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17.02.2021 - Ausgabe: 1/2021

The Laakirchen Playground Concept

By Michaela Windischbauer (Municipality of Laakirchen, Austria)

© Stadtgemeinde Laakirchen, Spiel-Raum-Creativ Meier KG

The children are the real playground experts. Hence their wishes and desires were implemented in the play and open space concept in the Austrian city of Laakirchen which resulted in the creation of a great new playground and open space at the all-day primary school of Laakirchen and the creation of attractive playgrounds in all parts of the town.

The intention of this still ongoing project is to improve the quality of Laakirchen's outdated playgrounds and open spaces over a period of up to 4 years with the involvement of the children (participation) and in line with the population, who has often expressed the importance to the Department of Culture and Generations to improve the playability of the playgrounds by upgrading their quality. The motto is 

"quality before quantity". The number of playgrounds should possibly be reduced and investments made in new didactic equipment instead. In recent years, only absolutely necessary repair work could be implemented due to the limited availability of budget funds. However, in order to make Laakirchen's playgrounds fit for the future and to increase their quality, the structure of the playgrounds was revised within the framework of a "play space concept" on the basis of which their catchment area including age-specific target groups were analysed. The increased mobility of parents also contributes to the conscious decision to create fewer playgrounds but of higher quality and educational value because parents are generally willing to travel a longer distance to reach a well-equipped playground with increased play value.

However, the Laakirchen playground concept has been enormously enhanced in its planning phase through the inclusive participation of children. 

The department "Culture and Generations", which is also responsible for the management of public playgrounds, started to realise their initial talks in 2017 with Mr. Leo Meier from the technical office "Spiel Raum Creativ" for the so-called Laakirchen playground offensive. The reason for the cooperation with an external consultant was also based on the fact that the "prophet in his own town often does not find the necessary hearing" and the proposals of the technical department repeatedly did not find the approval of the politicians. However, with the external advice from Mr. and Mrs. Meier, it was possible to start a great project.

Leo and Petra Meier from the technical office for play space planning "Spiel-Raum-Creativ" supported us significantly in the planning and implementation process. This planning office has now been running for over 30 years and has implemented and planned more than 300 projects so far. Whether playgrounds, outdoor kindergarten facilities, schoolyards, leisure facilities such as generation parks and fitness workshops, the range of their experience is very extensive.

What particularly appealed to us about Mr. and Mrs. Meier's reference projects was the fact that they are used to select safe play and exercise equipment that complies with the standard (EN1176-1177), and that the ideas of the population, in our case the children, are involved in the process to enable them to identify better with the newly created play areas, and to achieve a longer lifespan of the facilities.

During the participation process the children were bubbling over with ideas, often bungee jumping towers, haunted castles and fifty-metre-long water slides were on the list. Every single wish was discussed with the children and young people, said Leo Meier in a first meeting with the department. Too dangerous or unrealistic proposals were dropped but exchanged by attractive alternatives. Finally the proposals that could be realised but were still not in the catalogue were the ones that remained. So sometimes it happens that a tree house is converted into a pirate ship or a UFO. The future users are directly involved in the development of the project. Thus the planners consciously avoid to plan without the children’s needs in mind. Through their cooperation, the participants identify with "THEIR" project and thus help the play spaces to gain the broadest possible acceptance.

Already in the 1980s, on the initiative of some teachers, the construction of a shelter for outdoor lessons and breaks started in the school and break yard of the primary school in Laakirchen. Little by little the offer was expanded by purchasing more playground equipment.

In addition to this playground at the Laakirchen primary school, which is not open to the public, there are also many public playgrounds in Laakirchen. For already many decades, it has been a great concern of the town to have a varied range of play and leisure facilities in the form of attractive play areas in a child-oriented and family-friendly municipality.

During the process, the department mainly focused on the involvement of children and the opinion of the young "playground experts".

After a kick-off event in November 2018, the workshop with the children at Laakirchen primary school started in February 2019. In several workshops, the children's wishes were identified and summarised in a hit list. The children's ideas were then further developed in the handicraft lessons, where there were no limits to their creativity. Models, drawings, etc. were created, everything was allowed in the playground experts' brainstorming, in line with the motto "no open space design in Laakirchen without children's participation". In autumn 2019, work began on the renovation of the playground at the primary school of Laakirchen.  In the summer and autumn of 2020, a further five playground projects were implemented in the same district.

Playgrounds are important places for children and families to communicate, share, relax and exercise in nature. Since family-friendliness has been written BIG in Laakirchen for many decades, it is a pleasure that this playground initiative has succeeded in making some of Laakirchen's playgrounds attractive and thus fit for the future. Especially in the current situation, when many families with children have to look for a place to exercise in the immediate vicinity of their homes, a varied offer on playgrounds is an indispensable added value for a child-friendly town.

When planning the playgrounds for the primary school as well as during the planning process of the public playgrounds, also the age structure of the children from the respective catchment areas was taken into account. Thus it was possible to create age-appropriate play equipment on the respective playgrounds with a diverse selection of play opportunities.

The new playground is also an added value for the primary school. The successful outdoor area provides many opportunities when gym classes are to be shifted outside and children are supervised in after-school care. The playground offers versatile employment and exercise opportunities that positively influence the children's motor, social and cognitive development. Swinging, sliding, climbing,… everything that makes the youngest's heart beat faster can now be tried out there. 

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