June 15, 2024


Education is everything you need

Natural Elements in Playgrounds | Creative STAR Learning


This is a guest blog post by Frode Svane, an architect and a pedagogue

Frode works on many projects for parks, public places, school yards and kindergartens in Norway. He has, for many years, developed a wide range of tools for involving children and youth in the planning process.

In the early 70’s I developed the belief and put forward the argument that “a playground can never be anything else but a poor replacement or substitute for the opportunities children find in nature”. I still believe there is some truth in this, but I now believe there are grounds to modify this opinion. The kind of “nature” I had in my mind was inevitably the kind of nature I had grown up with as a young boy. This was a nature giving immensely rich experiences and possibilities, that kind of nature that seemed to me only to exist in the woods close to my home around Oslo (Østmarka). These forests were rich in dramatic and beautiful seasonal variations, with plenty of snow and ice in winter, rich in fauna, rich with varied topography and rich in pure, running water and lakes.

Against this reality it is maybe inevitable to think that the playgrounds in Oslo could not provide anything to equal this quality of play experience. Sadly in recent years this has become truer than ever.

Over the past three decades adventure playgrounds have disappeared from Oslo. The political will to maintain them and their staff and our twelve play centres, along with the wonderful adventurous play they offered, has fallen away like the leaves after a frost. I do not think that these disappearances are the result of a lack of need of the children in these suburbs; this need, of course, continues to exist. A more plausible reason for the closures was the lack of understanding of politicians of the needs of children in city areas. Possibly this is because many politicians in Oslo just have only recently moved into the city.

The lack of political interest here may also have its origin in the fact that Oslo politicians largely represent a class of people who have easily access to the countryside and may be “cabin-owners” themselves, both in the mountains and along the coastline. They do not identify themselves with the real needs of “the city within the city”, and they have their own “childhood valley” elsewhere in Norway, which they can visit both in place and mind. Oslo is like “a small village”, even in a European context, – and certainly compared to the world’s great metropolises, and some city residents, including the political class, are able to travel out of the city to the places they may feel are their real homes during holidays and weekends.<

Adventure playgrounds replicate some essential functions of the natural playscape in that they enable children the important ability to CREATE, CHANGE and IMPRINT. In addition children can take part in a rich social community, learning important skills for communication and developing abilities to care and take responsibility for both animals and others within social groups. The emotional stability of staffed play settings provide a basis for developing lasting friendships, which is a necessary basis for  cultural development and experiences, often in circumstances where adults’ turbulent lives and relationships create poor conditions for durable and creative friendships. Modern city life provides few spaces or opportunities for children to build these positive relationships. In Oslo the adventure playgrounds have gone, but the problems still grow.

Children have fundamental needs in their play, – namely to CREATE, CHANGE and IMPRINT their own environments. I think from my own growing-up experiences that nature provides many of the basic conditions for these processes to happen. I believe it is important to continue to assert that these innate needs of children will be best met in rich natural surroundings.

In nature’s green spaces with trees, bushes and plants, children also have easy access to props, both for their role-play and for their construction play. We can find evidence of this in the cabins, dens and shelters built by children on the ground, and in the trees amongst the forests and along the coastal areas of Norway. Robust bushes and trees which can withstand the demands of children’s’ play and provide materials and fruit, should in my opinion, be an important element in our playgrounds and parks, and especially close to the sandpits for smaller children. One should also deliberately plant more trees and bushes which specifically creates a rich fauna.

Throughout Norway away from the cities, we have many natural environments which combine rich and varied topography and plants of wonderful diversity. When these elements come together in nature, they provide the stimulus for many varied ways of moving, and also create the social spaces which suit children whether alone or together in groups of different sizes.

In my design of schools and kindergarten playgrounds I have always aimed to reflect some of the Norway’s topography and recreate elements of the natural landscape. I drew some of my early projects with inspiration from a day-care centre I discovered 40 years ago, in Gladsaxe (Rødovre) in Copenhagen. Here in a place of uninteresting flat ground were mounds, slopes, banks and terraces and even secret tunnels. In my first major outdoor project of my own in a kindergarten at Eide in Odda (West-Coast of Norway) in 1982, I combined inspirations drawn from the natural landscape in and around Oslo with these early design influences.

In the 70’s the concept of contact with the elements: “fire, earth, air, water” became increasingly recognised as important ingredients of the play environment. We might have hoped over the past 50 years we had made progress in bringing these concepts into reality. Certainly when it comes to water, it’s almost shameful that so many of our school and park playgrounds are lacking running water or small ponds, secure enough for children’s play.

Seventy years ago the parks in Oslo had much more ponds and water installations for play than today, and I think this is also true for Copenhagen. However we can find a much better picture in other areas. Nearly all of the 32 schools in Lund municipality in Skåne, in the south of Sweden, have some kind of water installations; ponds for studies on the basis of curricula, running water, small streams and pumps, the resources to enable creative play with water and to combine it with sand. One of the best examples of a park using the theme of water is situated in Malmö, which has used artificial streams, sluice gates and fountains and play equipment in a very adventurous water play environment. Further afield in Berlin there is hardly a park or school playground without exciting water installations!

What then is the reason for the lack of this provision in the parks and schools in Oslo and Copenhagen? Is it lack of willingness to provide finances both for the construction and the maintenance? Or is it a lack of technical competence? Even in the Valby Park’s large, and otherwise, beautiful natural playground, there are no good opportunities for water play.

It might be claimed that nature and natural elements will be worn down quickly in areas where children’s play is very intense, like in school playgrounds. Isolated trees are broken down easily. But trees can be planted in groups and it is easy to establish bushes that will endure and renew themselves over time. Fläming Grundschule in Berlin has a good example of a huge bush area, like many other school grounds in Berlin. They often have rich vegetation, especially shrubs, with plentiful spaces for “a life in the bushes”. Large natural boulders placed as singly or in groups and mounds, give rich possibilities for balance and movements, and could not be more durable!. They are also very beautiful, both in color and shape, and fit very well into almost any natural landscape. I have benefited greatly from the use of many hundreds of large moraine stones and boulders in parks and playgrounds in Norway.

Play has become “big business” for many play equipment producers around the world. The play equipment producers have done their best to establish a focus on safety in children’s play environments however it is not just the design details of the play apparatus which are the main determinates of safety. Many commercial products function very well to stimulate variety of movement and to facilitate opportunities for children to play together in social groups especially when the units are based on a non-linear cluster, inspiring more communication and contact play.

An example of new approaches to outdoor play environments and equipment can be found in Norway. Asbjorn Flemmen’s innovative concept for “jungle-play” provides for many of children’s needs for movement in play and is flexible enough to appeal to girls and boys of all ages. The environments are popular creating varied opportunities stimulate communication and the learning processes but the installations are expensive, require large maintenance efforts and budgets to obtain ongoing safety and in some municipalities the installations have been taken away. In this context “play” also might become “business”, without thinking in new ways.

A lot of quality play products highly durable and will often be preferred by those conscious of maintenance budgets to apparatus made of organic materials. But there are also large manufacturers, especially in Germany, who produce play components made of highly durable tree species such as Robinia. These organic materials can be more “imprintable” for children, – they are asymmetric and unique and can be modified with pictures reliefs and small sculptural features. Trees used in their natural form as construction material will fit much more easily and aesthetically into the natural landscape and terrain than those with screaming colours and artificial detail and in general wood is warmer to the touch for young hands in our cold winter climate.

To sum up; what lessons can we learn from the past five decades to ensure we create the play environments our children in Scandinavia need and deserve? Firstly we must become much more skilled at exploring the possibilities of recreating the individuality and endless variations of nature, in terms of topography, planting and green spaces, use of stones and natural materials, and in particular the endlessly changeable elements of sand and water in our school and public play spaces. Secondly as planners, designers and developers of the public realm we must aware of the consumerist and commercial pressures which the ‘play businesses’ always wishes to exert on us.

Finally we must stay true to our ideals and be driven by what best suits the needs of children in our designs and choice of materials. In our planning of new green areas, or our revitalising projects, we always must be aware that children in cities continuous become more cut off from contact with natural areas, due to fact that the traffic always creates new insurmountable barriers, and that the natural habitat itself constantly shrinking in, as building pressure just increases and increases, without adequate >rules for establishing compensation areas for children.

The text and photos are the copyright of Frode Svane and his permission must be sought if you wish to use any of either. Thanks again to Frode for his willingness to share his thoughts. This blog post was originally published in April 2013

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