A feast for all the senses: working together to create a near-natural and activity-friendly school and play yard

By Nicola Hengst-Gohlke, Coordinator of the Mettmann playground sponsorship group and member of the Friends of the GGS Herrenhauser Strasse Municipal Primary School Association

A feast for all the senses: working together to create a near-natural and activity-friendly school and play yard

'Learning together' is the motto of the GGS Herrenhauser municipal primary school in Mettmann near D├╝sseldorf in Germany.

The school currently has 14 classes and some 350 pupils with and without special educational needs. The school property includes large grassed areas with older stands of trees, a school garden and a large, easily supervised school yard. Directly adjacent is a public playground, the sponsorship of which has been assumed by the pupils in year 5.

As early as 2009, the school community decided that the school grounds and particularly the school playground needed to be more than just spaces in which to spend time or simply hang around. They should be places of learning, experience and participation offering children the opportunity for play, exercise and recreation through the provision of a diversified design. One of the school's main objectives is to teach its pupils how to shape their natural environment, the aim being to ensure that they themselves subsequently feel responsible for it.

"Our aspiration is to enhance life at school and ensure that it is a positive experience for everyone involved. We have already been working for several years on projects intended to prevent bullying. When we first began considering what to do, there were only two pieces of play equipment available to our children in the school playground − clearly not an ideal situation. At the same time, the school playground has now become a facility that significantly determines the quality of what we provide here in view of the fact that our children now spend more time at school following the introduction of all-day schooling in Germany," explains head teacher Birgit Krohm.

In September 2009, a garden planning team consisting of parents, teachers and pupils was formed. Their task was to come up with concepts on how to improve the use of the garden on the school premises. The actual ideas put forward included the construction of a comfortable seating area for use during breaks, an experience trail that would stimulate all senses, planting beds that could be used to grow fruit and vegetables, a garden tool shed and a seating arena in which lessons could be held outdoors among nature. Initial work intended to realise these proposals involved the painting of an existing garden shed and the draining of a pond that had become silted-up over time.
But the plans then expanded to include the whole of the outdoor areas of the school. The school community constructed an outbuilding for play equipment that could be used during breaks, painted a wall in the playground and renovated the outdoor steps and the bordering plant beds. A concrete plan for a near-natural and activity-friendly school playground that would stimulate all senses was finally drawn up in 2011 with the help of the landscaping agency STADT + NATUR Wuppertal.
The natural-like outdoor area was not to be equipped with standard play equipment that would simply indulge the play needs of the children but was to have a design that would stimulate creative play and offer extensive sensory experiences.

With the help of the children, parents and teachers, the creation of this innovative play area that is intended to provide children with an increased sense of adventure, a wealth of original experience and facilitate their access to nature is an on-going project that is still in the process of completion.
Despite the lack of financial means, the project has been made viable because, in addition to the Mettmann local authority, various private sponsors and donors have supported it over the years and the commissioned specialists have fully committed to the task. Prize money has also contributed to the project coffers. For example, the school's playground project won first prize in the regional heats of the Deutscher B├╝rgerpreis competition that recognises the work of volunteers throughout Germany and whose motto in 2013 was 'Local commitment: local involvement!'

The course of the project

April 2011: The first phase of construction work involved the creation of a 'green classroom' (seating made of tree trunks) and of a willow rod teepee. Thanks to the help provided by a local building contractor who used an excavator to complete the heavy digging and the provision of the necessary materials (willow rods, timber) by the Mettmann municipal parks authority, practical work on the project was kick-started just 3 months after its inception. "Even though this initial construction phase was to be the least labour-intensive of those yet to be completed, we were all very pleased that we were able to start so rapidly," says Birgit Krohm. "We were now better able to show other sponsors and parents what we were capable of." The children were more than happy to join in with the digging work and do something for their school. There was consensus among the school community − when children are involved in shaping their environment, they learn to value it.
November 2011: The second phase required considerable muscular effort but was even more fun. A balancing trail made of tree trunks for training dexterity and the sense of balance and five raised planting beds designed to add greenery to the school playground were put in place. Participating this time were members of the German Life Saving Association (DLRG) in Mettmann, who provided their help voluntarily to the school. "We know many of the children who go to this school because they come to our training sessions. So we were pleased to be able to lend a hand," said the head of the local DLRG group, explaining why they decided to provide assistance.
May 2012: With the aid of a large number of participants, a climbing house and a bridge were built. The raised beds were also planted and their frames were painted. And the children were also involved and were delighted to be able to inaugurate their new play options.
April 2013: The next step involved the creation of an insect hotel and a green classroom with mosaic-covered benches. The walls of the school and its garage were painted in fresh, bright colours. New raised beds were installed in the school garden and a sensory experience trail was constructed in its immediate vicinity.
September 2014: Luckily, the school premises escaped the worst effects when storm Ela passed over Germany in June 2014, although it caused major damage in Mettmann. This meant that the fifth construction phase could be initiated in 2014. In addition to maintenance of the plant beds, the willow rod teepee that had suffered at the hands of hurricane Ela was put back into shape. Volunteers also erected wooden posts that could be used for balancing and seating options. A particular highlight was the installation of a trampoline that is flush-mounted in the terrain of the playground. Other volunteers constructed an equipment shed in the outdoor area of the municipal all-day school that has also been upgraded by the addition of play equipment provided by Mettmann local authority.

Conclusions

The design of the school's outdoor areas represents a significant aspect of its activity-promotion concept and bullying prevention program. The involvement of the whole school community in the project ensured that everyone would identify with the project and contributed particularly towards increasing the pupils’ sense of responsibility towards their own environment. At a time in which budgets are tight, plans need to be designed to take into account the longer term perspective and it must be accepted that several construction phases may be necessary before a project can be completed. And it is also, of course, essential to ensure that everyone pulls together.
This project emphatically conforms to the motto of the school 'Learning together'; the various stakeholders collaborated to design, work and gain experience in the environment of the children. In coming years, the goal will be to together maintain and overhaul the regenerated areas in the school grounds.
For more information on the project, please go to: www.ggs-herrenhauser.de

Images: GGS Herrenhauser Strasse

 

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