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How to build the perfect playground

Chris Raven | 14 Feb 2017 | Comments

In December 2015 Atkins was commissioned to design, tender and oversee landscape improvements around Ivybridge Primary School in Isleworth, London.

The school's existing external environment consisted of large open areas of tarmac with inaccessible boundaries and overgrown vegetation. Our brief was to design multi-functional landscape features that support learning across the curriculum whilst also providing improved playtime resources for Reception, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

The project has been a great success and so I wanted to share my five step process for achieving the perfect design project:

1. Engage the wider community during the consultation

Gaining comment and inspiration from teachers, pupils, parents and maintenance staff is the best way to ensure any project meets and hopefully exceeds the ambitions of the client.

Rather than asking a simple "What do you want?" we provided a number of consultation questions, such as "What do you currently like/dislike externally" and "What would you like to be able to do in your school grounds?" to prompt deeper thought and provide better insights for us as designers.

2. Interpret aspirations and transform ideas into inspired designs

Inevitably, early consultation comments can include unachievable aspirations. Rather than dismiss these requests or take them literally, we strive to incorporate the sensations or experiential qualities the children are seeking with these elements into our landscape designs.

For example, At Ivybridge Primary School the pupils had requested a bouncy castle and helter skelter. We were able to install a bouncy board belt feature that provided the bouncy castle sensation and replicate the swing and spin sensation of a helter skelter by incorporating a basket swing.

3. Support the client through the decision making process

School communities usually find hand drawn sketches far easier to interpret and understand than 2D CAD models. We developed three initial interpretations of the design brief, including annotated plans, hand drawn sketches and precedent images, while developing detailed indications of costs for different elements and features to make the school’s decision making as easy and informed as possible.

This was also a fantastic opportunity to involve pupils and use the design process to develop their mathematical and comparison skills.

4. Bring the design to life

Where possible we undertake construction during school holidays to minimise disruption to teaching. In the case of Ivybridge Primary School the construction phase was mostly carried out over the summer holidays, achieving completion on schedule, within budget and to a very high standard.

5. Our work is done - time to celebrate!

Projects like this are extremely rewarding and make me proud to be a landscape architect. With the playground completed in November 2016 we’ve had some excellent feedback on how the pupils have been enjoying their new learning and play area, as well as how teachers are finding innovative ways of bringing the curriculum outside of the classroom.

I look forward to my next playground project!

The above images show some of the features we included in the Ivybridge Primary School playground design, including a basket swing for inclusive play, a slope climbing area to make us of previously unused space, outdoor classrooms and a wet play fountain.