What does your playground look like?

Think about that question for a moment. How would you describe your playground? Is it dirty? Organized? Is it paved edge-to-edge, from building to fence? Is there a fence at all? Is it visually appealing, or are there things you would change?

Seeing stands alone.

As humans, we rely so much on our sight that it can be easy to forget all the other senses we use to absorb our environment. Sight stands alone.

But if you’ve been following along in our “senses” series, you know that when you pay attention to what your other senses are telling you – what your playground sounds, feels, smells or tastes like  – the way your playground or outdoor classroom looks may be very different from what your eyes first perceive. In other words: you’re free to notice smaller details when you “see” with your other four senses.

Still, there are a few guiding principles for designing your playground:

Diversity and Balance

As with all the senses, it’s important to have diversity within your outdoor classroom environment. A variety of colors, materials, surfaces and equipment makes for a visually appealing space, but more importantly, work together to create a balanced and healthy natural environment. A diverse environment encourages freedom of exploration, which is one of the most valuable outdoor learning tools of all.

For example, asphalt is not visually appealing, but it teaches children how to run, skip or bounce a rubber ball across its surface. (Unless it’s falling part, and then it’s gravelly. Little children in particular tend to explore with their fingers and mouths… so this is not ideal for most playgrounds!)

In limited quantities, asphalt has a functional purpose, even if it doesn’t have an aesthetic one. And this is okay… as long as the asphalt is balanced by a more natural element: a pathway of small rocks, a grassy hill or freshly-mulched flower beds.

Perspective and Point of View

Young girl explores hut in an outdoor playground.When it comes to designing outdoor spaces, perspective is very important. But I’m not just talking perspective in the literal, what-does-the-playground-look-like-from-the-southeast-corner-looking northwest sense of the word. I’m talking about point of view perspective: the attitude or way of regarding something.

For instance, what happens during the seasons when children are in school that can be beautiful, year-round? TREES! Trees make everything beautiful. The vibrant, almost audacious colors in the fall; ghost-like branches stark against a winter sky; tiny buds unfurling into a magnificent canopy of green. Trees are science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics lessons, all rolled into one living thing.

Changing your point of view doesn’t simply allow a shift in perspective; it allows for a freedom of imagination. While all five senses take you somewhere, the gift of sight allows for imagination to transport you somewhere else. Tree trunk stepping stones are transformed into a treacherous passage through a river of molten lava; a bower of branches becomes a castle keep. What good is a playground if it doesn’t provide a strong support for imagination?!

Color and Context

Just like Joseph and his amazing coat, I think it should be a pre-requisite for playgrounds to practically burst with color. Vibrant colors make an outdoor space feel alive and exciting… and, yes, make it look that way, too. But if not for sheer beauty alone, consider the science: According to Kate Smith from Sensational Color, green is calming, stress-reducing and creativity-boosting; purple is uplifting; orange encourages socialization and activity.

A collection of playgrounds demonstrating the importance of color and contrast in outdoor education.

When it comes to creating moods or feelings, visual context clues are just as important as colors are. We “feel” with our eyes. Consider the sensory house we built at Rockwern Academy. We created a secure space in the school’s lower school playground that feels intimate and protected, but isn’t entirely enclosed. It allows children to play away from prying eyes, but still allows them to peek out at the world. The sensory house is a physical and visual context clue that tells children, “You’re safe. This is a fun space to explore,” from the moment their eyes land on it.

Light and Shadow

When you were a child, did you ever wiggle your fingers in front of a flashlight to create shadow puppets on the wall? The interplay of light and shadow can be just as fun during the daytime, on a playground. Have one child stand with his or her back to the sun, casting a shadow across the pavement, and ask another child to draw the shadow as they see it. Ask them to record the visual and record a story about it at the same time.

Shadows from buildings and trees provide a comfortable place for an outdoor learning environment.

I love this activity! As they are drawing, the children are thinking. They’re paying attention to the lines and angles, curves and squiggles on the pavement. They’re connecting not just with what they are drawing, but who they are drawing. Through it all, they’re learning why a shadow is taller than the object which casts it. All because of something as simple as chalk on the pavement and a shadow on the ground.

Light and shadow have practical implications, as well. Fairytales often feature a big, bad creature hiding in the deep, dark forest. But intentionally creating exposure to both light and shadow can reinforce for children that shadowy places don’t have to be scary.

Manipulation and Movement

Does your playground include opportunities for children to manipulate what they see? Can they make things, move thingStreamers hanging from trees allow young learners to manipulate and move their outdoor learning environment.s? Are there natural and/or man-made elements that help children create or feel movement?

There’s a picture I love that perfectly sums up this idea of manipulation and movement, of a little boy crouched in the dirt beneath a tree. The tree’s branches are festooned with dozens of colorful ribbons. If a breeze whips through the trees, the ribbons will flutter and ruffle around him, and he’ll see the wind. It’s the same with splashes and drips of water falling into a pool or a puddle. We can manipulate elements or equipment to create movement, and we can see it happen.

Outdoor education happens every day, all around us, whether or not it’s part of a school’s curriculum.  And no matter what your playground looks, feels, tastes, smells or sounds like, I hope this series has inspired you to help children use their senses to interpret the world around them in unexpected, playful ways.

I love connecting with educators who are passionate about playgrounds and outdoor learning spaces, so if you’d like to share ideas, follow me on Twitter at @elmstudio or email me at emelvin@shp.com.