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15.02.2023 - Ausgabe: 1/2023

The schoolyard as an exercise-oriented social space in all-day schools

By Prof. Dr. Ahmet Derecik (Humboldt-Universität of Berlin, Department of Sports Didactics and Teaching Research)
© Hags-mb-spielidee GmbH

The expansion of all-day schools has been an issue for quite some time now, and is currently becoming even more important against the backdrop of the introduction of a nationwide legal entitlement to full-day care for children of primary school age. However, the relevant development should also take into account the immense importance of open spaces at school, because these are the only places where children are not and should not be "pedagogically besieged" (Krappmann, 1984). It is during their breaks when the young people can pursue their self-determined activities in schoolyards and also in the school building, free from school pressures, and thereby learn informally while getting in touch with other children, to socialise, build relationships, live together, learn from each other, try out rules of living together and experience their limits.

Against the background of social changes and an increasing institutionalisation of childhood, the schoolyard as well as the break and recreation areas in the school building represent the largest social space for children. Children spend a lot of their daily time in the all-day school and in the break rooms. Many of those responsible for all-day schools do not seem to be aware that the length of time children spend in schoolyards during breaks and childcare hours is increasing significantly. Based on the rhythms of the school award winners of the past few years, the duration of breaks at all-day primary schools, averages 500 to 900 minutes per week. This is equivalent to about eleven to 20 (45-minute) lessons. In the school entrance phase, the time for informal learning during breaks and supervision can thus be almost as much as the prescribed total teaching time per week. The weekly break times in all-day primary schools thus considerably exceed the physical activity times in the sports lessons as well as the non-formal (afternoon) all-day school offers. This is where there is enormous potential for the motor, social-emotional, cognitive, personal and also health development of children. In order to use this potential, however, an appropriate room design is necessary. 

The nationwide results of the study on the development of all-day schools show that there is still an enormous need for a quantitative and qualitative design of schoolyards. While almost all all-day schools are now equipped with a canteen, half of the schools lack adequate schoolyards for physical activity, play and sports as well as for rest and communication. As a consequence, an important quality criterion of all-day schools, that is, informal learning in break rooms or creative leisure time activities, is not fulfilled in at least half of the all-day schools in Germany. As a result, opportunities to promote the development of adolescents as well as the (further) development of all-day schools are left unused. To counteract this, the importance of space as a "third educator" and the schoolyard as an exercise-oriented and peer-friendly social space must be considered. For this reason, the importance of space as a "third educator" will be discussed first, followed by an outline of the enormous potential of exercise- and peer-friendly schoolyards for the development of children. Finally, a summary will be provided.


The importance of space as a "third educator"

A space does not only have an architectural dimension. A space is not just a "container" in which people merely stay and interact for a certain period of time. Rather the opposite is true: through their actions, people make a significant contribution to the creation of spaces. Every human being has a spatial imagination; likewise, each of us has a culturally transmitted idea of how he or she would like to live in a space or of what kind of homogeneous space he or she would like to be surrounded by. Spaces affect people in different ways and are therefore not necessarily the same for everyone. Depending on how people perceive this space and change it through their actions, different spaces can emerge in a certain place. 

The actions of adolescents at table tennis tables in schoolyards illustrate quite clearly how different groups create different spaces in this place.

In general, we consider a table tennis table "explicitly" functional as a sports space. Here, adolescents learn to " decode the given spatial structures, to recognise the meaning of lines, boundaries, fields and devices and to behave accordingly" (Dietrich, 1992, 16). Contrary to this meaning, which finds its expression in the spatial structure and the standardised playing materials, children quite often "run around" table tennis tables playing with their hands and a large ball. In this way, they re-function the table tennis tables into a play space. Predominantly male youths, on the other hand, adapt to the spatial structures of table tennis tables and play with table tennis bats and a ball according to standardised rules. In this way, they use the place "table tennis table" as a sports space according to the spatially suggested structures. Female youths in particular like to transform the table tennis tables into regular places for chatting with their girlfriends, thus creating a space for rest and communication. 

This example should clearly show how different the same place is used by different groups and thus (re)designed into different spaces. 

The interesting thing here is that it is precisely the reinterpretations of the standardised sports space of the table tennis table, e.g. by children into a play space, that allow clear indications of the development-oriented spatial needs of adolescents. The subjective interpretations of supposed objective spatial structures are, as can be seen in the example, primarily dependent on age and gender. People thus shape their actions in the interplay between their biographical development and the environment they find. The effect of the much-cited space as a third educator results precisely from this interaction, namely the supposed objective structures of space and their subjective interpretations by different people. Consequently, space as a third educator is not a uniform construct, but reveals itself depending on the respective age- and gender-related point of view, thus individually to everyone. 

In accordance with Löw's (2001) relational understanding of space, social space should not just be thought of as a container, but also as a space for people and their needs. Consequently, this means that schoolyards should not merely be "furnished". Pedagogical staff and architects should be aware of this, if they want to offer children appropriate schoolyards which promote their development. Then the enormous potential of physical activity and peer-friendly schoolyards that promote the development of children can be exploited to a much greater extent.


Potential of exercise- and peer-friendly schoolyards that promote the development of children

If it is taken into account that a large part of all human learning processes take place in informal situations and contribute to the acquisition of key competences, it seems to be an important task both for the personal development of children and for the qualitative further development of all-day primary schools to open up to informal learning processes and to integrate them into everyday school life. A predestined possibility to raise awareness of informal learning and to promote it is to understand the schoolyard as a place of exercise-oriented social space in which informal learning takes place, in addition to the open spaces in the school building (cf. Derecik, 2011, 32). 

As a result, an extension of the pedagogical school mission of the all-day primary school should consist in providing the children with age-appropriate spaces in the schoolyard, along with the necessary change in social control and, above all, opportunities for informal learning. However, this implies the recognition of the schoolyard as a pedagogically effective environment. A contemporary, educational schoolyard should allow children to be active and meet friends. These two elementary fields of development, i.e. the importance of physical activity (cf. Derecik, 2011), as well as the importance of peers (cf. Harring & Peitz, 2021), are directly linked to spaces. 

From a health perspective, it is worth looking at the aspect of physical activity in schoolyards. Current studies show that about 75% of children of primary school age already move less than one hour a day (cf. Finger et al., 2018). If we now take another look at the enormous amount of time available for physical activity in schoolyards (see above), it becomes obvious that an exercise-friendly schoolyard can make a valuable contribution to fulfilling the daily activity time frame of approx. one hour, which according to WHO (2020) contributes to supporting a healthy lifestyle in childhood. 

From an appropriation and spatial theory perspective, children not only develop their physical skills through physical activity, but also acquire a variety of new spaces for physical activity and play. Thus, children learn about the meanings of objects and symbols in a social context in informal and self-directed appropriation processes. In this way, they continue to develop independently as well as their social competence when interacting with their environment. When children expand their motor skills, they also expand their scope of action. Both play a decisive role in child development (cf. Derecik, 2011). 

In addition to physical activity, the development and maintenance of friendships with peers at primary school age is one of the central developmental tasks, whereby physical activity and friendships can hardly be separated from each other in this phase of life. However, children's lives are currently characterised by the increasing loss of informal spaces for physical activity with peers. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this situation, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. All-day school can counteract a loss of informal physical activity spaces and thus enable diverse and developmental interactions with peers, which can have positive effects on children's personal, social and even health development as well as on their school performance. But what does a development-friendly schoolyard for children look like, where children can develop healthily, feel comfortable and learn on an informal basis?


Schoolyards promoting the development of children

Detailed information on the specific design of schoolyards is not possible at this point (cf. Derecik, 2015), but some initial points of orientation are possible. The central spatial needs that children have for their schoolyard where they can learn informally through physical activity in interaction with the space and their peers can be differentiated as follows. Depending on the stage of their development, children have a specific need for space that must offer opportunities for physical activity, free play, but also for rest and communication. If these development-oriented spatial needs of children are taken into account in the design of their schoolyard, the minimum configuration of an "ideal" primary school grounds includes the following elements, which can be divided into three utilisation groups:


1. sports areas, e.g. football pitches and usually table tennis tables from about the third grade onwards.

2. schoolyard areas with a variety of surfaces (e.g. modelled asphalt, sand and lawn areas) as well as structural elements (e.g. platform-like steps and stairs, benches).

3. playgrounds with an appropriate selection of fixed equipment and natural niches (trees and bushes) with mobile materials. 


Children favour an appropriate selection of fixed playground equipment (e.g. climbing frames, swings and horizontal bars), near-natural niches with trees and bushes, and mobile materials such as tree trunks and truck tyres (cf. Derecik, 2017).



With the nationwide legal entitlement to all-day care for children, the expansion of all-day schools has once again become the focus of educational policy and pedagogical discussions. In this context, it should not be disregarded that the schoolyards represent an important and certainly also the largest social space for children, in which they can learn and develop informally in a largely self-determined manner. For a social space-oriented design of all-day primary schools, exercise and peer-friendly schoolyards should be made available to the children for their extensive break and care times. These schoolyards, which are ideally designed and planned together with the children, can not only make a very valuable contribution to the development of children, but are also important for the qualitative (further) development of all-day primary schools.


Dr Ahmet Derecik is a research assistant in the Department of Sports Didactics and Teaching Research at Humboldt University Berlin.



Derecik, A. (2011). Der Schulhof als bewegungsorientierter Sozialraum. Eine sportpädagogische Untersuchung zum informellen Lernen an Ganztagsschulen. Aachen: Meyer & Meyer.

Derecik, A. (2015). Praxisbuch Schulfreiraum – Gestaltung von Bewegungs- und Ruheräumen in der Schule. Wiesbaden: VS.

Derecik, A. (2017). Important aspects regarding the design of playgrounds on school yards. Playground@Landscape 5, 30-39.

Dietrich, K. (1992). Bewegungsräume. Sportpädagogik, 16 (4), S. 16-21.

Finger, J.D., Varnaccia, G., Borrmann, A., Lange, C. & Mensink, G. (2018). Körperliche Aktivität von Kindern und Jugendlichen in Deutschland – Querschnittsergebnisse aus KiGGS Welle 2 und Trends. Journal of Health Monitoring, 3(1), 24–31. https://doi.org/10.17886/RKI-GBE-2018-006.2 

Harring, M. & Peitz, J. (2021). Freundschafts- und Peerbeziehungen im Kindesalter. Entdeckungskiste: Schulkindbetreuung. Themenheft – Freundschaften, Heft 4/2021. Freiburg: Herder, S. 8–14.

Krappmann, L. (1984). Die Kinder im Schulalter – Zur psychischen Entwicklung der Schulkinder und die Anforderungen an die Pädagogik. In R. Briel, & H. Mörsberger, H. (Hg.), Kinder brauchen Horte. Freiburg: Lambertus, S. 71-90.

Löw, M. (2001). Raumsoziologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

World Health Organization (WHO). (2020). WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior. Geneva: World Health Organization.



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