Friend us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Join our email list!
AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

Learning and Playing Outside at School by Design

Written by Alice M. Reese, CLH Design

Installations of these re-purposed tires are becoming part of more outdoor school learning and play areas.

Installations of these re-purposed tires are becoming part of more outdoor school learning and play areas.

I am excited to be part of a growing movement occurring in Wake County Public Schools to transform school grounds to be places where students can be active and learn. As a project manager and landscape designer for CLH Design designing schools sites throughout the state, I have worked with several parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) that want to invest in their school grounds. Like me, they are concerned with health risks associated with the sedentary lifestyles of today’s children and troubled by the fact that school grounds provide little incentive to go outdoors except at recess. They are unsure how to develop a design that meets approval of the school administrators, the school district and the local municipality.

I have been helping these groups by creating master plans for the school grounds that diversify play and offer opportunities for teachers to take the curriculum outdoors. This master plan document is often the missing link to gaining consensus among the stakeholders and moving forward with the improvement project. 

Why Does Design Matter on School Playgrounds?

On the surface, my role could be defined as the landscape designer, but I consider my true role to be an advocate of play and getting children outside. A 1993 study revealed that simply “being outdoors is the strongest correlate to physical activity” (Salis, et. al).  We also know that being outdoors in nature is calming, restful and restorative for all children, but it has significant benefits for children with attention disorders. With all that in mind, I push myself to cram a master plan full of possibilities to take children outside for educational purposes and to elevate the play value of the outdoor space. 

The life-sized "Candyland" game painted on the pavement and giant spinner are an example of play destination on school grounds that promotes active learning and play.

The life-sized “Candyland” game painted on the pavement and giant spinner are an example of play destination on school grounds that promotes active learning and play.

The most frequent request I have is to help restore a worn out grass area or provide a running track for the children because after a rainfall, they can’t go in the mud area that was once their grass. In the first draft of the master plan, I address the client’s original wish, but at the same time, I show them how adding other simple and fairly inexpensive (compared to the cost of an irrigation system or running track) play destinations will diversify play opportunities to alleviate the overuse of the grass area to increase its longevity. An example of this might be a life size “candy land” game striped on the pavement with a child sized spinner. The hidden advocacy component here is providing play opportunities for all students, particularly the girls.

A typical playground provides opportunities for active play, team sports and gross motor skill development; the kind of activity that boys stereotypically engage in with the obligatory set of monkey bars for the girls. More often than not, when I tour a site, the boys are all happily playing sports on the fields or basketball court while the girls are huddled under the one tree on the playground engaged in their imaginary play. Imaginary play, which falls under the passive play category, has many benefits of its own in terms of social and cognitive development for both genders. Therefore, it is important to increase opportunities to engage in passive play to reach out to girls, but often what happens is the play patterns become more fluid.  As boys gravitate to passive play places, which they will, the girls seize their chance to engage in gymnastics on the grass without fear of getting hit by a ball.  Now, the real beauty of a passive play spaces such as a storyteller chair, a stage or an outdoor chalkboard, is that they double as curriculum support spaces outside of recess time. 

Creating the Master Plan

How does the planning process work? To create the master plan, I sit down with the PTO and school administrators to listen to their needs and concerns. Second, I assess the campus, paying particular attention to the “problem” areas, but also looking carefully for educational and other opportunities on the site. From there, I go to the drawing board and develop the first draft of the master plan. Once the final version is agreed upon by the school’s committee, it is sent to the school district for approval and the local municipality to determine any permitting needs for the improvements. An opinion of probable costs is also developed to help the group plan phases for implementation. 

A master plan is not meant to be installed at one time, but it maps out the potential for the site and the steps to making the improvements. From there, the PTO has all the information needed to proceed with improvements and a district-approved plan that will withstand the changes in personnel in the PTO or school administration.  The master plan also is a very helpful fundraising tool when applying for grants or appealing to school parents. 

Investing in Children’s Health

I understand that not every school is going to be able to provide or love every item in the master plan, but as an advocate, I need to put it on paper to start a dialog.  

Probably the most valuable lesson we were taught in design school is that our work is not ours; we relinquish all sense of propriety once we pin something up for others to view.  I feel success not if my designs get built as drawn, but if in some way I have influenced the group to change their thinking of the school grounds not as “recess” or “P.E.” space, but a space to be used every day, throughout the day as an easy way to promote physical fitness and invest in the health of our children in school.

Editor’s Note:

With more than nine years experience in site design of commercial, institutional and civic projects, Ms. Reese’s expertise is in the areas of children’s learning environments and playground design. To ensure her designs meet national standards for playground safety, Ms. Reese has obtained certification as a Playground Safety Inspector from the Consumer Product and Safety Commission. Ms. Reese has made it her mission to incorporate dynamic spaces on public schools grounds at the on-set of design for the new sites and to enliven the grounds at existing schools where bare minimum programming elements have been provided. 

Ms. Reese’s notable projects showcasing children’s play and environmental awareness include: Partnership Elementary School, Southern Pines Elementary, Hemby-Bridge Elementary School Garden, Knightdale Historic Downtown Park Playground, and Weatherstone and Laurel Park Elementary School’s Master Plans for outdoor education and natural play. Ms. Reese spoke at AHA’s Brains and Bodies Workshop “Physical Activity Rocks!” in March 2013.


AHA Updates

Donate Today

aha toolkit button






Contact Us: