Why Has the Playground Become the Driving Force behind Change in School Spaces?
In recent years we’ve seen a rise in the number of schools which have decided to transform their exterior space, usually in participative initiatives involving their educational communities. Different blogs and associations, such as Patios Habitables, talk about how that change should be implemented to create places of learning and co-existence. But why exactly did this renewal of educational spaces begin in playgrounds? And why did this demand arise simultaneously in many countries?
We’ll try to find answers to these questions in three short narratives.
Greta Thunberg. Photographer: Michael Campanella/The Guardian
By protecting the local environment, we’re also protecting the global environment
Greta Thunberg, 2019, UN Climate Change Summit. Greta Thunberg has as many critics as she has supporters, but her message leaves no-one indifferent. The movement she leads brings two realities to our attention: the difficulty local powers face in addressing global challenges, something Zygmunt Bauman was already talking about in his liquid modernity theory, and a globalisation of education which, as can be seen in student support for Thunberg’s climate strikes at international level, has for the first time moved beyond the PISA report. School has started to be both local and global. And the playground thus becomes a universal setting for environmental activism through the introduction of Nature. Contemporary awareness that our reality is interconnected helps us understand that by protecting the local environment, we’re also protecting the global environment.
When childhood vanished from the streets
The beginning of the 1990s. “One False Move…A Study of Children’s Independent Mobility”1, published in 1990, demonstrated statistically what is evident to anyone out walking in cities: in twenty years (between 1970 and 1990), children lost the streets. Those two decades marked the end of urban autonomy for children and unsupervised play activity in the developed countries. The results have been both physical (obesity, lack of vitamin D) and social (less frequent interaction with peers, more screen time), but the change has also meant a significant loss of learning (about how to take assumable risks, older children’s responsibility for younger children, self-organization, possession of space…), as explained by Penny Ritscher in El jardín de los secretos (The Garden of Secrets) (2006). Outdoor spaces for children are now limited to the playground and play areas in parks, and both are inadequate. Playground design therefore takes on an unprecedented importance in that it has to mitigate losses and, as an educational space, connect with the school’s education project. Aware of the pedagogical possibilities of outdoor play activities, parents and teachers first started to think up ways of transforming it in the first decade of the 21st century.
Changing space to improve society
The beginning of the 20th century and the birth of educational sociology. For the first time ever, the regulatory role of school as an institution which produces a certain type of person adapted to a certain type of society began to be analysed. At the same time, debate was initiated about whether to perpetuate or combat existing social inequalities. Now, a century later, we have a deeply bureaucratised school system influenced by capitalist entrepreneurship and the State. However, the best educational proposals are those which “are reversing those bureaucratic process and returning schools to the citizenry, with teachers collaborating with pupils, families, associations and other entities”2. One good example of this reversal is the transformation of school playgrounds. Not only are playgrounds places where things like co-education, inclusion and cooperation can be addressed: their transformation also represents a practical case of democracy in which changing space implies improving society.
Photo by Carme Cols/ elnousafareig.com
The above three narratives provide material for reflection which can help us understand why the playground has become the driving force behind change not only in school spaces but also in education itself. The best examples of playground transformation address environmental challenges, new social realities and a child population lacking in outdoor play activity, all of which are urgent issues not included in syllabuses or government reforms. But perhaps its main value lies in the possibility of putting into practice, here and now, the idea expressed by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: “Many little people, in little places, doing little things, can transform the world”3.
Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Notas de página
Hillman, Adams and Whitelegg, 1990.
Flecha and Serradell, 2010
Galeano, E. (1989). El libro de los abrazos (The Book of Embraces).
Es arquitecta por la ETSA de Sevilla (2003) y Máster en Arquitectura y Patrimonio Histórico (2008). Primer premio por su fin de carrera en la XXI Edición del Premio Dragados. Se forma en el estudio de Ricardo Alario, con quien comparte actualmente actividad profesional . En 2011 funda junto a Tibisay Cañas, Laura Organvídez, Ana Parejo y Sara Parrilla cuartocreciente arquitectura, una iniciativa creada con el objetivo de mejorar los tres espacios principales en los que se desarrolla la niñez (casa, escuela y ciudad) a través de la investigación, los talleres de arquitectura, la realización de proyectos y el diseño de objetos. Actualmente desarrolla un tesis sobre el espacio de juego exterior en la infancia, dirigida por Ángel Martínez García-Posada. Ha escrito y presentado diversas comunicaciones sobre el playground y el juego del niño en la ciudad.
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