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Guest Column - November 2003

Creating an Innovative Playground Through the Collaborative Process

By Lawrence B. Raffel, ASLA


Play is a process by which children learn. Similarly, renovating a play environment is a process by which both parents and facility managers learn that they have the ability to successfully create an innovative playground for a unique early childhood educational program.

Designing a playground can be as simple as calling the local play equipment manufacturers' representative and ordering a play structure from the catalog. However, when the playground is an essential component of an early childhood education program for the laboratory school of the National College of Education, for example, it is important to establish a collaborative process that places the critical decisions in the hands of the parents, teachers and administrators. It is the role of the landscape architect to facilitate the process by which the parents, teachers and administrators learn to "build" a playground, and it is through this collaborative process that everyone assumes an ownership of the playground.

The Early Childhood Education Program is part of Baker Demonstration School in Evanston, Ill. A private preschool through eighth-grade institution governed by National-Louis University, Baker School is a major part of the teacher education program of the National College of Education. National-Louis University played a major role in the renovation of the playground by providing valuable oversight and assistance throughout. However, it was the Baker Parent Organization (BPO) and the Early Childhood Playground Committee headed by the parents that were clearly instrumental in the move to create not only a new playground, but a playground that encompassed all areas of play in a manner consistent with the early childhood educational philosophy of Baker Demonstration School.

Several studies indicate that a playground is a valuable educational tool. Children construct knowledge through discovery in free play as well as through social interactions with peers and adults. Children learn by having meaningful experiences and making relevant connections to the word around them. The playground for an early childhood program is where children are provided with developmental opportunities in motor-skill development, decision-making, fantasy play and social development. In this particular case, it was important for the designers to look to the Baker School educational philosophy for inspiration in creating a design that complimented the school's curriculum.

Developing a process

The renovation of the early childhood playground was discussed by the BPO as early as the fall of 1999. The existing playground was in disrepair. The old wood and plastic play structure had deteriorated, and the safety surface of shredded rubber tires had severely compacted. In addition, the site contained a considerable slope from north to south, and the lack of proper site drainage would render portions of the 9,200-square-foot playground useless after periods of heavy rainfall. At that time, schematic design concepts were developed presenting the various playground options to the BPO. However, with more pressing business at hand, and the funds seeming out of reach at the time, a new playground was shelved.

Then in January 2001, a playground committee was organized to explore the process required to renovate or replace the existing early childhood playground. As a landscape architect with a specialization in park and recreation design, I felt I could advise the committee in establishing a course of action to move toward the implementation of a new playground. As the parent of a Baker child, I felt it was my obligation to assist in developing a process that enlisted the knowledge and talents of a diverse group of individuals from educators to surveyors to ensure that the playground design was consistent with the mission of the program and presented the children with opportunities to test their skills, expand their imagination, make new friends or just simply have fun.

The involvement of the parents was critical to the implementation of the playground; it was a dedicated team of parents that pushed this project through from inception to completed construction. Of course, it was equally important to involve the teachers and administrators of Baker School in the process, particularly in the programming discussions. It was with the assistance of the parents and teachers that a program statement was developed to guide the design process.

The process was unique in that no single individual or profession dominated the planning, design or implementation. Separate requests for proposal (RFPs) were issued by the playground committee for playground design and construction administration, playground equipment design and delivery, site surveying, and playground construction. In accordance with NLU procedures, minority- and women-owned businesses were notified and encouraged to submit proposals. A selection committee composed of parents, teachers, administrators and NLU executive staff interviewed potential design firms and selected a design firm in April 2001. Similarly, RFPs were written to solicit proposals from playground manufacturers' representatives to design and supply all the components required for an individual play structure to be placed in the renovated playground. The RFP was written by the landscape architect, and the applicants were given very concise guidelines such as price range, age range of children, number of children and approximate area. The RFP also identified areas of interest as expressed by the teachers and committee members. Representatives were asked to design a play structure and present the concept to the selection committee. This process of assembling the team of professionals was particularly enlightening to the parents who became an integral part of the consulting team.

Primary issues

Funding the construction of the playground was considered a major obstacle. However, through the generous contributions of a few organizations and foundations as well as a large network of volunteers (including both parents and students), that obstacle was easily overcome. Several creative funding sources were developed by the committee including using the Baker School parking lot for Northwestern University football games, a "piggy bank" coin collection by the students, a themed fund-raiser auction and dinner, and selling engraved pavers. Again, by involving the students, the parents and the school in funding the project, everyone felt ownership in the playground. Seventy percent of the design and construction costs were paid for from the funds raised by the BPO with the remaining costs, which represented primarily infrastructure costs, paid for by National-Louis University.

The design and construction schedule was absolutely crucial. Design documents were completed in June 2001, and construction documents were completed in October 2001. Through competitive bids, a contractor was selected in November 2001, and a contract was awarded in January 2002. It was important that construction begin on the first day of summer break and substantial completion of construction be achieved before school began in the fall. The playground was officially dedicated on Sept. 25, 2002; however, it was officially opened on Sept. 4, the first day of school. As Candace Scheidt, director of Baker School noted at the official dedication: "The children dedicated the playground on the first day of school because it was ready for their serious business of play right on schedule."

The process established to plan, design and construct a new early childhood playground brought together a diverse group of experts in playground planning and design, education and operational services. The final product reflects the input of all individuals involved. Of paramount concern is safety, so the playground reflects all the current CPSI and ASTM safety guidelines as well as ADA accessibility guidelines.

With considerable more play pieces and creative design elements such as Baker Street and Sandbox Alley, basketball keys in the shape and color of piano keys, outdoor painting stations, and sand/water play, the playground allows for imaginary play and social interaction.

Seat walls, paver plazas and a small amphitheater area encourage storytelling, reading and play acting. In addition, by renovating the playground, the school also improved the aesthetic of the site with new ornamental fencing, benches, landscape and general site improvements. However, equally important, the Early Childhood Educational Program now includes an outdoor space that provides valuable educational lessons to the young children enrolled in the program.

On the playground as well as in the classroom, individual development occurs through exploratory and reflective practices. By creating a play area that promotes problem-solving, communication, responsible decision-making and team-building skills, Baker Demonstration School is providing the early childhood program the tools to develop healthy minds and bodies. And healthy minds and bodies are basic to academic success.

Lawrence B. Raffel is a registered landscape architect and principal associate at Land Design Collaborative, Inc., a landscape architectural/urban design firm that provides consulting services to public and private clients in the areas of park and recreation, land planning, site planning and design, urban design, and landscape architecture. He can be reached at lraffel@landdesigncollaborative.com.