What Does Your Playground Feel Like?

Ed Melvin

Surrounded by the lace of fresh green leaves and stems of the willow tree, I sit in wonder and listen to my friend tell me all she knows of the pink pea flower we found in the garden on our way into the yard.  I feel happy.

What does your playground feel like? This is the second post in my series about how we examined playgrounds with the children at Rockwern Academy in Cincinnati. Posed with this question, initial responses were common and obvious:  fun, safe, happy. But then a soft-spoken boy near the back raised his hand.

“Yes, what does your playground feel like?” I asked, as I gestured toward him.

He answered, “Calm. A place that is quiet and calm.”

The way children feel in a space—whether they feel energetic, excited, content or calm—is just one of many answers to the question, “What does your playground feel like?” (In fact, spatial presence is the feeling you get from being within a particular space at a particular moment… but more on that, later.)

After chatting briefly with the little boy who wanted his playground to bring a sense of quiet, calm energy, I moved on to other ways children may feel outdoors. “There are different types of feeling,” I explained. “What textures do you feel with your hands? What temperatures do you feel with your skin?”

Tactile, environmental and spatial presence: all are different ways of “feeling” an environment. Let’s look at each of these as they pertain to early childhood outdoor learning environments.

Tactile Experiences

As infants, we begin to explore being alive by taking things into our hands and then into our mouths. This form of tactile learning—of learning with our fingers, hands, eyes and mouth—is the first and most basic learning skill, and one of the most pleasurable. It’s one of texture—the juxtaposition of soft and hard, smooth and rough, sharp, grainy or wet—and one of experience. Each thing we pick up to discover is unique: leaves, rocks, sand, water, metal, plastic, concrete, grass. Each has its own feeling.

Rocks, flowers, grass and vegetation enable tactile learning in outdoor classrooms

The observation of children in their early childhood years, through the eyes of professionals who understand the various ways in which we learn, provides key information into the development path of each child. We know tactile learners—more often referred to as kinesthetic learners—learn by doing and through sense of touch. Outdoor classrooms offer the perfect opportunity to put to the test the process of discovery and learning.

At Rockwern Academy, we designed many tactile features throughout the lower yard, which primarily serves early childhood classes. This included different textural elements, such as stone borders, gravel paths, mulched flower beds, different types of flowers, grass and other vegetation. And each surface in the yard—the waxy blades of grass, the rounded belly of a rock, the velveteen seeds of a dandelion—offers children entire universes of tactile experiences through which to learn.

Environmental Experiences

Streamers hung from tree branches merge science and art in outdoor classroomsSurely, you’ve shivered as a cold winter breeze has scampered across your cheeks, or felt the urge to snooze in a beam of warm sunlight as it spears through a canopy of leaves over your hammock. Temperature, wind and breeze, rain, warm sunlight, cool shade; these are more than just sensory experiences, they are the signs of what is to come.

That’s why helping children experience environmental change is such an important lesson to consider when designing outdoor classrooms. Each season becomes a lesson plan, each environmental element becomes a teacher.

For example, the presence of a simple, tensile fabric tent in the garden provides a great way to capture the silent movement of wind, or the playfulness of light and shadow against the canvas. The addition of an overhead trellis provides shelter from above, and serves as a mechanism for observing light patterns or changes in vegetation as the day passes. And streamers hung from the boughs of tall trees, like the image shown here, merges science (what causes wind?) and art (what colors should we hang next?).

Spatial Experiences

Designing for outdoor learning environments often means including small private spaces where children can huddle together

Third on my list relates to spatial presence and the way we feel being in each space. The feeling we get from being in the center of an asphalt basketball court, bathed in sunlight, is much different than that of lying on the grass under a tree, watching the clouds skitter past with our friends, each sharing our own piece of an adventure story of living in the sky.

As a designer, this is the most difficult feeling to explain—and specifically to plan—as it is the culmination of all the things present, materials, people and weather.  It lives in the experience. As Ansel Adams said, “In wisdom gathered over time, I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.”

How does this translate into design?

  1. Hidey-holes and hidden spaces where children can (safely) explore in quiet closeness;
  2. Wide open areas where children are free to gallop;
  3. Imagination spaces where children can create art, music and stories.

Most importantly, I try to create spaces that can be naturally managed and transformed. So, as we plan, grow and live in our outdoor learning spaces, we need to be mindful of allowing things to happen, often unplanned.

What does your playground feel like? I hope it makes you feel empowered to dream.

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