So the cliché goes, there are lots of things Germany does well; public transport, sausages, compound nouns… actually all these things are true, but I’ve been discovering that in Berlin and Hamburg there are some other things that are done well; challenging, exciting and sustainable play provision for children and young people.
I recently spent a week in Hamburg and Berlin with a study tour for play professionals co-ordinated by ip-dip.com and www.meynellgames.org. The tour took us to scrapstores, adventure playgrounds, public parks and playspaces, community provision, waldkindergarten and green school playgrounds. On Thursday we spent the day looking at school play areas in Berlin in the company of Manfred from Grün macht Schule; www.gruen-macht-schule.de.
Grün macht Schule is an organisation that exists as a collaboration between educationalists and landscape architects, It was set up as an advice centre for schools with funding from the City of Berlin that came through both the Education and Environment funding streams. In Berlin there are 850 schools. Grün macht schule have initiated projects with 500 schools of which 80/90 have been completed to date. We visited three of their projects at Galilei school, Neuemark school and Spreewald school. One of things that stands out with the three play areas are the similarities and the differences. There was a similar feel to all three play areas; the use of dense shrubbery planting to create different spaces and places to hide, the use of light gravelly sand as a substrate and safety surface and the mixture of play structures, or ‘play machines’ in and amongst planting, recycled materials and natural elements. But the differences were the more striking, each one had bespoke elements, often designed and created with the children and young people, artwork, sculptures and mosaics abounded making the places feel exciting to explore and distinctive.
Galilei School is in former West Berlin, but only 300m from Checkpoint Charlie which formerly was the only crossing point between both parts of the city. Here they undertook workshops with children and teachers to inform the architects. Interestingly there was no money from the school or funding identified initially and for Manfred this is an important part of setting the expectation with the school.
German schools currently close at lunchtime, so from 2pm this is all open to the public. They still have to close it in the evening because of concerns about people in the space misusing drugs and alcohol. We ask about how the teachers supervise this area, this is always one of the main concerns from teachers when they are looking to transform their outdoor spaces to be more complex and have more ‘hiding places’. The solution that Grün macht Schule suggests is really common sense.
“Even if you can see an accident happen you cannot prevent it. It’s better that a teacher stays in one place, where the children know where they will be.”
Neuemark primary school had a Grün macht schule project in 2004. The school has an 80% Turkish population and 5% German. The change to all day schooling which is being piloted in this part of Berlin has changed the nature of the way the play area is used. The school has breaks 3 times during the day with 15 mins each break as well as a lunch break.
During play times there are five teachers supervising the area, one teacher in every region, The interesting thing about the changes to all day school is that the schools are recognising the loss of children’s free time , So in this school they also use the outside space for free time during the school day and when there are one or maybe two teachers supervising the area. Then the teachers stay in one spot and the children have to be where they can see that teacher.
We ask about the concept of loose parts, could there be some of the elements of design that are not fixed down? Manfred and Georg struggle to find the German word for this which is ‘bewegungsbaustelle’ moving construction site for kids. The concept is known here but features mostly in kindergartens. We ask Manfred if it would be better to have some of the poles and rocks not fixed but he recognises that it is a compromise and the parents and the schools aren’t ready for it.
Manfred described some of the changes.
“Before this was a playground only for boys, now less aggressive; groups have spaces and it is more quiet.”
The play area used to be dominated by football and the girls and other children had no spaces to play. Now there are lots of areas available including an area for football and there are spaces for groups to be together. There is also lots of evidence of children being in and amongst the bushes. Anti social behaviour has lessened and the school has found there are more smaller accidents but less larger ones.
The third play area we visit, adjacent to Spreewald school has a ‘play machine’ that is unlike any other I have ever seen. We nickname it ‘the rubber world’. The play area is in a landscaped park with stone amphitheatre and sculptures made by children and young people. There are few play structures but the dominating structure is a large frame from which hangs undulating rubber sheets and hanging rubber tiles. It is fascinating to watch the children at play on it we can’t resist testing it out and find it is a really challenging and flexible piece of equipment.
The play area is in a public park but the school children are all playing on it because they use the public park as their playground. A teacher sits by a pile of coats doing a suduko puzzle and chatting with some of the children who are taking a rest but otherwise the children are playing around the park.
This is really fascinating to observe, five boys are running and catching each other, they jump to avoid collision with a young man you sits with his speakers in his ears and his head on his knees. Two boys are fighting with sticks, utterly absorbed in the running battle that consumes them. An older lady sits in her sunbathing outfit, catching the warm April sunshine. This is a fascinating example of the integration of public space and school play areas. The area was developed by and with the school for them to use, but is also a public space.
Manfred tells us that there has been a lobby from playground companies for plastic equipment to be used in Grün macht Schule projects but for Manfred it is important that kids in the city have natural experiences. They are now working with kindergartens to develop play spaces. They see that by starting in early childhood these spaces help children develop. Manfred talks of the importance of learning to fall correctly, by falling over a lot when you are young and the importance of being exposed to sap and pollen to build up resistance. Their organisation has been able to fit with the external agenda on establishing the balance of ecology in the city, There used to be lots of money for this so lots of new play areas developed. But now for 3 years there has only been money for small projects. In Manfred’s view money needs to come from society instead and for this it is critically important that parents are on board. If we came back in 5 years he guess times there would be another 5% of schools with this sort of space.
One of the things that has happened in the time when the project was developing lots of school grounds is that there has been lots of work been put in to work closely with the insurance department. They see the importance of involving teachers, parents, to create something that is challenging but that doesn’t go too far. Each project builds on previous ones and builds up the ideas with decision makers, children and parents about what is possible. One thing they have found is that here are more accidents. But critically there are more smaller accidents rather than more bad accidents. Insurance companies see that this is better and cheaper and things are changing across the city in favour of this sort of landscaping. It is this that is the main point I take away from our visits. This same process is happening in the UK. Projects are being inspired by the work of Grun Macht Schule and organisations like them and working to create the same level of influence that has taken place in Berlin.
Grounds for Learning video of playgrounds in Berlin here: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/video/g/video_tcm4665303.asp
Read my journal from Hamburg and Berlin here: Mobily trip journal