The Great Outdoors

Outdoor School Playground

PHOTO COURTESY OF PLAYCORE

It was a telling sign when teachers, parents and students of Lockwood Elementary School in Billings, Mont., banded together to create the school’s playground — the ribbon-cutting was in September 2016 — there was plenty of institutional knowledge: such stakeholders came together in 1994 for a similar effort.

Sadly, that old playground deteriorated and had to be demolished, but undaunted stakeholders launched the new effort to envision an inclusive playground and finance its construction. The community pitched in, the local Parent Teacher Association raised more than $232,000 via fundraisers, in-kind donations and more; and youngsters $60,000 from bake sales to tooth fairy money. The end result: A playground equipped with a range of equipment, according to retired teacher and local activist Sue Robertson and kindergarten teacher and PTA President Whitney DiFronzo.

Such sustained efforts speak to playground action elsewhere, with crowdfunding, for example, playing a part of collaborative efforts around the country, notes Playworld’s Ian Proud, manager of Market Research and Inclusive Play. Proud notes other trends, including demand for materials that are “environmentally friendly, including PVC-free” and “easy to maintain” and long lasting. He also points out interest in playground equipment for children seven-plus years old.

On a related point another industry pro, PlayCore’s Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of Marketing, is noting that schools today are asking for “something different” in terms of equipment that is engaging to youngsters through their entire time at a school. The spur: “Schools are increasingly aware of the importance of recess and active behavior.” Spencer continues that it is critical that “children have activities that are interesting at their current skill level, as well as something to aspire to once they have mastered the skills they are working to develop currently.”

Outdoor Learning Environments

PHOTO COURTESY OF PLAYCORE

Also sharing insights about today’s trends: Kaki Martin, partner of Klopfer Martin Design Group, which among other related recent and current projects, worked on the Boston Schoolyard Initiative, a city, district and funder initiative from 1995-2013 that created outdoor spaces at 88 schools in Boston.

Martin notes a gathering awareness today of options and how an outdoor area can dovetail with what a school hopes to achieve. It depends on the philosophy of the school, she points out, whether there are boundaries or intermingling between play and learning spaces, for example. There may also be spaces flexible enough to enable various types of activities. There are also differences to account for, such as constrained urban versus suburban and rural spaces, programming generally, and environments that are accessible to kids whatever their physical abilities, says Martin.

Outdoor School Playground

PHOTO BY MONICA SAYLER

Spencer also notes the importance of playgrounds for kids of all abilities. And Proud echoes the point: “The questions we field most often are related to inclusion, and building playgrounds that are accessible by children of all abilities. People are often surprised to learn an inclusive playground doesn’t need a lot of ramps and fancy equipment. Much can be accomplished by thoughtful decisions about levels of challenge and equipment location.”

Accessibility was certainly a driving concern at Lockwood School. As Robertson and DiFronzo report, the new playground there is a facility “used by all children, including those with not only physical disabilities, but also with cognitive or emotional disabilities.” And kids of all abilities participated in making that facility a reality, “The children truly wanted this playground and were willing to work for it,” they add.

Building a Swingset area playground

PHOTO BY SUE ROBERTSON

Martin, Spencer and Proud each point out some other schools that have gone the extra mile in designing and equipping outdoor play and other spaces:

  • Sycolin Creek Elementary School, in Leesburg, Va., which Playworld’s Proud says, “successfully designed a playground for its diverse student population.” Sycolin Creek’s PTA was determined to have a playground features that could accommodate all students, including youngsters with special needs. Various pieces that provide different play opportunities include a piece of equipment called an Aeroglider, on which “many children can play at the same time, including those who use wheelchairs. It is a piece that encourages imaginative play,” Proud says.
  • Chattanooga’s Bright School, where the playground combines not only natural and built elements, but also open play and guided sessions. First, PlayCore’s Spencer describes “shade trees, climbing equipment, swings, slides, a water feature designed to mimic a river, a bridge… and new garden beds,” which all combine with a lookout tower to create a varied array. Additionally, “teachers use the space as an outdoor classroom” by incorporating play curricula, says Spencer.
  • Bruns Academy in North Carolina, which engages a wide range of kids. According to Spencer, the playground a Challenge Course that engages older kids “not as interested in traditional play equipment.” The course “allows the kids to play and compete in a fun, interactive way (and) comes with an app that allows teachers to measure the progress and improvement of the students.” Spencer adds that the app “is a great tool to help show outcomes and qualify for grant funding to expand the program throughout the district if that is a goal. The app also allows them to compete against other schools that have the same Challenge Course configuration installed.”
  • Children playing on playground equipment

    PHOTO COURTESY OF PLAYWORLD

  • Henderson Elementary School in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. At Henderson — part of the aforementioned Boston Schoolyard Initiative — Klopfer Martin worked with the school to create a richly planted play/outdoor class space within an enclosed courtyard reached via walkway beneath a pergola. The pergola has colorful plastic panels that cast vivid colors in sunshine. As Martin says, the entire array intentionally blurs the line between playground and classroom: creating new opportunities for learning.

Explorations of such elements can create attractive outdoor spaces that reflect and propel a school’s philosophy and mission.

Finally, there’s teamwork. As Robertson and DiFronzo put it: “Find that main group of individuals who can build their own protocol, work cooperatively and hit that fine line between not micromanaging but being supportive and respectful of each other.”

Putting such elements together can achieve notable results. And Martin, for one, is seeing such results at various schools. “There’s been some amazing responses,” she adds, “with kids thriving in outdoor spaces.”

Outdoor School Playground Equipment

PHOTO COURTESY OF PLAYWORLD

Some thoughts about the process of creating a playground and outdoor spaces:

  • Gather your stakeholders. You’ve heard it before, but it doesn’t make it any less true: bring in and activate a diverse group that includes school staff and teachers, parents, kids, local companies and others.
  • Check out learning and curriculum tools. Anne-Marie Spencer of PlayCore suggests her company’s Outdoor Creative Play and Learning Kit (www.playandpark. com/outdoor-creative-play-and-learning-box) and Me2: 7 Principles of Inclusive Playground Design (www.inclusiveplaygrounds.org/me2/overview) developed with Utah State University Center for Persons with Disabilities.
  • Clarify your goals and intentions, suggests Kaki Martin of Klopfer Martin Design Group, and also “be clear about what you can handle” in terms of the design, construction and maintenance of playgrounds and open spaces. Manage expectations accordingly.
  • Set a timeline. When doing so, “consider site preparation, equipment delivery and installation,” Playworld’s Ian Proud recommends.
  • Include “what and when fundraisers will be held,” and who will be in charge of that step, point out Lockwood School’s Sue Robertson and Whitney DiFronzo.
  • Delegate tasks. A contractor may be installing the playground or can lead and assign steps to community volunteers doing that installation.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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