Together we will not be lonely

By Steffen Hradil (garden and landscape architect)

Together we will not be lonely

“Together we will not be lonely” is the maxim chosen together by the pupils and teachers to express the objective of the Wilhelm Gentz primary school, currently attended by 166 pupils. Here children learn side-by-side with other children with special educational needs and those whose first language is not German.

The school has been part of the 'Inclusive School' pilot project since August 2012. The aim is to better integrate in the normal school routine children who have particular problems with learning and speaking or with their socioemotional development. The curriculum at the Wilhelm Gentz school is characterised by three main aspects; the teaching of natural science subjects, the promotion of reading ability and the development of socioemotional intelligence. Using the inclusive schooling concept, the school has already registered impressive results in these areas.

For years, the natural science lessons have been held in the garden of the school so that the children can better link the theoretical content with what they see around them. Importance is assigned to giving the children the opportunity to take their own routes to learning and achieving educational success. The underlying approach used is to take into account the individual strengths and weaknesses of each of the children and provide them with the appropriate support along their learning pathway.

For over ten years, the school has been cooperating with a school for mentally handicapped children and a teaching program has been developed that targets in particular the socioemotional development of the children. Against this background, the teachers, pupils and their parents decided to apply to participate in the 'Inclusive School' pilot project.

In discussions of the criteria for inclusion with all those involved in the development of the school, the Neuruppin educational authority expressed considerable interest in the project and also offered to support the project as far as it was able. Various core proposals were drawn up with the aim of promoting development as an inclusive school. The pupils, parents and teachers surveyed all agreed that the main obstacle to successful learning was represented by the school playground.

A school playground should be more than just a recreational area to be used during breaks or a place to wait until the school opens. It can also be a learning and experience space that, if designed appropriately, can offer the children a vast range of play and leisure activities. In order to comply with the requirements for inclusive schooling, the playground also needed to be provided with facilities that would promote sensory and physical skills. These would have to enable and foster motor, emotional, social and sensory experiences.

The outdoor area as it was in no way met these requirements. The playground, which was originally created under the old East German regime, offered almost no play or exercise options and was thus incompatible with the inclusive schooling concept.

To provide for appropriate orientation of the playground regeneration project from its inception and to ensure extensive identification of the stakeholders with it, Hradil landscape architect bureau, which had been commissioned with the task, involved pupils, teachers, nursery, parents and the company Spiel-Bau GmbH, a play equipment manufacturer, in the planning from an early phase. Ideas and suggestions were collected and discussed at various meetings with those involved and included in the design concept. This participation process is being continued over the whole construction period. Considered of particular relevance was the involvement of the pupils. This takes the form of a construction site support group, for example, while they have also been encouraged to participate in the planning and realisation of individual design and play elements. The design concept was the result of this participation process and thus reflects the needs and expectations of the stakeholders.

The school grounds extend to some 20,000 m2. The core requirements for an 'inclusive' playground are that it must be such that all the children can exercise, communicate, collect experiences, relax, learn and attend lessons together. Another objective was to provide for differentiation and various kinds of elements in the playground to promote the development of the users. Children with learning difficulties often have complex problems. Training of their motor and sensory abilities significantly helps ensure that these children can participate in the normal school routine. Integration of the playground in the school routine would also ensure that it would be extensively used. Appropriate external spaces were to be created to allow lessons in subjects such as general knowledge, biology, physics, sports and art to be held here.

The new playground was divided in various zones; these were dedicated to activity, sensory experience, learning and leisure. More subtle differentiations were also introduced within the individual zones, so that there are areas designed for extensive activity or exercise and others where more low-key play is possible; the idea was to ensure that conflicts would not arise and that there was room for all the different groups with their different needs.

The resultant three main spaces have been designated the 'Break Area', the 'Sports Zone' and the 'School Garden'. These spaces are linked by a 'pathway' that starts at the main entrance of the school, passes through the play zones 'dexterity' and 'senses', then the 'knowledge' zone and finally terminates in the school garden in the 'Green Classroom'.
This carefully planned layout facilitates supervision of the children and also helps children with disabilities (e.g. deafness) orientate themselves.
The overall design of the grounds employs concepts such as environmental awareness, sustainability, multifunctionality and variability. The extensive greenery throughout the playground reflects the school's attachment to nature – it sees itself as a 'nature park' school. Every single square metre of the playground has been turned into a play and experience space!

The entrance zone gives the visitor their first impression of the school. The pupils decided that they wanted a unique and special design for the entrance way. They collected suggestions during lessons and made sketches that were used by Spiel-Bau GmbH for its construction. The curved fence line along the road frontage has sections containing fun features, such as peepholes, windows and little play elements; Spiel-Bau GmbH has here created a 'play fence'. It is set back so that there is a green buffer zone between road/pavement and playground. The planting plan here is designed to screen the school from passing traffic and act as an exhaust emission filter. The plants are thus also protected from the children while playing, enabling these to grow properly. The Break Area consists of a generous macadamized multi-use space that can be used by children on scooters, skaters, hop balls, for frisbee and softball games, interactive games and more.
There are two disabled access ramps and a broad staircase leading to the main entrance of the school building. As a meeting place, the Break Area also has various seating facilities. A 'play wall' between the Break Area and the dexterity zone can be used as a seat, can be climbed on and over, balanced along and climbed through.
A wooden decking area on different levels can be used by the children for lying on, sitting or swinging, and can also serve as a little theatre stage. Other requested elements included are the seat perches for children, the partly covered bike stand and two table tennis tables.

From the Break Area, the 'pathway' leads directly to the active play areas for exercise and dexterity. The focus here is on training motor abilities, coordination, balance, concentration, strength and stamina and also on helping the children overcome their anxieties. The equipment has been supplied by Spiel-Bau GmbH; these can be used by several children at once, thus encouraging them to play together. Particularly suitable for this purpose are the climbing poles with foot supports and sound elements at the top.
The dexterity trail is one of the most important and diversified physical training features as it combines several elements designed to promote motor skills; including balance rope, belt path, loop ring climber, climbing net, balance beam, rolling beam and hanging rope. Together with the climbing poles, the large tree house with slide and the suspension bridge to the opposite hill, the Spiel-Bau equipment combines to form a real adventure and experience landscape. Those who climb up to the tree house are rewarded by a fantastic view and can take the leisurely route back down on the slide. Important equipment designed to train the children's sense of balance include the hammock, the rope swing and the revolving disk. They are large enough to be used by several children simultaneously and are also suitable for use by children with special needs. There are three trampolines flush-mounted in the terrain of the Break Area so that children can experience the sensation of gaining height and the effects of gravity,

From the 'dexterity' zone, the pathway leads to the zone of the ' senses'. This area of the playground is designed to appeal to and help develop the children's senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch and also to encourage their creativity. The main feature is a partly covered play pergola. Spiel-Bau GmbH has integrated benches for seating and play elements, such as paint boards and sound game equipment. So that the children can decorate the wall as they wish in coming years, the rear wall of the pergola is only partly covered by these components. Flexible suspension systems provide additional opportunities for temporarily attaching work by the children or other art and sound play elements. The integrated seating in the partly covered section of the pergola can be used as a communication space and refuge from rain and sun. Another important feature of this zone is the permanently installed 'barefoot' path. Various materials are used here to train the sense of touch, such as gravel, chippings, mulch, pebbles, tiles, wood, rough and smooth stones, turf honeycombs, clinker and mosaics. Ground landscaping has also been deliberately employed in the 'senses' zone. The effects can be incorporated in the children's games and enable them to experience height and depth. Gentle hills and hallows encourage exercise and are also suitable for use by children with physical disabilities. An odour and nibble plant bed is provided to promote the senses of smell and taste. Roses, mint, lemon balm, violets, crosswort, thyme, berry bushes and hazelnut are just a few of the plants used for this purpose.

Only the general features of the 'path of knowledge' have been put in place; the idea is to allow the children to gradually fill this zone with their own work. Possible projects that can be undertaken during lessons include the installation of a wild-living insect observation hide, the construction and mounting of nesting boxes for birds, bats and insects on trees and the building of signposts indicating the direction of geographic features and compass points.
To the north of the current bird garden, a flower meadow is being created with many different species to attract insects – an ideal introduction to nature for the children. There will be information boards describing the biotopes in the school grounds and natural processes (the water cycle, for instance). These will be supplemented by boards with illustrations of native fauna and their tracks. The trees and shrubs recently planted in the grounds will be identified by little nameplates.
There is a weather-proof display case, the so-called 'green board' (approx. 2.0 x 1.5 metres) that the children can use to mount temporary exhibitions.The 'Green Classroom' is in the process of being constructed as an open pavilion made of sustainable wood with a planted roof and disabled access.

The school Sports Zone is an important and popular site for physical exercise and a mandatory component of the outdoor facilities. It is, of course, the venue for sports lessons and this has determined the size and structure of the zone. It has been designed to be used for a wide range of different games. Football, volleyball, streetball, dodgeball, mini-volleyball, throwing games and much more. In addition, there is a large sport and playing field.

One of the main requirements of the redesign of the interior of the school building was the provision of a multisensory therapy room that would meet all needs. This Snoezelen room, with its soothing and stimulating atmosphere, is specifically designed for children who need relaxation time to recover from lessons. Relaxation is promoted by calming colour and light effects.

As the fundamental concepts to be incorporated in the design were environmental awareness and sustainability, the togetherness of humans and nature, it was decided to use locally sourced materials whenever possible. The durability of such materials is of primary concern, particularly those used to construct furnishings and play equipment. It goes without saying that only the best quality would be considered good enough. The posts of the pergola, the supports and play equipment are made of stainless steel. Many natural and sustainable materials (e.g. certified local wood, robinia/larch) were used in the playground. An important factor was to ensure easy differentiation between zones, furnishings and play equipment using distinctive and high-contrast colours. This ensures that orientation is not only easier for children with impaired vision, but also that the bright colours inspire and motivate them to explore their school environment.

The success of this project demonstrates once again the pleasure children take in participating in the design of their own environment and their willingness to actively be involved.

Images: Spiel-Bau
 

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