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The Past, Present, and Future of the School Playground

The Past, Present, and Future of the School Playground
By Rob Thomas

Ask anyone born before the mid 1990s what their playground at school was like and the answer will almost always be the same: Vast expanses of empty tarmac with maybe a few line markings if the children were lucky. Breaks and lunch times had limited activities to running around chasing each other and some sort of sport if lucky.

Nowadays, the story is completely different. A school playground is packed full of equipment to aid various elements of education. Amazing climbing frames, decorative yet functional safety surfacing, den areas, and sensory gardens are common. So what changed and what does the future of playgrounds hold for us?

In the days gone by, those of us of a certain age may remember playing hopscotch. There was no play apparatus or equipment that children could use for their own games or to learn with. Teachers rarely used the outdoor space other than for P.E. so other than during break times external areas were wasted.

It has only been during the last twenty years or so that playgrounds have truly developed. We have realized that children can use the school outdoor space as a secondary classroom, not just as an area to run around chasing each other. Subjects such as math and science can be taught in a much more exciting way. Why learn about flowers from a book when you can go in to your playground and see the flowers in real life?

The Present

A well-designed play area cannot only aid educational development but has been proven to strengthen social development, self-confidence, and mental health. Areas of shelter and shade, spaces for creative and imaginative play, and for physical activities can contribute to a well-rounded playground that both children and teachers can use to aid learning. School grounds are often large areas, so it makes sense to make use of every single bit of space to help children grow to be their best, both physically and mentally. It’s here that they are set on a path for the rest of their lives and can be introduced to key skills that will be of great importance later in life.

Another element of school playgrounds that’s changed is safety. The last couple of decades has seen us want to become a risk-free society. We used to encourage children to learn about danger and risks themselves, but instead now we take away anything that could pose a potential injury. Previously fun and exciting play equipment such as swings are being taken out to stop accidents. What a lot of us forget is that play equipment is designed in a way that there is supposed to be an element of risk. It teaches our children valuable lessons about thinking about actions, and develops their physical capabilities. Nowadays, though there is a blame culture so in the event of an injury someone will most likely be sued. Thus, all the play equipment that has been installed is now getting taken out. Poorly designed play equipment should never be installed in the first place, but equipment that has been designed to specific safety standards should never have issues. Children are always going to get bumps and scrapes, it’s part of growing up. There used to be a time when going into school with a cut or even a broken bone was a badge of honor!

Looking into the Future

It’s hard to determine what exactly the future of school playgrounds will be. The very latest technology has brought about electronic play panels with flashing lights and sounds – whether these are a short-lived phase or not is yet to be seen. What will never change, though, are the children’s actions children in play areas, such as climbing and role play. The educational curriculum and politics will determine how school playgrounds evolve, and economic factors will also have a strong influence. Since 2008 and the recession, budget cuts have reduced amounts schools are spending on playgrounds. In the worst-case scenario, this could result in outdoor spaces going backwards as schools concentrate money on the inside of the school buildings. Hopefully this won’t be the case.

New developments in material technology may result in cheaper, lighter, and easier to shape products. In addition, a heightened awareness in the environment could result in more use of recyclable materials, with products using solar power or teaching children about the environment.

When it comes to the safety issue. a lot will depend on society. Are we going to encourage our children to learn and develop or are we going to wrap them up and stop them from having fun? Legally, things will have to change too. As long as all risk assessments have been undertaken and the play equipment meets safety standards, no one should be threatened with being sued. Society is only concerned for short-term gain, however, so unless there is increased awareness on the importance of play and the issue of risk, this issue will continue to affect the design of school playgrounds.

The importance of playgrounds will never disappear, whether it’s for physical fun or to aid education. It’s vital that we keep and build upon the good progress that has been made over the last couple of decades with school playgrounds in order to give our children the brightest possible future.

Rob Thomas has worked in the outdoor play industry for over seven years and currently works for Playsound Services Ltd, which is based near Wigan, England. The company builds bespoke play structures for schools, councils, and leisure industries. Rob believes in the importance of play in the development of children growing up both physically and educationally. He lives in St Helens, UK with his wife and daughter.

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