Play areas in schools

When you look back at your school time, you will probably think not only of episodes which happened during the lessons, or of teachers and school friends, but you will probably remember situations from the playground mostly very clearly and often with uneasiness: the playground was the area where a suppressed urge to move about, pecking order fights and the loss of prestige during the lessons resulted in social explosions.

The playground, which was designed without great thought in most cases as a parade ground, an unstructured area without proportions and a regularly used overflowing reserve for the compressed "mass of human beings", did not have any creative quality which could have had a positive effect on the children which were crowded there during the compressed time period. The playground has shaped us all.

Pedagogical reflections during the seventies led to the wish to design playgrounds with play possibilities, shaped so that the children can "play and live" and learn from examples.

The situations which occur in the school playgrounds cannot be compared with those in public playgrounds. The playground is a part of the school and therefore, also part of the total pedagogical concept. The design must be desired and supported by the teaching staff. A playground does not only require equipment, but also permanent care and renewal. Without any pedagogical influence, it becomes quickly again an unstructured parade ground, even when it is painted with hopscotch patterns and provided with benches and bushes.

Behaviour in the play ground

The behaviour in the playground is characterised by the rhythm of the regular short breaks and by the repeated presence of the same groups. There are always the same children. They know the playground, have their preferences and aversions, and have their personally preferred corners or equipment. They know each other and have their friends and enemies.

The children arrive in a large group, all want to use the play possibilities at the same time.

The children arrive at the same time, they want to conquer "their corner", to use it before the others do so, to be the firsts.

The children have only a limited time in the playground. They cannot achieve later what they are not able to "conquer" now.

They arrive on the playground in order to reduce their motor energy following a time of suppressed movements. As in the case of an open pressure relief valve, they easily go over the top and wind up each other.

After a time of strong regulation during the lessons, the children arrive on the playground - a place allowing more freedom - and tend to easily overstep the regulations which they would accept and respect otherwise.

Functions can be deducted from the children's behaviour patterns which should be respected during the playground planning. The individual functions can be summarised into four groups:

1. Psychological functions

2. Social functions

3. Physiological functions

4. Pedagogical functions

Play ground areas

The standard playground is an empty surface, closed in by buildings, walls or fences. Also a well designed playground is primarily a free space which is divided into small areas, equipped with various surface materials, furnished with benches and play equipment, if applicable and planted with greenery. The playground should provide relaxation to a large quantity of children at the same time. Despite of all accessories, the atmosphere of the playground, the behaviour of the children and the play possibilities are defined mainly by the surface and the material of the play ground. Therefore, it is sensible to present briefly the individual surfaces with their characteristics and the necessary requirements for playgrounds.

Asphalt surfaces

Asphalt surfaces used as play surfaces have got a bad reputation due to their unimaginative utilisation. However, when these asphalt surfaces are reduced in size, structured differently for various areas with the help of green spaces, when gaps are provided for trees, even previously hopeless, dreary surfaces can be rendered hospitable without great expense.

Asphalt is much softer than concrete or paving stones. Asphalt is a big advantage wherever movement activities and smooth surfaces are required during good weather. As base surface in the case of table-tennis tables, badminton or netball stands which are not used as sports grounds, but are used only sporadically. For surfaces used for road safety training, but also for all other wheel related games such as roller skates and skateboards.

Asphalt surfaces are suitable to be used as painting surfaces in arts lessons. A playground can be constantly changed and rendered more lively by graffiti and pavement art which make art accessible to young people as an enjoyable task. Asphalt is a suitable surface for playing hopscotch, nine men's morris or draughts. However, these games must be drawn on the surface individually by the respective participants with chalk or stone chips. Hopscotch fields as a permanent installation have not proven to be useful, they are not used, seem to be boring and stop any initiative of one's own. Children also want to use their own imagination and creativity and to find individual forms for their individual game. Modifications of the game fields result also in modification of the games, which themselves become a game.


Apart from the designing possibilities, i.e. to use paving stones as mosaic or to form channels, hillocks and borders step-less from the surface, pavement is less suitable to be used as a play surface. Pavement is very hard and therefore very problematic in the event of a fall. Due to the irregularities, it is easily possible to stumble, stiletto heels can get caught and it is difficult to move on it with small wheels or rolls. In addition, due to the high costs for good pavement, paving stones can be considered suitable only in small areas as a form of bordering, as surface structuring, as tactile information elements for blind people, as an element for slowing down drivers or as a possibility for identifying paths.

Tamped surfaces

In former times, most the play grounds were created as tamped areas. Nowadays, this material can be encountered only in the case of older paths in parks. Depending on the particular specification, it is a soft, weather-resistant surface, however, it requires more attendance than asphalt or pavement. Tamped areas provide many play possibilities because shapes, hopscotch fields or play areas can be scratched into the surface. It is an alternative to other surfaces
at reasonable price.

Synthetic protective surfacing

Synthetic protective surfacing provides safety in the case of vertical falls and can protect e.g. preventing any skull fracture. In areas where children mainly run and walk about, the stopping effect of the rubber or synthetic material can result sometimes in dislocations or torn ligaments. Due to abrasion, minor falls can already result in unpleasant superficial wounds. In addition, due to its high price, this material is sensible on play grounds only for special purposes or in the case of borders.

Gravel surfaces

Thin, a few centimetre thick gravel surfaces have similar properties as tamped areas. A gravel layer of 20 cm or more becomes an impact attenuating protective surfacing. If there is good drainage in the area underneath the surface, a gravel surface can be used over the entire year even in the case of bad weather. It is particularly suitable for underneath climbing equipment, slides and swings. A gravel surface is not suitable for running or football games.

Sand surfaces

Play sand in playgrounds is often a problem. Since the sand remains in shoes and cloths and is therefore carried unintentionally inside, it is responsible in the school buildings for soiling and for increased wear due to its abrasive effect. If sand surfaces are recommended with respect to the playground situation, the environment or the pedagogical concept, the paths leading to these areas should be very long and designed such that the sand can come off from shoes and clothing before the buildings are entered. Special mats in the entrance area can increase this effect.

Bark and wood chips surfaces

Such areas have a strong impact attenuating effect. They feel like wood or peat floor and therefore, have a play stimulating effect. However, when it is raining, they can become slimy and therefore, clothing, furniture and school building can become dirty. They have a closed surface and are therefore accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs; nevertheless, they keep their impact attenuating properties.

Green spaces

The desire for more green, for more nature within our living space may not distract from the fact that human beings destroy the nature simply by their appearance in huge numbers and that "natural nature" is sometimes no longer capable of surviving in our environment. Meadows and lawns which are constantly accessible to many people, are crushed and destroyed. This is the main reason why playgrounds are not green spaces. Another reason against green spaces is their dependency on the weather. One cannot walk on a meadow even several hours after a rain fall without getting wet.

If we want to have meadows in playgrounds, the following must be taken into consideration: the meadows may cover only a partial area, the main surface must be equipped with a weather-resistant surfacing. Paths which are frequently used and which cross meadows, should have a weather-resistant surface or should be in form of bridges and ramps. It is also possible to divide the meadows and to use them in turn in order to obtain longer regeneration phases for the surfaces. Meadow islands in asphalt or pavement surfaces can serve to liven up the design without being walked on and therefore overused. Non accessible meadows for keeping distance in front of dangerous areas or in front of windows can be a green space which are used for optical reasons or for the borders of roads.


Trees providing shade as well as protection against weather and wind and which are used as central points in the playground design are very suitable. However, it must be respected that the often very delicate root area of the trees is not damaged due to a strong compression resulting from the fact that they are constantly walked on. On the other side, it must be respected that the drainage of the playground does not take place in the tree's root area because excessive wetness would be bad for the roots. It is applicable to cover the root area with special honeycomb bricks.

Bushes and hedges in playgrounds should be made up of robust plants. It could be sensible to use plants growing rampant and very fast which allow also that branches are cut when the bushes themselves become play items.


When a biotope, a pond or school garden is laid out, this is without doubt an excellent opportunity of making nature and the environment and the respective problems clear to children. However, this requires excessive work and effort so that such an activity can hardly be expected to be carried out in an honorary capacity and on a voluntary basis. If time and money aare made available within the school budget, whole classes will profit from this adventure area, more so than they would, in the case of many a theoretical biology lessons.

Play landscapes

By building hills, digging out valleys, building dry stone walls with climbing plants, by installing big stones, by planting bushes, hedges, trees and shrubs and with the help of a varied, fanciful layout of paths, can a varied play landscape result. The behaviour of the users can be controlled by the planning of the various paths and ways and by the landscape design: a behaviour full of movement and activity such as running about and playing football is stimulated on extensive meadows, running is stimulated on straight paths and climbing on rocks or a quiet, dreamy behaviour in hidden, secluded valleys or just sitting and observing from the top of the hill...

Varied play landscapes offer for each user and for each mood the respective place and with the help of a sensible design, everybody can find his place without disturbing another users. These play landscapes can be divided into areas which are then allocated to the different classes. The children are then able to realise their own style and ideas in their own area. When nature can be experienced with care and cooperation, a piece of play landscape belonging to oneself can often provide much more experience of nature than an anonymous school garden or a biotope which is not used, but may only be looked at.

Playground equipment for the playground

Due to the fact that large numbers of children want to have immediate and joyful play at the same time during the breaks, playground equipment which can be used only by one or a few children, are unsuitable and even dangerous (swings, rockers, cableways, rocking animals). Playground equipment which tend to wind up the children or result in a risky behaviour due to group dynamics, are also to be rejected (such as tractor tyre swings, roundabouts).

Playground equipment which can be used by many children at the same time next to each other or together, are very suitable for playgrounds, such as swinging rope systems, "Seilzirkus", large rocking platforms, but also playground equipment which is integrated into the landscape, such as suspension bridges, climbing paths and slope slides when they are not too high. Houses, huts, platforms and shelters are of course also very suitable for playgrounds. Towers are only sensible when an excessive concentration is avoided with the combination of various accesses and exits such as ladders, climbing nets, firemen's poles, bridges, slides and with the help of transition elements leading to other towers.

A correctly chosen compilation of playground equipment has the advantage that many children are able to work off their energy at the same time and in a very restricted space. This would be possible only with a much higher space requirement in the case of a playground designed only with natural material. Aggressions can be worked off when playing wildly with playground equipment without resulting in vandalism.

School classes in the open air

It was always the case that sports lessons took place on the playing fields in the open air, at least during the summer months. If a school garden was available, the horticultural lessons took place also in the open air. Many other subjects, such as Biology, Literature, Arts, Music, History or Languages are taught in closed school rooms even in the most beautiful weather. A small hollow in a meadow, a small amphitheatre made from dry walls, rocks or even concrete or a circle from wood could be a wonderful place in the open air allowing for intense teaching and learning for nearly all school subjects, if the weather allows. Each well designed playground should include one or two spaces in the open air. With the help of visual and sound protection, these areas can be used in a multiple way.

Sound protection measures

Playgrounds are often considered as noise pollution by the residents in the neighbourhood. A smooth asphalt barrack square surface, as in the case of the traditional play grounds, has a strong echo effect: noise produced in the playground is emitted to the neighbourhood without any deadening.

In a varied play landscape with different heights and different surfacing, with many bushes, hedges, trees and with walls, huts and playground equipment, sounds which are produced in this area are deadened already at the scene of the action. Children occupy less space while playing in a varied play landscape and therefore, they play more quietly. It doesn't make sense to shout from one play ground corner to the other if they can't see the other person. Practice has shown that redesigned playgrounds present an enormous noise reduction for the neighbourhood and have sometimes even the same effect as a sound-insulating wall.

Noise pollution coming from the outside into the play ground, such as traffic noise, railway or factories, can be reduced by play landscape hills and plants, but also by play wall equipment or fences for playing and painting.

The playground also as a playground for the neighbourhood

The often expressed wish to make the playground accessible as a public playground during the time when there are no lessons, must be taken into consideration seriously and supported at least with respect to the constantly decreasing play room resources. Nevertheless, the opening of school playgrounds causes some problems. Playgrounds for schools are often designed differently to public playgrounds, they are not so robust and consequently more likely to wear than public playgrounds. Pieces of broken glass, bottle crown caps, tins or other parts can result in a disaster in the school playground. Such items are not so dangerous on public playgrounds because they are used by less children who are not under a time pressure. In the case of school playgrounds which are used also as public playgrounds, the double utilisation must be taken into consideration during the planning stage. Furthermore, direct or indirect supervision should be assured by the parents initiative or by the caretaker.

The caretakers' fear

Many caretakers fear that additional work will result due to expensively designed playgrounds which are equipped with playground and experience equipment; this is unjustified, however this is in practice a widely spread argument which is often used as a good (bad!) reason against the redesign of the playground. The experience has shown that a well designed playground which is appreciated by the teachers and the pupils, is used with more care and is therefore damaged and soiled less. Often less care is necessary than in the previous case of the playground which was not appreciated, and was boring and only encouraged vandalism. In the end, a well designed playground is less work for the caretaker.

A well designed playground providing a large variety of play possibilities, requires a different, more understanding and generous supervision during the breaks. It seems sensible to integrate also the pupils. This requires that codes of conduct, possibilities and prohibitions are explained during the lessons and that the children become slowly familiar with the new playground in the first school days.

The pupils identify themselves more with "their" playground thanks to more responsibility. Phenomena such as aggressive behaviour and vandalism occur less and the care effort becomes less in total for all participants. If all this is taken into consideration, the pupils and also the teachers will have a new "break feeling" and a lot of fun.

The redesigned playground is not a completed piece of equipment, but a continuously changing process which requires active influencing over and over again.

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