The Past, Present, and Future of the School Playground
By Rob Thomas
Ask anyone born before the mid
1990s what their playground at school was like and the answer will
almost always be the same: Vast expanses of empty tarmac with maybe a
few line markings if the children were lucky. Breaks and lunch times had
limited activities to running around chasing each other and some sort of
sport if lucky.
Nowadays, the story is
completely different. A school playground is packed full of equipment to
aid various elements of education. Amazing climbing frames, decorative
yet functional safety surfacing, den areas, and sensory gardens are
common. So what changed and what does the future of playgrounds hold for
In the days gone by, those of us
of a certain age may remember playing hopscotch. There was no play
apparatus or equipment that children could use for their own games or to
learn with. Teachers rarely used the outdoor space other than for P.E.
so other than during break times external areas were wasted.
It has only been during the last
twenty years or so that playgrounds have truly developed. We have
realized that children can use the school outdoor space as a secondary
classroom, not just as an area to run around chasing each other.
Subjects such as math and science can be taught in a much more exciting
way. Why learn about flowers from a book when you can go in to your
playground and see the flowers in real life?
A well-designed play area cannot only aid educational development but has been proven to strengthen
social development, self-confidence, and mental health. Areas of shelter
and shade, spaces for creative and imaginative play, and for physical activities
can contribute to a well-rounded playground that both children and teachers can use
to aid learning. School grounds are often large areas, so it makes sense
to make use of every single bit of space to help children grow to be
their best, both physically and mentally. It’s here that they are set on
a path for the rest of their lives and can be introduced to key skills
that will be of great importance later in life.
Another element of school
playgrounds that’s changed is safety. The last couple of decades has
seen us want to become a risk-free society. We used to encourage
children to learn about danger and risks themselves, but instead now we
take away anything that could pose a potential injury. Previously fun
and exciting play equipment such as swings are being taken out to stop
accidents. What a lot of us forget is that play equipment is designed in
a way that there is supposed to be an element of risk. It teaches our
children valuable lessons about thinking about actions, and develops
their physical capabilities. Nowadays, though there is a blame culture
so in the event of an injury someone will most likely be sued. Thus, all
the play equipment that has been installed is now getting taken out.
Poorly designed play equipment should never be installed in the first
place, but equipment that has been designed to specific safety standards
should never have issues. Children are always going to get bumps and
scrapes, it’s part of growing up. There used to be a time when going
into school with a cut or even a broken bone was a badge of honor!
Looking into the Future
It’s hard to determine what
exactly the future of school playgrounds will be. The very latest
technology has brought about electronic play panels with flashing lights
and sounds – whether these are a short-lived phase or not is yet to be
seen. What will never change, though, are the children’s actions
children in play areas, such as climbing and role play. The educational
curriculum and politics will determine how school playgrounds evolve,
and economic factors will also have a strong influence. Since 2008 and
the recession, budget cuts have reduced amounts schools are spending on
playgrounds. In the worst-case scenario, this could result in outdoor
spaces going backwards as schools concentrate money on the inside of the
school buildings. Hopefully this won’t be the case.
New developments in material
technology may result in cheaper, lighter, and easier to shape products.
In addition, a heightened awareness in the environment could result in
more use of recyclable materials, with products using solar power or
teaching children about the environment.
When it comes to the safety
issue. a lot will depend on society. Are we going to encourage our
children to learn and develop or are we going to wrap them up and stop
them from having fun? Legally, things will have to change too. As long as all
risk assessments have been undertaken and the play equipment meets
safety standards, no one should be threatened with being sued. Society
is only concerned for short-term gain, however, so unless there is
increased awareness on the importance of play and the issue of risk,
this issue will continue to affect the design of school playgrounds.
The importance of playgrounds
will never disappear, whether it’s for physical fun or to aid education.
It’s vital that we keep and build upon the good progress that has been
made over the last couple of decades with school playgrounds in order to give our children the brightest
Rob Thomas has worked in the outdoor play
industry for over seven years and currently works for
Playsound Services Ltd, which is based near Wigan,
England. The company builds bespoke play structures for schools,
councils, and leisure industries. Rob believes in the importance of play
in the development of children growing up both physically and
educationally. He lives in St Helens, UK with his wife and daughter.
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