A vision for Britain’s urban school grounds?

When you think of urban school grounds what is the first image that comes into your head? Do you see large areas of sun-baked asphalt with maybe an adventure trail and a mural or two and football dominating the space, or do you see children climbing on boulders and logs, damming streams in the sand and playing imaginatively in dens?

I am guessing that most of us in Britain would have a picture nearer to the first, but in Berlin the latter image is much more common. However, it wasn’t always that way. Where now many schools in the German capital are full of natural play spaces, about thirty years ago their grounds were asphalt deserts too. Schools were seeing problems with bullying and poor behaviour and their barren school grounds were seen as one of the reasons for this.
So in 1983 the organisation Grun Macht Schule was set up. Bringing together designers and educationalists, it has helped about 400 Berlin schools transform their grounds into amazing play spaces based around more natural environments – which have a positive impact on the children that use them and also a wider ecological benefit for the city.

The first impression you get of these transformed grounds is one where nature has been invited in, where weeds are allowed to grow in the spaces between rocks and trees, where children are allowed to make dens in the bushes and where trees create shaded spaces in which to play and meet your friends. The grounds are divided up into small spaces, each with something different in it and the spaces are often defined by changes in level. Low walls are made of recycled materials and children’s art works include sculptures and murals (graffiti being very popular in Berlin), which add an extra dimension. Sport is not sidelined, each grounds has good facilities for team games and athletics, but this is integrated into the design rather than dominating the space. Children are kept active through the range of sports and play opportunities available to them, natural play being key.

The whole development process is also fundamental to the approach. Children are activity engaged in the design process. They are asked what they would like to be able to do in their grounds, rather than what they want to have, they visit other schools and work with the designers to come up with ideas for their grounds.

In June this year I was lucky enough to visit schools in Berlin to see this project in action and on 24th September I will be sharing my experiences in a presentation at a London Environmental Education Forum – for more details visit their website at www.leef.org.uk. You can also find out more about ‘The Berlin Experience’ on the School Grounds UK channel of YouTube together with videos of how natural playgrounds are being developed by Grounds for Learning (LTL in Scotland).

Mary Jackson, Development and Delivery Advisor, Learning through Landscapes.


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