PAP 60: Experimenting with transition in the playground

Laurence Renard, September 2022

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Anxious to ensure the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 60 planning professionals have joined together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in regional planning policies. In this article, Laurence Renard, landscape designer DPLG and member of the PAP collective, comes back on the historical conception of schoolyards and underlines the interest of their evolution in the context of the ecological transition.

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The schoolyard is a space where children, playing freely, can develop their perception of the outside world and build their social relationships together. Adults traditionally play a role limited to supervision and maintenance, whereas the schoolyard has now become a strategic place to support the development of tomorrow’s citizens. The configuration of public spaces benefits, for the most part and for a long time, from the competence of designers to take note of societal expectations and political issues that they know how to reflect in a diversity of styles and modes. In what way has the issue of school grounds for transition been echoed in the educational sphere and among planners?

School grounds formatted by safety and hygiene

School grounds used to be empty asphalted spaces reserved for girls or boys. Now mixed and dedicated to different games or activities, their model has changed little over the last fifty years. Everyone will be able to recognise the schoolyard of their childhood or that of their children in this description by Julie Delalande: « A schoolyard is divided into distinct spaces identified with particular games: skipping rope under the playground, football in the middle, marbles at the foot of the trees and secrets behind the bushes. But when they arrive at school, the youngest children have to learn which places are already occupied by their elders and which they will only be able to use when the older children have left the school. Thus, when they go out into the playground a few minutes before them, they hasten to steal a little time from them in these prized spaces - constituted, in kindergarten, by play structures such as the slide or the squirrel cage » 1.

This model with limited and standardised play materials stems from the adults’ concern to keep the children occupied while facilitating the exercise of the tasks they themselves assign. In order for the supervision carried out by the teachers from the bench reserved for them to be carried out in the best possible way, the playground must remain an open space where the gaze covers the whole area. The layout of this area is minimal so that the absence of obstacles limits the risks of falls and shocks. In terms of maintenance, the ceiling on their resources is leading local authorities to save their staff’s working time by rationalising maintenance needs: reduction in the areas to be mowed and the collection of dead leaves, clean floors, etc. Finally, and especially with the Covid pandemic, a concern for hygiene has led to limiting children’s contact with « dirty » elements such as earth, sand or wood chips. Hence these simplified, mineral, smooth spaces with a minimum of obstacles.

The Ministry of National Education, Youth and Sport develops such a doctrine in its recommendations for the design of playgrounds dated 1989 2.

The minimum size of a playground is 400 m2 in nursery schools for one class, 200 m² in elementary schools for one class, with 100 m² per additional class. In Paris, the Directorate of School Affairs specifies that a pupil must have a minimum of 3.6 to 4 m2 depending on the neighbourhood. The Ministry mentions compliance with standards for flooring and playground equipment. Fences must be 1.80m high without any spikes or spades and may be accompanied by furniture and plants, except for thorns and poisonous fruit. In the same article, Julie Delalande reminds us that « the criteria of supervision, safety and hygiene cannot be the only ones that motivate the development of the space. Children need, for example, corners where they can isolate themselves from the rest of the group and create a space of their own. They also like to shape their environment, by digging holes in the ground or by any other action that allows them to appropriate the place » 3.

The painting « Children’s Games » by the Flemish painter Bruegel the Elder, full of details taken from life and rendered with a turbulent and whimsical ingenuity, evokes a great diversity of gestures and acts that reflect the desires and needs of children. Some climb on a barrel, others do a somersault, some play dice, hoop or leapfrog, others hide in a tree. In this abundance of games, where some jostle each other while others stand aside, the wide range of different games testifies to children’s creativity in developing different styles of motor skills, in appropriating different spaces and in shaping them. In the public square or in a corner, everyone is busy and finds their occupation in a space open to many possibilities.

The climate issue is revolutionising schoolyards.

The ministerial recommendations of 1989 have been enriched by an update, on 16 July 2019, which states that recreational spaces must allow for relaxation and play of pupils in a context of supervision and safety taking into account the climatic environment and temperature variations. Based on these considerations, a new generation of playgrounds has emerged.

Since the end of the 2010s, public policies had begun to encourage, enhance and support actions in favour of sustainable development within schools. In particular, with the call for green school projects, the Cube.S, the schools in bloom competition and the É3D label, cities such as Lille, Strasbourg and Paris have become benchmarks for local authorities committed to transforming their schools and in particular their playgrounds 4.

In 2018, the city of Paris launched the famous Oasis project with the CAUE 75. Since then, a hundred or so schools have been used as models by many communities. The Haute Vallée de Chevreuse Regional Nature Park devoted an article to this approach in 2021 in its magazine L’écho du Parc.

The innovation of the Oasis courtyards concerns the diversity of play materials, the welcoming of biodiversity, the renaturation of soils, the enhancement of water, the provision of shade and, above all, the co-design approach that is essential for the acceptability of these changes.

The playground equipment is more numerous and has no fixed purpose. They do not have a gendered connotation and allow for climbing, sliding, swinging, moving around, playing, manipulating, telling stories, imitating, exploring one’s senses, hiding, expressing oneself, and even learning. They are most often made of natural materials (wood, wicker) and avoid plastic. The plants come from a wide range of species, if possible local, with different heights and a number of trees. Shelters for wildlife are installed: nesting boxes, insect hotels, wood and stone piles. Natural areas are accessible to pupils or, if necessary, set back by light or natural devices. All planting materials, fences, facades and roofs are used. Rainwater is collected in ditches, ponds or rain gardens. There are areas for students and teachers to garden and make compost. Soils of various types and consistencies depending on use, a large proportion of which is permeable with relief. Chips and open ground are in the spotlight. The shade of the trees is matched by pergolas or canopies.

The case of the nursery school at 22, rue Tandou in the 19th arrondissement of Paris

In the courtyard of this nursery school, the part of the ground reserved for ball games has remained asphalt, but the rest of the courtyard is made up of fully accessible green spaces. Japanese pathways run through the new landscaped area, which includes play mounds, tunnels and huts. A sandbox has been created, with a removable roof to protect against bad weather and bird droppings. Each class has an outdoor educational area with picnic or work tables and educational trunks. A part of the educational time is therefore spent with the feet in the ground. Finally, large trunks, placed on the ground without any predefined use, can be used as seats, climbing supports, hiding places or stages.

The case of the Quatre Fils primary schools in the 3rd arrondissement in Paris

Here the asphalt floor was cut up completely, the pieces cut up again and stacked to build a bench during a construction site with the parents. In its place, a paving stone with permeable joints was laid for the space reserved for ball games. A large island covered with wood shavings defines a play area crossed by Japanese steps. Huts are placed on small reliefs and trunks embedded here and there. A rainwater collector, a water fountain, toy boxes, a chalkboard and chalk are available to the pupils. Under the courtyard, a wall offers climbing holds at child height. Until the perennials and shrubs have grown, they are protected by a few stakes and thick ropes. Three brooms are hung on a wall so that the pupils can take turns cleaning the yard. The dead leaves are no longer collected, but decompose naturally in the green areas.

The playground of the Corot nursery school in Magny-les-Hameaux (Yvelines)

In this courtyard, the firefighter’s access is the only one that has been kept in asphalt. The other areas are covered with stabilised grass, lawn, grassed paving stones and wood chips. The green areas previously forbidden to pupils are now accessible to them. Several fences have been removed and the number of trees to be planted has been doubled. Several benches adapted to the size of the children and numerous vertical logs punctuate the space in addition to the existing games. The dead leaves collected in a large bin will cover the vegetable garden during the winter. A wall of expression is installed under the courtyard next to the reading, dinette and toy car corners.

When pupils have their say

The involvement of residents in the design of their living or working environment is still rare. That of children, even more so. Giant slides, a wave pool, a skate park: in Magny-les-Hameaux, most adults feared that the expectations of the pupils would be disproportionate and would contradict the environmental issues at stake. But once the framework was well defined, as is important to do with adults, the pupils’ dreams fully corresponded to the aims of the project: they asked for huts, ponds, trampolines, insects, birds and trees, again and again trees. In order to define a development programme, the city conducted three workshops in each class to present the themes of biodiversity, water and warmth in turn. Then the teachers asked the pupils to draw what the schoolyard could look like once the project was completed. Finally, the design office guided the students in defining the place of each feature in the courtyard around the path of the water from the gutters, delimiting the areas where shade would be needed, and drawing different necessary paths. In Paris, the CAUE 75 team organised six workshops per school. The themes studied were climate change, the Oasis courtyard, biodiversity, water management, uses of the courtyard, diagnosis of the current courtyard and finally the playground project.

Other partners such as Météo France or the Ligue de l’enseignement intervened on an ad hoc basis on the themes of climate change and living together.

These projects are an opportunity to introduce important notions and develop them in a concrete way. The interdisciplinary laboratory for the evaluation of public policies worked on measuring the societal impacts of the Oasis approach in Paris. A questionnaire or interviews, at different school levels, were set up to survey students’ knowledge and attitudes about climate change. The results were conclusive. In fact, when analysing the different ways to improve educational success, it appears that the presence of concrete supports for action favours the integration of knowledge. Furthermore, North American researchers have established that the presence of trees in the immediate vicinity of learning spaces is a success factor, particularly for learning reading and mathematics 5.

Pupils on the way to eco-citizenship?

Several lessons can be drawn from these experiences, which are recent in France but more common in neighbouring countries. As far as risk is concerned, these developments in schoolyards mean a change of focus. Instead of looking for zero risk, the objective becomes learning how to deal with this risk, where the value of play and that of safety tend to be balanced. With the right support, the pupil discovers his capacities and limits and can evaluate them. In the schools of Paris, the teachers note that small injuries are becoming less frequent since the disappearance of bare and hard floors, while the elimination of large bare spaces slows down the speed of falls.

Traditional playgrounds have a strong emphasis on ball games, tending to favour sporty boys and keeping other children out. The renaturated playgrounds provide a different balance by offering a variety of activities and environments that each child can choose according to his or her desire or temperament. In these spaces, activities are more spontaneously mixed. The power relations linked to age, gender or character are thus avoided. Teachers in the city of Paris have noted new forms of relationships between children, with a decrease in conflicts and a development of cooperation.

The presence of plants and earth in the playground also inaugurates a new relationship, at school, between inside and outside. Most kindergartens offer shoes and boots for going outside, and slippers when staying in the classroom. With comfortable feet, the well-being of the pupils is increased tenfold for the duration of the lessons. The Oasis courses also question the notion of healthy and dirty. Should soil be called dirty, plastic healthy? Cleaning staff and parents are difficult to convince on these issues.

The courtyards, gateways to the outside world

Oasis classes are an invitation for teachers to use the outdoors as a place and medium for teaching. Inspired by the Scandinavian countries, the city of Strasbourg has implemented since 2011 the principle of an « outdoor school » by taking the children every day to a space known as an « ensauvagé », i.e. planted with trees, shrubs and a natural water source such as a pond or a stream. Within the school or nearby, this space becomes a place of learning based on the support of natural elements, by developing an active pedagogy based on sensory, motor and concrete activities adapted to each child and his rhythm. The pupils go out whatever the weather or the season, sometimes with the help of accompanying parents 6.

In the same vein, educational areas were set up in the Marquesas (French Polynesia) in 2012 to develop interest in and knowledge of nature. These are small areas such as beaches, wetlands, urban parks, forests, wastelands, rivers, etc., managed by a school with the participation of a student council. The French Office of Biodiversity accompanies the decision-making process. More than 600 educational areas have been created: 261 marine areas and 367 terrestrial educational areas have been awarded a label 7.

The cities of Paris, Barcelona and Athens have decided to open some of these playgrounds to the public, turning them into nature oases. During non-school time, at weekends or during the holidays, a wider public can benefit from these small pockets of greenery in the city. The link between the school and its neighbourhood is strengthened. In urban areas where there is a lack of space, sharing school facilities is an opportunity that citizens should not miss.

These facilities contribute to climate regulation

To what extent do these highly effective educational approaches improve the surrounding urban environment? In Paris, two courtyards have been equipped with a pair of weather stations for comparative purposes. One is located in the yard and the other in the adjacent public space. Large differences in temperature appear between the two stations, particularly during heat peaks. The Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Tomorrow’s Energies and Météo France are carrying out modelling based on these observations, simulating temperature changes as a function of vegetation cover and providing models for reintroducing nature into the city. The removal of mineralised soil in schoolyards also helps to reduce the risk of runoff and flooding during rainy periods. The water agencies are interested in these approaches, which encourage the infiltration of water into the soil.

The education of children is a priority to prepare for changes in use in a more resilient society. Mobilisation movements are therefore emerging on all sides, giving full consideration to these issues. Some teachers have formed a network called « Teachers in Transition », which encourages them to observe the fauna and flora in the classroom, to plant trees and to go out into the surrounding area. They also implement low-carbon and zero waste strategies in schools 8.

On the part of the planning professionals, the subject is being enriched with the development of participatory approaches. Children use these spaces on a daily basis. Taking their expectations into account is the objective of the architectural experiments that the « Travaux d’école » project is carrying out in two school groups in Saint-Pierre-des-Corps and Ile-Saint-Denis by involving all users 9. As for local authorities, the city of Paris and the CAUE 75 have multiplied the tools made available to enable the dissemination of the approach and facilitate the transfer of experiences: recommendations booklet, videos, visits, conferences 10.

France had 48,950 schools, 6,950 middle schools and 3,750 high schools in 2011. So many spaces to be conquered for a new urbanism that knows how to reintroduce nature into the city through a multiplicity of inventive transformations that set in motion, quietly, the transition of our societies towards a more cooperative society open to a sensitive and embodied understanding of the earth’s environment. Beyond the question of the development of these surfaces and environments, the challenge of such experiments is to prepare a generation of young citizens for the transformations of the earth’s climate as well as for the initiatives that will contribute to the challenge of climate change and the erosion of biodiversity being effectively met.

The Renaissance painting by Breughel the Elder evokes the emergence of a civilisation process that took shape over several centuries. We have less time to develop, from childhood onwards, a social organisation and behaviour that can meet the challenge of global transition.


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