Changing lifestyles and working environments make it that children spend increasingly more time at school. Accordingly, the school building and the relevant open space are not only learning but also important living spaces...
Nature, play and ecology in the schoolyard
By Gabriela Burkhalter
"The great importance of the landscape surrounding of school buildings was not recognised for decades and still does not receive the attention it deserves. In complete disregard of the natural values, these areas are mostly covered with asphalt, flagstones or gravel or left in a barren, barely workable condition". This is how architect Alfred Roth describes the importance of the schoolyard in his publication called Das Neue Schulhaus (The New School) from 1950.
Where do we stand today with the demand for a natural or near-natural schoolyard? What were the requirements for the schoolyard then and what are they now? Some exemplary designs show how they could be implemented.
After the Second World War, the need for new school buildings was enormous; they became one of the most important public building tasks. In the publication mentioned at the beginning, architect Roth defines the components of the modern school building, following models from the USA, England and Scandinavia, and propagates the school as a light-flooded, friendly and open building. In a longer section, Roth also describes the three functions of the schoolyard - the physiological-regenerative, the teaching and the aesthetic function:
"The first and most important of these functions, the physiological-regenerative one, corresponds to the necessity, now recognised as self-evident, of allowing the child to spend as much time as possible out in the fresh air during school hours. Frolicking, playing and teaching outdoors are fundamental for his physical, mental and spiritual growth. Trees and plants renew, season and cool the air, keep out dust and protect against wind, noise and sun glare. [...].
The second teaching function of the school's green space forms the direct basis for nature appreciation in general and nature studies in particular. Therefore, the surroundings of the school building should resemble a nature park. The last, decorative function of the environment both serves the aesthetic education of the child and benefits the school building, too. The fresh green and the bright colours of the flowers allow its light wall sections and geometric forms to be given full effect [...]. Thus architects and garden designers should work very closely together and not just when the building is almost complete." (A. Roth, The New School, La Nouvelle Ecole, 1957 edition, pp. 41; 43)
The designs of Alfred Roth, an important expert of the so-called Neues Bauen-era (new forms of building), are still contemporary and modern today. At that time, in the 1950s - and to some extent still today - the schoolyard was far from taking on these roles. It usually consisted of climbing frames for gymnastics lessons on an asphalted square. Decorative sculptures were an aesthetic enrichment without improving the play situation. However, at that time the city did not have the same density of buildings as it does today, and motorisation of traffic was only just beginning. Therefore, there was still enough open space of all children. It was only in the course of the 1960s that the child was pushed out of public space and the schoolyard had to take on new tasks and offer a substitute for nature. It was then in the 1970s when the natural garden movement began, which also gave schoolyard planning the urgently needed new impetus.
Alex Oberholzer and Lore Lässer, pioneers of the nature garden movement in the 1970s, advise, for example, to model the terrain and create different spaces with woody plants. The site should thus be richly structured and not be a monolithic, uniform, flat space. Oberholzer and Lässer demand that the school grounds should also be inspiring for teaching. Gymnastics and drills have always taken place outside, but to teach drawing, biology and other subjects outside in an illustrative way were new ideas. In their publication called Gärten für Kinder: naturnahe Schul- und Familiengärten (Gardens for Children: Natural School and Family Gardens) from 1991, Oberholzer and Lässer showed how to create an outdoor workroom. Material from the soil and bushes could thus be used in the lessons. Besides gravel and clay, water also offers good visual material and a high play value.
However, a schoolyard designed exclusively with natural elements such as topography, hedges, stones, trees and sand, needs a relatively large amount of space. If conditions are cramped, as is often the case in inner-city or urban locations, the space must be optimally usable for a large number of children.
The planning of a schoolyard offers exciting challenges which, according to Roth, need to be taken into account and considered from the very beginning, such as:
- the identification with the place: what makes the place special, what was here in the past?
- coping with simultaneity: letting off steam and retreating;
- the aesthetics: in the school interior, one tries to appeal to children with colours, in the exterior it only works to a limited extent.
- participation and involvement of pupils;
- corresponding interior and exterior spaces;
- creating a topography;
- allowing experimentation and changeability.
How can this complex task be met? Three examples from Switzerland, Belgium and Denmark show possible ways about how to combine nature and the highest demands on usability:
When the school playground at the Krämeracker primary school in Uster near Zurich was built short time ago, by landscape architects Ganz, a lot of loose material such as gravel, sand and stones was used. These materials are usually not welcome in schoolyards. Teachers at Krämeracker are sometimes critical, complaining that stones fly against their windows. On the other hand, the high play value is obvious. It is also noticeable that hardly any colours are used, the colouring is left to nature and the course of the seasons. This could be a reason why older pupils also like this space. With built-in climbing and balancing equipment, it is possible to create frequently used and quieter areas. Gravel serves as fall protection. The courtyard, which lies between two school buildings on the outskirts of Uster, is open on both sides and always accessible. The square lies like a cushion on the plot, which is bordered by asphalt and stone slabs, and reminds of the former moraine and gravel landscape (total area 11,200 m2) (compare the German blog entry on Die Schule der Zukunft braucht einen Pausenplatz der Zukunft of May 2020 on the site of Montag Stiftung schulen-planen-und-bauen.de).
Landscape architects Studio Basta from Kortrijk/ Belgium were commissioned to redesign an asphalted schoolyard. Anyone who did not play football in the schoolyard of Sint Lutgardis College in Oudergem in the capital region of Brussels was out of place. They had to limit themselves to the fringe areas to avoid getting into the field of fire. The consequences were bullying and bad moods that were carried into the classroom after the break. Studio Basta met the challenge by creating different planted islands on the 1'850m2 area, some hilly, others flat or with hidden seating areas. 25 trees and many shrubs were newly planted. Each island was given its own play programme aimed at different age groups: from a sand pitch for the little ones to a mini football pitch for the older ones. Thus all relevant needs could be met even on an area shrunk by 40 percent due to the construction of a new apartment block.
Bogl Landscape Architects from Denmark also chose an island-like design for the redesign of the schoolyard at Kalvebod Fælled Skole in Copenhagen. Their starting point was the path system, which they cast in concrete like a skate landscape. The islands, densely planted with birch and willow, offer a wide variety of play and climbing opportunities for the primary and secondary school students. The design is based on the landscape of Kalvebod Fælled, an island landscape reclaimed from the sea and with a harsh, windy climate. The dense stand of 500 planted trees therefore provides shelter from the strong winds, and the game settles in these forest-like niches. The open path system allows circular running, skating or scooter riding.
The three examples show the differentiated relationship of the schoolyard to its surroundings, the site-specific use of plants (whereby, contrary to the premises of the natural garden, foreign plants are also used), the promotion of mixed-age group play, the enabling of wild frolicking and resting. Last but not least, these spaces are an ecological contribution due to the cooling, shading and wind-breaking effect. The schoolyard is not only for play, but makes sense in the overall fabric of the district. Climate change has given it an additional function: to absorb heat, promote evaporation and increase the water permeability of the soil.