Monday, November 12, 2012

Playground Consultation: “Wow, we thought of that!”

It was a pretty special moment last week when Shyrel from Auckland Council came into school to elicit some feedback from a group of students about a proposed local playground. When the plans and images were shown up on the screen there was a moment of stunned silence followed by exclamations of ‘Wow, we thought of that!’

And in fact they had. A few months earlier Shyrel had come into school armed with marker pens, large sheets of paper and lots of plasticine. The students, year 5-8, were given a blank canvas and an opportunity to share their thinking. What would they like to see in a local playground, to be built a couple of blocks away from school?

Over the next hour or so, strips of plasticine were transformed into towers, slides, scooter tracks, swings, flying foxes, trees and all manner of weird and wonderful playground possibilities. For the students, they were sharing their thinking, being creative and having a great time. But for me, I was learning something about the consultative process, because it was the conversation and dialogue that was the rich element in an afternoon of model making. And this is where the true student voice comes out. What struck me most was the language of possibilities, the “I wonder…’, ‘What about…’, ‘What might…’, ‘What if…’, that was most prevalent in the room.

Interestingly though while there was still a strong emphasis on equipment, the students also considered more environmental play- the stepping stones across the planted areas, trees to provide shade, the need for a ‘kick around’ space on the grass, seating for adults to talk and watch, the desire to have a water channel of some kind. I hadn’t expected this. I thought talk would focus more around the gross motor skills type of equipment.

The Third Teacher (2010) echoes this notion. The fact that when adults design playgrounds they tend to be most informed by their own play experiences and that of the playgrounds they used to play on, rather than the desire of children to hide under bushes, dam streams and to engage with nature; “This is why outdoor areas designed by adults often fail to delight their intended audience. Children want areas filled with nature, from plants, trees, flowers and water, to animals and insects” (p. 96).

Shyrel has done a great job of taking students' ideas and working with planners to interpret and build on them. Seeing the faces on this group of students as they looked at the projected plans for the new playground, and them understanding that not only had they been sincerely listened to but that they had truly been part of a bigger design process was an important learning. How great to get students to look at some plans and say, ‘Wow, we thought of that!’


OWS/P Architects, VS Furniture, & Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The Third Teacher. New York: Abrams.

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