A large hill, trees, and climbing elements, and even a pond and vegetable gardens are included in the extremely varied play yard of the OBS Woutertje Pieterse in Leiden.
The project has abundant greenery, and many materials have been reused. The yard, which has existed since 2011, is a living schoolyard where things can and do change.
Motive and context
The idea was launched by a mother who also has a design background. The school was expanding with a new building, and this presented an opportunity to tackle the schoolyard as well. The aim was to get the children more in touch with nature, allowing them to get dirty, be creative, and move around more. But there was already a schoolyard design by the architect of the new building. An excursion to a natural playground convinced the headmaster to create a more nature-oriented schoolyard; the hill with watercourse was particularly popular.
Process and cooperation
Under the guidance of Suzanne van Ginneken of Speelnatuur, a working group was formed with a teacher from lower, upper and pre-school, along with some parents and a representative from the neighbourhood. The group collected initial ideas and listed the basic principles. Participation with the children then began. The designer gave a presentation to the children with images for inspiration. A design competition was organised for the upper school. As part of the teaching programme, they built a scale model representing their wishes. A schoolyard party was organised to discuss the design with parents. Based on all this input, the final design was created. It turned out that elevation differences, water, and lots of greenery were among the main wishes.
The school has a relatively large amount of outdoor space that is now used to its full potential. Originally, it was a paved yard with a few trees and some fenced greenery off limits for play.
Central to the design is the large, stepped play hill that also serves as an amphitheatre. The mound is so high that objections came from the neighbourhood. After talks with the neighbourhood, that objection was withdrawn; tall greenery and trees have been planted between the hill and the neighbourhood.
A water pump is situated halfway up the hill with a stream of water ending in a sandbox. At the back of the hill, an extensive climbing element has been created. A bit farther is a playing field that can also serve as an ice rink in winter. There are climbing trees in which one can actually climb. In a quieter part of the school garden—the ‘nature studio’—a pond and vegetable garden plots have been created and fruit trees have been planted.
After a discussion on whether or not there should be a separate kindergarten schoolyard, this was ultimately decided against. A jeu de boules court was built for use by the neighbourhood, which was well used for the first five years, but not in recent years.
Water and greenery
Currently, 80% of the originally paved yard has been covered with greenery. Thus, it is no longer a hard play yard but a natural playground. When the yard was designed and realised, from the first initiative in 2007 to its completion in 2011, climate adaptation was not yet a focus. Since a large part of the site is vegetated, a significant amount of rainwater can soak into the soil. The new building is fitted with a green roof. Thus, much of the rainwater is handled on site.
Attention has also been paid to biodiversity: there are various plantings and a highly biodiverse pond that is filled with rainwater. With the support of Natuur- en Milieueducatie Leiden, regular projects such as for ‘critters’ are organised as part of the teaching programme.
Thanks to the high proportion of greenery and the many trees that provide shade, it is definitely a heat-resistant schoolyard and is prepared for the future.
The school garden provides an extremely varied range of play attractions: play hill, water pump and watercourse, football pitch, climbing elements, climbing trees, etc.
In the quieter area near the vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and pond, outdoor lessons are given: here, groups of children from groups 2 and 6 garden under the guidance of vegetable gardeners. The amphitheatre can also be used for outdoor lessons. There is a schoolyard coordinator who would like to have more outdoor lessons but has too few hours to be able to encourage this. It appears that outdoor lessons need a stimulus for some teachers.
Construction and maintenance
The school garden was installed by the ecological landscaping company Groenling. During construction, the design was refined and improved, and details were determined during construction. The children also helped with the construction.
Fundraising was a challenge. More than 10 parents and the children organised activities. A fun fundraiser, organised by a parent with access to recording equipment, was a CD with a song from each class. This CD was sold for 15 euros each.
Maintenance is carried out three times a year under the supervision of a gardener; he also brings the necessary tools. On a maintenance day, 15 parents and children are busy pruning and cleaning up everything.
Learning points and experiences
It is no longer a new green schoolyard. Things have changed since 2011.
- Good maintenance is important; the future of a schoolyard depends on it. Here, it worked out very well with a good gardener, a schoolyard coordinator, and helpful parents.
- No grass in a schoolyard! Hills suffer from erosion from many children’s feet. The solution: add more tree trunks to make plateaus
- Protect greenery with fences or boards in vulnerable areas
- Create a fund to replace wooden playground equipment; after 10-12 years they need to be replaced.
- For the beds along the gable, that are bordered with stacked walls of old tiles, provide a wooden barrier in back. The stacked walls with the planks as back support can now be used as sitting places and protect the greenery at the same time.
- In the beginning, the schoolyard was always open. That led to nuisance. Now the gate closes at night.
- The children enjoy the natural schoolyard very much and they would prefer to stay outside.