdorf local authority, Berlin; project manager - Frau Gerhild Franke

Play equipment: krambamboul

Construction firm: Bernd Fiedrich GmbH Garten- und Landschaftsbau



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