Creating a calm outside environment


Case study – creating a calm outside environment

Not all early childhood environments are purposely designed for the care and education of children. In this case study I explain how I solved the problem of inappropriate playground interactions by drawing on my design qualifications and existing research to implement the phenomenon of belonging in an outdoor environment through a new research design method.

Below is the orignal space that was designed for 0-3year old children. The problem was it created lots of banged heads as children ran from one side to another.

The original outdoor playground was part of a new community/residential development in rural NSW. The developer’s interpretation of natural play space extended to a few trees on the fence line, a sand pit and grassed areas. This design resulted in a lot of conflict and frustration among the children and educators. Daily practice saw the equipment, usually simple climbing frames and bikes, removed from the shed and placed in the environment. At all times educators and children could clearly see the entire space and the play activities taking place. Children were not engaged in activities for long periods of time. They moved from one area to another continuously, and if a small group were engaged they were disturbed by the ever moving mob of other children. This was confirmed through interviews, video and photographic data along with an analysis of accident reports that indicated children’s ongoing movement around the space was contributing to a high incidence of injuries, often resulting from banged heads. Educators described their experience in the outdoor environment as exhausting and used the words ‘crowd control’ to highlight their actions.

The use of activity pockets

Activity pockets can be described as spaces that “surround public gathering places with pockets of activities – small, partly enclosed areas at the edges, which jut forward into the open space between the paths, and contain activities which make it natural for people to pause and get involved”. A mosaic of subculture is “an identifiable place and separate from other subcultures by boundary of nonresidential land. New ways of life can develop. People can choose the kind of subculture they wish to live in, and can still experience many ways of life different from their own. Since each environment fosters mutual support and a strong sense of shared values, individuals can grow.”

Final Designs

The final concepts produced a combination of eleven activity pockets and mosaics of subculture: 1) sandpit, 2) Concrete jungle,3) Three table area, 4) Circular area, 5) Tapering walls, 6) One table area, 7) Maze, 8) Creek Bed, 9) Tyre tower, 10) Mirrors, 11) Rock garden.

Children choose the activity pocket and subculture they wish to play in. With eleven activity pockets in which children are actively engaged, children are spread and segmented across the outdoor environment resolving the initial problem of injuries and unfocused play sessions.  Particular activity pockets are discussed below.

Activity Pockets 1-4: Sandpit, Concrete jungle, Three table area and Circular area

Four activity pockets are visible in the image above. I intentionally designed high walls so children couldn’t see across the playground, which in turned stopped the running, banged heads and limited play episodes. The small walls around the paths were strategically placed to ensure children had to stop and walk rather than run to enter a new area. The area’s surface comprises different materials to challenge young children’s locomotion skills. In this rural setting we don’t have great success with grass as a surface. There is not enough rainfall and the high traffic the surface experiences makes it too difficult to maintain. For this reason I re-conceptualised the grass into the concrete jungle structures next to the sand pit.

Activity Pocket 6 One Table area

Spaces for public gatherings include partly enclosed areas at the edge of the central path and clearly defined space which includes different ground textures of rocks, bark and compressed road base. The high walls stop children seeing across the yard and moving from one area to another. This encourages longer play episodes. The small wooden blocks create an entry by forming a mini wall where children need to walk around and gather at the table.  Educators use the table to create a subculture where new open ended material can be introduced or children resource their own learning by adding what they require.

Activity Pocket 7 Maze

This activity pocket sees a space that doesn’t give a clear view to where you could be heading, with walls 1.2 metres tall. Many bikes have been stuck in these walls and educators often witness children using teamwork to solve this mathematical problem.

When designing this pocket I used the mosaic of subculture concept by drawing on Richard Serra’s minimalist sculptures. Serra’s work “A Matter of Time” can be found in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain. My personal experience with his work inspired me to introduce his concept of ‘not knowing what’s around the corner’ and ‘feeling small’, and in doing so I wanted the children to “experience many ways of life different from their own.” In the old, open environment, children didn’t have any areas to explore. Because of these new spaces they can use their imagination to create new worlds.

Here a group are playing chase with their push carts through the maze. When the outdoor environment was complete the larger bikes became stuck in the maze area. The children solved this problem by requesting these smaller, green push carts. These play episodes have lasted more than forty minutes, even with a large number of children in the area.  At the time of this photo, for example, there were thirty-five children in this play area. As children dart through and interact in the maze, they create a strong sense of shared values.

Activity Pocket 9 Tyre Tower

Using an existing, popular tyre tower design, I used risk as a pedagogical element in this activity pocket. The tower stands at two metres tall. As Little et al (2012) identified, children will only climb as high as they feel comfortable managing their own risk. Initial concerns from educators were raised regarding children failing as they thought the children would climb on the outside of the structure. To date, all children climb on the inside of the tower. Educators are trained not to encourage children to climb higher than they feel comfortable. Interestingly, when very young children enter the environment, the tyre tower is usually the first place they crawl to and pull themselves up on.

The tyre tower appears to have an unspoken membership among children. Observing children using the structure over time revealed an acceptance by the group when children make it to the top. For example, when the toddlers first entered the space the previously identified leaders of the group did not embark upon the climbing challenge whereas other members of the group happily engaged in the challenge. This altered the leadership structure of the group, both in the indoor and outdoor environments.

Activity Pocket 10 Mirror

Children form groups behind the mirror away from the view of adults. Adults are not needed as natural leaders appear among the children. On many occasions these play episodes last more than twenty minutes. The material used in the play episodes is usually rocks or other natural material.


Comparing the outdoor space before and after the redesign reveals many different play practices and interactions. A design process which promotes children’s sense of belonging creates space for children’s engagement with the environment and each other.  This is evidenced by longer play episodes, blossoming friendships, reduced playground accidents, and richer and more meaningful play activities. Educators report, for example, that they are no longer required to control a crowd of children and are amazed at the length of time play occurs in different spaces using only the most basic of natural resources.


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