The key features of the Edible Estates initiative are set out below.

Natural Playspaces
We believe that the blank featureless greenspaces around social housing estates have a detrimental effect upon the well-being of the adults and children that live within them.  Whilst we want an Edible Estates project to encourage both adults and children to get involved in growing local food, we recognise that children also want to play, and we want to incorporate ‘natural playspaces’ into our plans for local greenspace.

There is a growing awareness that the play facilities provided for children have been preoccupied with heath and safety rather than fun and adventure, and that children need ‘risk and challenge’ to develop in a healthy way.

The information and images below are edited from a report prepared by Alastair Seaman of Grounds For Learning.  Grounds for Learning helps Scottish children to connect with nature, become more active, learn outdoors, develop social skills and have fun.  The report is focused on school grounds, but we believe that it is equally relevant to the greenspace around social housing estates.  We have shortened the report, there is a link to the full report at the foot of this page.  

Lessons From Berlin’s School Playgrounds

Playing and learning in natural outdoor environments is good for children – they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. It stimulates physical activity, promotes creativity and helps develop social skills. It can create an appreciation of the natural world, relieve stress, develop resilience and bring learning to life. And it’s a lot of fun.

While many Scottish children grow up with uninspiring asphalt school playgrounds and limited opportunities for natural play, some of our European neighbours have a different emphasis.  In June 2010, Grounds For Learning Programme Manager, Alastair Seaman, spent 4 days in Berlin touring some of the city’s primary and nursery school playgrounds. This report summarises some of his key observations in the hope that it will help to provoke reflection and debate about Scottish school playgrounds.

Naturally Untidy
The strong emphasis on nature and play means that there’s not a great deal of concern or effort expended on making school grounds look tidy. Grass gets worn or grows long and unkempt and weeds are everywhere. Most sites had nettles, brambles and thistles. In Scotland we’d want to keep it looking tidy and worry about children and thorns. 

Places to Hide
A Scottish primary school recently ripped out its only bushes because playground supervisors couldn’t see all the children. A key theme of playgrounds in Berlin is space to hide and a philosophy that children need to be away from the active supervision of teachers for part of the day.  Planting has been designed to create lots of hidden paths, dens and cover.  

In some school playgrounds up to 70% of the children are out of view of a supervisor during break time. Supervisors don’t generally circulate and police – they locate themselves at fairly fixed points so that any vulnerable children can stay close, and if there’s any trouble, children know where to find an adult. In answer to the obvious behaviour question, teachers claim that break time behaviour is better than it was in the old tarmac playgrounds. The Berlin school grounds programme began in part as a response to playground violence – with schools claiming a significant reduction in break time trouble in the new natural spaces.

Sand
Sand is everywhere. ‘Sandpits’ are huge and found in every primary school playground. They don’t look anything like the sandpits we see in the UK – they cover large areas, they’re not covered over and they’re not excessively raked or cleaned – so are often full of leaves and twigs. The general rule is that the sand is removed (for cleaning and re-use) and replaced about every 2 years. Sand is the usual safety surface around play equipment and features, and these areas are always built bespoke on site rather than bought from a catalogue. They are often surrounded by low walls – which can be used as seating – and many have small areas of raised decking for seating around the edge or in the middle.

Risk & Challenge
A very different attitude to risk is evident. Playgrounds are designed to create multiple opportunities for ‘good risk’ i.e. risks that can be clearly recognised and assessed. Children jump off 6 foot high rocks into sand with no adults around. Play equipment fall heights are commonly 4 – 6 feet high. Children clamber onto play hut roofs of 6 feet or more without being rebuked. Surfaces are sometimes designed to be uneven and there seems to be a general assumption in favour of risk. 

Play Equipment
Fixed play equipment is an important element of every playground. It usually has a rustic feel – and much of it is built from wavy round sections of Robinia timber. The most common type is a small hut on stilts with a surrounding structure climb on – often with ropes and a slide. 

Fall heights of 4 – 6 feet are common. Most playgrounds have slides, commonly wide slides on embankments rather than free standing structures. Some have swings. Most have horizontal bars for spinning round. Balance beams of various kinds are common. All schools had outdoor table tennis tables (in concrete)– and we saw a kind of ‘hand ball table tennis’ played with footballs in a ‘round the clock’ manner. Many schools have good stores of loose play equipment for children to use in break times. Although this is common in Scotland, the range of equipment was greater and included ‘riskier’ equipment such as uni-cycles, trikes and scooters. Some schools have huts and wigwams – which are used as climbing structures as much as dens and shelters.

Diffuse Play
Scottish playgrounds are often dominated by a couple of activities, generally football, tig and standing around. Watching playtimes in Berlin I was struck by how diffuse and distributed the play is. There are more, smaller groups engaged in a much wider range of play activities and making more use of the whole outdoor space. I was struck by how there were opportunities for more children to lead and achieve in their play space and play time than would be the case in a typical Scottish school.

Topography and Tunnels
All playgrounds have been re-profiled to introduce slopes and dips, creating spaces that stimulate running around and running up and down. Slopes are enhanced with slides, boulder fields, water pumps and channels – and almost all schools have tunnels through a man-made hill. Some have boulder ‘cliffs’, creating opportunities to climb as well as
jump. Often these slopes help to enclose a seating area.

Community
Some schools give access to the grounds for play out of school time. One had a lovely bespoke sheltered area where we saw a number of parents sitting chatting for an hour after school while their children played. They had come armed with juice and cake (which they shared with us!). The same school had got hold of two old trams and built a platform to put them beside. Their plan was to rig a canopy to the trams and create a cafe to encourage parents to hang around and socialise after dropping off or collecting their children. Most schools had stories of parents being involved in maintaining the sites. One pays a parent 5,000 Euro a year to organise regular community work days on weekends – when up to 100 parents and children turn up for a day to do some maintenance work and enjoy a barbeque or picnic together.

Design
It’s so obvious that you can miss it – Berlin’s school playgrounds have been designed for play by experienced play designers (almost unheard of in Scotland). All of these playgrounds had a comprehensive planning and design process with extensive consultation with pupils and staff, which was then developed by a landscape designer into a comprehensive, holistic and detailed design. In most cases pupils and parents were involved in some aspects of the original work – as well as ongoing smaller projects (such as planting, wall building, sculptures etc.)

This gives a very different result from the typical Scottish school, where parents raise small sums of money and make small scale ad hoc improvements, often without having a co-ordinated plan.

This isn’t surprising given that budgets for Berlin schools were typically 150K – 250k Euros – but it does highlight the gains that can be made from engaging a professional play designer and the general absence of this approach in Scotland.

Alastair Seaman, Grounds for Learning, Feb 2011


Grounds for Learning, Inglewood House, Alloa. FK10 2HU
01259 220 887 
aseaman@ltl.org.uk