Designing Playgrounds for Equal Learning Opportunities: The Crucial Role of Designers
In today's evolving educational landscape, playgrounds have become dynamic learning environments that promote inclusivity and skill development. Designers hold a pivotal role in crafting spaces that facilitate equal learning opportunities for children of diverse backgrounds and abilities.
The Designer's Multifaceted Role
From Jan Sundvik's perspective, a designer's role extends beyond aesthetics. It involves understanding the unique needs of children and creating environments that inspire exploration, interaction, and learning through play.
Sundvik explains: "A good example for if we desire inclusive play equipment, accessible to everyone, consider incorporating a boat-like structure to the playground. A ramp could be included, allowing wheelchair access to the lower area, where one can assume the role of captain. Others can climb aboard, becoming the crew.
Additionally, integrating sound tubes for instructions would enhance the experience. Overall, the focus is primarily on the games unless other elements are deemed necessary."
Sundvik emphasizes the goal of providing play opportunities for all children, including those with disabilities. He acknowledges the challenge of limitations like age groups, budget constraints, and platform heights. He suggests that inclusivity might be easier to achieve in entire park designs rather than individual products, as these require more consideration.
Inclusivity and Accessibility: A Holistic Approach
Marco van Heerde highlights that designing for inclusivity and accessibility is an integral part of the process. It involves considering not only physical accessibility but also sensory experiences, ensuring that children with varying abilities can fully engage with the space. His approach involves:
- Researching and understanding diverse abilities.
- Consulting experts and stakeholders, including therapists, accessibility consultants, parents, and community members.
- Setting clear design goals based on research and stakeholder input.
- Ensuring physical accessibility with ramps, pathways, and level surfaces.
- Addressing sensory and cognitive needs through design elements.
- Fostering social interaction through seating areas and gathering spaces.
- Establishing feedback mechanisms for ongoing improvements.
Balancing Creativity and Safety
Outi Lassila emphasizes that safety standards and creativity are complementary, not conflicting. Designers carefully balance these aspects to create spaces that encourage exploration while ensuring children's well-being.
Lassila explains, "When designing a playground, even if you adhere to all the safety standards, there is still a possibility of unintentionally incorporating elements that may not be entirely safe. It is crucial to consider the playground as a whole entity. For instance, if you fail to provide areas that encourage risk-taking or offer a sense of controlled danger for children, solely focusing on super-safe and low-level features might paradoxically result in more hazardous situations. Children are incredibly creative and will find ways to take risks, such as climbing on roofs, even when the environment is designed with utmost caution.
It is fascinating to observe children playing in playgrounds or engaging with other designed elements. They often utilize products in unexpected and imaginative ways that designers may not have envisioned. This unpredictability is more prevalent in labs or when designing indoor-themed playgrounds, as designers have greater control over product selection. However, even in outdoor playgrounds, designers attempt to anticipate how children will navigate from one play equipment to another, only to witness their creativity surpassing expectations.
One intriguing aspect to consider is that safety standards in playgrounds often restrict loose objects, which children are naturally drawn to. Play often involves manipulating and moving objects from one location to another. These limitations can somewhat constrain playground design. Nevertheless, in most cases, safety requirements and creativity in design complement and enhance each other."
Fostering Cooperation and Socialization
Sundvik underscores the significance of fostering cooperation and socialization through playground design. Equipment is strategically positioned to promote interaction, teamwork, and the development of important social skills.
"I have been experimenting with creating various games, such as board games with dice where players have to search for items in a park. This endeavour has been quite successful, and the beauty of these games is that you can easily change the theme. Personally, I am drawn to the social aspect of these games, where parents can engage with their children or even participate in a collaborative motor skills activity. However, what truly captivates me is the idea of incorporating social and emotional elements into playground experiences. In today's digital age, many teenagers are glued to their screens and fail to recognize the importance of emotions. That's why I believe it's crucial to bring back analogue games that evoke a sense of familiarity and connection." States Sundvik.
Open-Ended Play for Cognitive Development
van Heerde highlights the importance of open-ended play in promoting cognitive development. By incorporating elements such as interactive play panels and sensory-rich environments, children are encouraged to engage in imaginative exploration, which in turn stimulates critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This type of play allows children to express their creativity, develop their own unique ideas, and learn through hands-on experiences, ultimately contributing to their overall cognitive development and shaping them into well-rounded individuals.
Learning Across Generations
Lassila points out that well-designed playgrounds encourage intergenerational learning, allowing adults to participate in play-based activities with children. This bridges gaps between generations and creates opportunities for shared experiences. When designing a playground, it is important to actively involve adults in the play experience. Instead of simply sitting on a bench and scrolling through their phones, they should fully engage in the activities. By playing with children, adults have the opportunity to learn a multitude of things, particularly from the creativity of children. For example, what may appear as a balance beam to an adult could be seen as a boat or something entirely different by a child. This perspective shift allows us to see things in a new light and gain a fresh outlook. Embracing these types of experiences can be truly enriching.
Overcoming Challenges with Purposeful Design
Designers face challenges such as limited budgets. According to Sundvik, addressing these challenges requires innovative thinking and creative solutions. By involving stakeholders in the design process, designers can align projects with the needs and expectations of the community. Sundvik suggests using safety surfaces creatively and incorporating graphics. For example, suggesting the use of artificial turf or other materials that offer greater play value and are more budget-friendly.
Incorporating Insights from Children
van Heerde emphasizes the importance of observing children's behaviour in playgrounds. By witnessing their spontaneous interactions and imaginative play, designers gain valuable insights that inform their decision-making, resulting in more engaging and effective designs.
To gather feedback, we actively engage with our users, including school teachers who witness children playing on school grounds. We conduct observations at various locations and have conversations with parents to understand their perspectives. Additionally, we conduct interviews with experts such as therapists, accessibility consultants, and representatives from disability advocacy organizations. These interactions allow us to continually enhance our playgrounds and ensure they meet the diverse needs of our users.
Designing Playgrounds as Empowering Environments
Through their expertise, designers play a vital role in creating playgrounds that empower children through equal learning opportunities. Their designs bridge education, safety, creativity, and community-building, contributing to a brighter future where every child thrives.
As Sundvik, van Heerde, and Lassila have demonstrated, designers hold the key to transforming traditional playgrounds into multifaceted learning environments. Through strategic design choices, they elevate the potential for children to learn, grow, and forge meaningful connections, emphasizing the importance of their indispensable role in shaping the future of education.
We extend our gratitude to Jan Sundvik, Designer at Lappset Group Oy, Marco van Heerde, Product Developer at Yalp & Lappset, and Outi Lassila, Concept Designer at Lappset Group Oy for sharing their invaluable insights and enriching this article with their expertise.