Meeting children’s needs
Essential to effective provision of early childhood centre facilities is a physical environment that both supports and extends children’s learning-through-play. This requires a playground at variance from the fixed equipment dominated play facilities traditionally associated with playground use. Instead it needs to offer a wide range of different forms of play that will support the acquisition of a wide range of developmental skills during young children’s most formative years.
Effective playground designs must be based on a clear understanding of children’s needs and how these can be met within the design. Ideally this includes the provision of a site where the playground and building are integrated and can be used conjointly when required. The most effective outcomes are based on informed early childhood input then working collaboratively with other professionals e.g. architects, landscape architects etc.
“…richness of experience, not tidy perfection, is the aim of the whole thing.” – Lady Allen of Hurtwood, 1968
Some of the planning principles that will ensure success are:
- Space. A generous allocation of space can ensure the diversity of play needs is met, particularly when they are sited as one clearly defined readily supervisable space. Initial planning needs to establish sufficient space and layout of space that ensures a large open outdoor spatial provision which is easy to supervise. Playgrounds should preferably be sited on one side of the building with the ideal outdoor area being a unified block (not isolated parts hidden between buildings). A centre needs no less than 15m2 per child, which has proved to be effective in practice.
- Access. The layout of the playground needs a design which creates a visually attractive stimulating setting where there is physical and visual access to allow children’s independent access to all sections of the playground. It will also assist essential teacher supervision and support. Practical considerations include; ease of access between inside and outside areas; key access corridors to heavily utilised spaces (e.g. equipment storage sheds); and less dominant alternate access to open spaces and quiet areas (e.g. digging patch, shallow watercourse). These access corridors if carefully placed will aid access between areas but not disrupt play activities already underway.
- Organisation of space. The layout of a playground needs to include subtle sub-division of spaces, creating individual pockets of space that suggest different forms of play. For example: open running space, challenging elements (sloping embankments, mounds), quiet nooks and crannies for withdrawal and observation where social and sensory experiences can occur (often aided by water, creeks, hidey spaces under trees).
- Sensory stimulation. A child’s first understanding of the world is through sensory contact. Sensory stimulation in a physical environment will allow engagement of the physical senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell) as well as movement of body. A natural environment, dominated by greenery, different grasses and landforms, and firsthand experience with nature need to dominate. Trees, logs, earth and grass are needed as the dominance of fixed, brightly coloured play structures often does not sustain the children’s interest sufficiently or provide the ongoing challenge needed for this age group. Ensure both the organisation of space and the design details incorporate elements which arouse curiosity and therefore active inquiry. These create the invitational space that will encourage exploration and discovery.
- Open ended facilities. Adaptable settings, which can be changed and altered by children or under the instigation of a teacher after observing children’s play, are the environments that are needed. The term best used to describe these settings is ‘open-ended’; meaning that each item that is incorporated has multiple potential uses as distinct from a limited one set use. The use of loose parts increases the complexity of potential play options and will ensure an ongoing level of challenge is provided. It may be a cluster of fallen leaves from a tree, a log to climb and balance on or ropes in different configurations down an embankment.
- Safety. The provision of safety in playgrounds must always be considered but needs to be seen in the context of children’s need for ongoing challenge. Small, subtle changes created with loose parts are often the key to providing this so that the child’s development is enhanced and not inhibited by the adult fears of what may happen to the children. Children who are provided with enjoyable, challenging and stimulating environments are the ones who develop high levels of competency. In practice in many playgrounds where there is the combination of challenge and a supportive teacher less injuries, more competency and higher levels of confidence are occurring.
Remember, that stimulating and challenging outdoor play is as important as indoor play particularly during the most formative years of their lives―the early childhood years. This is because of the vitally important elements it provides―social, emotional and competency skills, fundamental throughout life.