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17.02.2021 - Ausgabe: 1/2021

SCHOOL GROUNDS - more physical activity at schools and daycare centres

By Karin Schwarz-Viechtbauer (Austrian Institute for School and Sports Facility Construction (ÖISS))


In the past there were schoolyards and school gardens. Today these terms have been linguistically replaced by the term "school grounds", which, above all, is considered to include the aspect of a holistic approach. However, school grounds is a collective term, the meaning of which includes both school sports facilities and general open spaces on grown ground, as well as school forecourts including access, terraces, balconies and flat roofs, and parking spaces as well as areas for supply and disposal. The aim is to provide pupils and school staff during lessons and school leisure time with the widest possible range of open spaces that can be used in different ways. In addition, also the neighbourhood will increasingly benefit from public school grounds. Furthermore, the term open school space includes two meanings, such as the interaction between the physical open space and the open space in the minds of the pupils and teachers, which both requires and leads to "getting out of" the school building.  


Actors in Austria

In Austria, this topic is significantly supported and promoted by the ÖISS - the Austrian Institute for School and Sports Facility Construction - and its interdisciplinary working group focused on "School Grounds", which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The ÖISS is a federal foundation that has been active since 1964 as a centre of excellence for the planning, construction & operation of educational facilities as well as sports and exercise spaces. You will find further information at www.oeiss.org. 

The main goal of the working group was and still is to position the open space of schools as an important topic. To do so, numerous schools have been advised, extensive research has been carried out and published and relevant events have been organised. 


Good practice as motivation

An effective achievement of the working group is the specially set up homepage www.schulfreiraum.com, which not only information, contacts and specialist literature, detailed documents but also good practice examples from all over Austria to serve as inspiration, incentive and encouragement for follow-up projects. 

After extensive evaluations as part of master theses at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna, this good-practice site appeared in November 2019 in a completely new look, with updated contents and a user-friendly responsive design.


The promotion of physical activity embedded in multifunctionality

The ÖISS and the working group explicitly position the school open space as an important sports and exercise space meant to make a significant contribution to the healthy development of children and young people. It is argued that cognitive, motor and psychosocial skills are acquired through physical activity which is supposed to promote self-regulation. According to this, physical activity is considered an active contribution to learning to enable children and adolescents to deal with risks and dangers and make them feel safer in their activities.

In the context of ever-increasing security concerns and the growing fear of liability issues and lawsuits, this aspect cannot be emphasised enough. 

Thus it is important to ensure the necessary level of safety, but at the same time offering situations that allow "risky play", because only risk awareness leads to healthy self-assessment and body awareness. In this area of tension, it is also important to strengthen and encourage educators in training and further education. 

The school grounds should be available for flexible and simultaneous play for as many people and small groups as possible. Therefore it makes sense to deviate from standardised sports surfaces and to use multi-purpose playing fields and multifunctional play and sports equipment.

However, the promotion of physical activity in the school grounds should by no means be considered separately from other important activities of everyday school life. The design should equally support the open space as a place for learning, teaching, meeting, communication, recreation, physical activity, rest or celebration. 


User participation and sustainability  

School grounds are considered a play space for cooperative action and an element of social learning. Especially in existing schools, user participation should therefore be ensured, starting with the collection of wishes and requirements, it can also include the implementation of manageable construction measures. Thus the assumption of responsibility and the sharing of rights and duties are trained.

School grounds - like all public buildings in the context of equal opportunities for disabled persons- must in any case be barrier-free. However, especially in the case of play and exercise areas, different limitations sometimes lead to contradictory requirements. Therefore, the persons affected and/or the carers should be involved in the planning process of these areas. Such a joint creation process will also generally support sustainable use and maintenance of the open space, whereby the development of care and maintenance concepts already creates the corresponding prerequisites in the planning process.

The different behaviour patterns of girls and boys particularly manifest themselves in open spaces. Solutions to promote equal opportunities can therefore have a particularly lasting effect in this area. 

Last but not least, in contrast to building construction, open spaces offer opportunities for users to create their own designs and to leave traces of their identity. School grounds should thus offer an area suitable for change and reinterpretation and the elements to be used should basically allow the further development of the users.


School grounds as pupil universe and city particle[1]

By transferring this quotation to the school grounds context, an attempt is made to linguistically define its growing importance for schools and pupils as well as for the city and urban planning. This increasing importance of school grounds is related to social developments. Increased all-day schooling means that children and adolescents spend more time in educational institutions, which in turn makes it necessary to alternate between indoor and outdoor spaces. But also the growing sensitivity for the need to promote health and social competence as well as motor and coordination skills of children and adolescents put the focus on the school grounds.

In the past years, the multiple use of school grounds, i.e. opening them at least temporarily to the surrounding area, was only imaginable and feasible in rural areas of Austria. In small communities and with predominantly half-day school types, a publicly accessible school space was and is used in the afternoon by the same children as in the morning within the framework of school attendance. Thus, a "merger" of school grounds and public playground is indispensable. It both allows for more space and, above all, a more extensive range of uses while at the same time avoiding temporary vacancies. Analogous concepts in urban areas failed for a long time due to fears of vandalism as a result of opening up to the neighbourhood. At the same time, it was found that fences and bans can also trigger aggression and destruction. 

In the meantime, growing urban spaces both reduce the action spaces for children and young people and generally increase the pressure on land. The multiple use of school grounds in urban areas, which is now being pushed in Vienna, originally arose out of necessity, a fact that does, however, not jeopardise the positive intention and effect. 

The Viennese concept provides a partial opening of the school grounds for the new educational campuses in the urban expansion areas. The appropriately and robustly designed areas, e.g. playgrounds and cages, as well as play and sports equipment should also be available to the surrounding area. The zoning of school grounds in terms of accessibility and robustness or sensitivity of surfaces is therefore becoming increasingly important; the architectural planning of the buildings can and should also contribute to this. 

However, the Viennese concept also includes the opposite strategy, that is to say the usability of public parks for and by schools; as far as possible, efforts are made to combine new locations of educational institutions with the creation of larger parks, which in turn benefits the size of the overall areas and the variety of offers. 

Multiple use can also be implemented in existing buildings, but it is more difficult there because it was not included in the original planning and therefore often requires additional organisational effort. An interesting example in this respect is the Ferdinandeum in Graz, where the school grounds were expanded mainly organisationally by the joint use of a municipal square and a neighbouring garden of a seminary. A nice side effect is that the school children become more visible in the neighbourhood and the social interaction in the "Grätzl" is strengthened - see https://www.oeiss.org/schulfreiraum-best-practice/de/good-practice/vs-ferdinandeum-graz/.

In general, it can be noted that urban planning is increasingly abandoning the sectoral thinking of past years and that all public open spaces are understood and developed as a coherent offer for all parts of the population; school open spaces as "urban particles" can make an important contribution to this. 

Especially in urban areas, the climate-regulating effect of school open spaces is also playing an increasingly important role. If they are unsealed and greened, they effectively counteract urban heat islands and enable slow precipitation infiltration on the property. At the same time, it is important to ensure the usability of school open spaces even on hot days. Shade providers - trees and structural provisions for the time when the vegetation grows - and wind protection measures in exposed locations (e.g. terraces) are indispensable components of successful school open spaces. 

Very recently, in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic, the school open space also became an important refuge for sports, exercise and social contacts that were not possible or only possible to a very limited extent in the school building. It is quite conceivable that this fresh air cure will remain as positive memory in people's minds and perhaps even that lessons will increasingly be held outdoors. 

[1] originally Walter M. Chramosta, referring to the school building in the School Building Programme 2000 of the City of Vienna.


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