Children, Youth and Environments
Vol 13, No.2 (2003)
ISSN 1546-2250

"Children's Environmental Learning and the Use, Design and Management of Schoolgrounds1

Karen Malone
School of Education, RMIT University
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Paul Tranter
School of Geography and Oceanography, University of New South Wales
Australian Defense Force Academy, Canberra, Australia


Citation: Malone, Karen and Paul Tranter. “Children's Environmental Learning and the Use, Design and Management of Schoolgrounds.” Children, Youth and Environments 13(2), 2003. Retrieved [date] from

Comment on This Article


This article examines school grounds as sites for play and environmental learning. It is based on a three-year project that involved 50 eight- to ten-year-old children at five Australian primary schools. Data collection occurred through multiple methods, including behavior mapping of children's play, interviews with children and teachers, and analysis of children's drawings of their schoolgrounds. The findings show large variations between the schools, particularly in the types of play and environmental learning in which children engage. These variations are related to variations in the physical qualities of the schoolground. However, we also found that school philosophies concerning the use and management of the outdoor school environment are equally or more important.

Keywords: environmental learning, play, schoolgrounds, childhood, education



Project Overview

Our research investigated children's environmental learning in relation to their daily schoolground experiences. We used cognitive and behavior mapping techniques and teacher and student interviews and surveys to inform better design and use schoolgrounds in support of children's environmental learning. This research is significant at a time when children's environmental experiences in local neighborhoods are being circumscribed (Malone 2001) and schoolgrounds are becoming more significant sites for children's environmental learning. Recent educational trends in Australia are contributing to a withdrawal of possibilities for utilizing schoolgrounds as a site for child development. These trends include: increased school enrollment and crowded schoolgrounds, the elimination or shortening of free play time, removal of play equipment, increased incidences of bullying, and after-hours closing of schoolgrounds (Evans 1997; 1998).

We focused our research on "cognitive play" and "outdoor environmental learning." Cognitive play allows children to act on the environment and discover and understand relationships through their own behavior. This type of play usually has as its goal problem solving, choosing, constructing, exploring, and discovery, and is unstructured informal learning. Outdoor environmental learning occurs through opportunities initiated by teachers or students to complement or supplement the formal curricula indoors.

Environmental learning has three dimensions. Learning about the environment supports environmental knowledge and understanding. Learning for the environment is directed toward environmental stewardship and action. Learning in the environment encourages interactions and experiences in the environment (Disinger 1990; Murdoch 1993). To provide a holistic approach to children's environmental learning all three dimensions should be available through teacher-directed and unguided experiences throughout their schooling.

Literature Review

Children and Environmental Quality

Many children around the world, whether in industrialized or developing cities, live in overcrowded, unsafe and polluted environments that provide little opportunity for learning, play or leisure. Children are vulnerable to environmental and social degradation, in terms of both the likelihood of personal harm and the constraints this places on their capacity to reach their full potential. Urban children, in particular, are often trapped in environments that provide little opportunity for self-discovery and natural environmental experience.

Spontaneous unregulated play in neighborhood spaces, particularly in affluent areas of cities, is increasingly becoming an activity of the past. Many children have lost access to traditional play environments, including streets and wild spaces, partly through parental fears about traffic danger, bullying and “stranger danger,” partly through the loss of natural spaces and partly through perceptions of what is best for children (Tranter and Doyle 1996; Valentine and McKendrick 1997). Children are encouraged to participate in regulated play environments in their homes, friend's homes and commercial “play or recreation” facilities (Hasluck and Malone 1999; McKendrick, Bradford and Fielder 2000). This type of regulatory practice may help to “protect” children from being exposed to environmental hazards, but has long-term consequences for their social and emotional competence (Tranter and Pawson 2001). When neighborhoods are not supportive of children's needs, children are limited in their capacity to experience and explore their environments and engage in cognitive play and outdoor learning– behaviors that lead to environmental learning.

Children and Play

All children have a right to play. This has been ordained for years in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 31). Play is not only inherently valuable as an enjoyable activity; it is also a process through which children learn. Play enhances problem solving ability and promotes opportunities to experiment with creative thought. Dramatic or symbolic play contribute to a range of developmental virtues including communication, cooperation, interpersonal problem solving, creativity, personal responsibility and imagination. The type, quality and diversity of children's play environments directly affect the type, quality and diversity of children's play (Moore, Goltsman and Iacofano 1992). Play is a means by which children learn without being taught. It involves doing, exploring, discovering, failing and succeeding.

With increasing age children normally play in more integrated ways. Identifying the level of social participation in play activity can be representative of a child's maturity in social and cognitive development. The best play environments for children are those which are developed on the basis of children's natural play needs, taking into account the play behavior engaged in at different developmental periods, including the social, physical and cognitive forms of play. Conflicts or withdrawal are more likely to occur when children are crowded and play equipment and materials are limited. Even in play environments with considerable space, paucity of equipment and materials limits children's play options and leads to increased levels of boredom and aggression and lack of social, physical and cognitive development.

Research on play shows that children prefer and use playgrounds with high degrees of challenge, novelty and complexity (Fjortoft and Sageie 2000). A modifiable and malleable environment offers more opportunities for environmental learning, with corresponding behavioral consequences (Moore and Wong 1997).

Researchers have distinguished three main categories of play in relation to children's development (Countryside Commission for Scotland/Forestry Commission 1984, cited in Uzzell 1988). These are summarized below:

  • Play and physical/motor skill development- The desire to run, jump, crawl, climb and swing is the natural way through which children's bodies develop. Improvement in coordination, bone and muscle growth, strength, agility and endurance are essential to a healthy childhood and later life.

  • Play and social development- Play enables social and emotional development through activities where children must play with others, share and cooperate, respect other views, express their ideas, feelings and needs without the constant mediation of an adult. It is the time when a child constructs identity and “tries on” to see which identity fits. Children learn to negotiate their own self in relation to others, and interact with their peers. It allows children to acquire the social skills and emotional well-being essential to normal development.

  • Play and cognitive development- Through play children discover, explore and develop an understanding of the environment around them. Through their exploration and experience of the social, physical and natural environment they become familiar with the patterns and systems of life and the interconnectedness of these with themselves.

The types of play behaviors/activities characteristic of each of these developmental activities include:

  • Physical/motor skill activities- playing on fixed structures, participating in structured games, using free equipment (e.g., bats/balls).

  • Social/non-social play activities- talking with others, watching others, reading, daydreaming– this could include onlooker activities where children watch the activities of others but do not attempt to engage in the activity, and unoccupied behavior when children demonstrate a marked absence of focus or intent. This could include children staring blankly into space or wandering aimlessly.

  • Cognitive activities (including imaginative and creative play)- building or making things with loose materials, observing and interacting with nature, exploring environment, engaging in imaginative activities (role plays, drama, fantasy).

In our research, these activity categories were used in the behavior-mapping instrument (see below and Tables 1 and 2 ). The numbers of activities within each play behavior were explicated for ease of fieldwork. During later analysis these behaviors were then attached to certain zones or elements of the schoolground site. For example, gardens, bush/forested areas, sandpit or construction were grouped together as sites which supported cognitive activities; fixed structured playgrounds, free sports equipment, asphalt areas, oval or open lawns were associated with physical/motor skill activities; and tables and benches, indoor areas (such as a library or computer room) were grouped as sites for social/non social play activities. Cognitive activities can also include social play, as do physical/motor skill activities. The three categories do not exclude each other.

Structural forms of play also occur within social participation contexts. To identify social interactions, we used four categories of children's participation (Countryside Commission for Scotland/Forestry Commission 1984, cited in Uzzell 1988) in the behavior-mapping instrument. These included:

  • Solitary Play- Children play apart from others at a distance greater than one meter or with their back to the other children. They will normally be engaging in a different activity and pay little attention to the others' behavior.

  • Parallel Play- Children play independently of others even though they are in close proximity. They play beside others or in the company of others but do not play with their companions.

  • Associated Play- Children play with others in a similar activity. Communication and materials are exchanged, but there is no overall goal to the activity.

  • Cooperative Play- Children organize themselves in a group with a common goal or purpose to the social activity. Whatever the activity, the focus is group-centered.

The Value of Interacting with Nature

Children have a particular attraction to natural environments. Numerous studies have found that children often prefer to play in natural or wild spaces (Maxey 1999; Cunningham, Jones and Taylor 1994). Such spaces appeal to children because of their diversity and their feeling of timelessness (White and Stoecklin 1998). Children's access to nature provides an important aspect of growing up, with many adults remembering natural or outdoor environments as the most significant places in their childhood (Sebba 1991).

There are “cognitive and psychological benefits of natural environmental experiences” (Wells 2000, 780). These benefits have been found for prisoners, hospital patients, college students and children. Even the presence of “naturalness” (e.g., trees) in the views from children's homes has been found to enhance children's cognitive ability (Wells 2000). Several studies have found that playing in nature has positive impacts on “children's social play, concentration and motor ability” (Fjortoft and Sageie 2000, 84). Natural environments have advantages over purpose built playgrounds (e.g., climbing apparatus) because they stimulate more diverse and creative play (Fjortoft and Sageie 2000). According to the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation in the U.S., when schools make a concerted effort to integrate natural environments into their education (using local areas or their own schoolgrounds) academic performance improves across the curriculum (National Environmental Education and Training Foundation 2000).

The ways in which children relate to each other can also be strongly influenced by the types of natural elements in play environments. In a U.S. study, Herrington and Studtmann (1998) noted that when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements such as plants and bushes, they established social hierarchy by means of physical competence. However, after an open grassy area was planted with shrubs, children played very differently in these “vegetative rooms.” Fantasy play and socialization developed. More importantly, the social hierarchy became based less on physical prowess and more on a “child's command of language and their creativity and inventiveness in imagining what the space might be…. Children who were dominant in the equipment-based play yard were not always the dominant children” in the yards with the new plantings (Herrington and Studtmann 1998, 203).

For children to develop a sense of place, they benefit from direct contact with the natural aspects of their environment, including vegetation, soils, people and animals (Orr 1992). However, if they lose their independent access to their environment they are deprived of the chance to develop this sense of place (Tranter and Pawson 2001). Due to the impacts of rapid urbanization, children in many cities throughout the world now have less access to natural or wild environments, especially on their own (Cunningham, Jones and Taylor 1994; Freeman 1995; Gaster 1991; Rivkin 1997; Malone 2001). Natural outdoor spaces are diminishing, there is increasing fear of violence in public spaces, parents have busy schedules and many play areas are now synthetic rather than natural (Herrington and Studtmann 1998).

Schoolgrounds as Learning Environments

The schoolground is, for many children, one of the few places where they can interact with their peers in a natural, outdoor environment. Consequently, children could benefit significantly from maximizing the environmental learning opportunities of schoolgrounds. Schoolgrounds should be places where children engage in a range of play activities. Play should be fun, active, spontaneous, self-initiated, challenging and linked closely with learning and development. The schoolground is the “stage” where children act out, spontaneously and freely, the events that touch their lives. It is the space where they connect with the social, cultural and ecological domains of childhood. Schoolgrounds should promote learning and development.

Research has revealed the way in which children can learn especially through play is strongly influenced by the nature, the design and the policies informing the use of schoolgrounds (Moore 1989; Titman 1994; Moore and Wong 1997). Their size, the features they contain, and how they are utilized, managed and perceived by staff and students, can all influence the life and work of the school and the quality of education.

The relationship between the outside environment and the learner has not been articulated in the same way as inside spaces. That is not to say outside spaces have not been designed without models in mind. The "surplus energy theory,” so powerful in play theory, has been the most influential model applied to the design of schoolgrounds and the view of children in relation to the outdoor environment. Indeed, schoolgrounds have typically been seen as areas for play and sport, and not for education and the serious stuff of schooling. The “surplus energy theory” was first proposed by the nineteenth century psychologist Herbert Spencer, in his book Principles of Psychology , published in 1855. Spencer believed that the main reason children play is to get rid of surplus energy. His ideas, although rejected by many researchers and developmental theorists, have found a strong following among educators since their introduction over a century ago and have become deeply embedded in the school culture.

We can distinguish between schoolgrounds that are part of the formal educational curriculum, and those in which learning through environmental interaction occurs via unregulated exploration and play. Titman (1994) has referred to this as the “hidden” or the “informal” curriculum. Play in school is very different from play in the local park. Supervised play in an educational context has an attachment to a hidden curriculum that tells a story to the children about the culture and ethos of the school.

Schoolgrounds have potential as a rich resource for formal learning; they are outdoor classrooms that can be explored by children outside classroom time. Schoolgrounds can provide access to real life natural experiences (e.g., conceptual exploration of living and non-living things, interdependence, biodiversity, life-cycling, recycling and food webs). As well as these obvious connections with the “natural” world, a diverse and well-designed play environment provides an opportunity to develop important lessons on cooperation, ownership, belonging, respect and responsibility. Schoolgrounds also convey messages to children about school ethos that can influence their attitude and behavior (Johnson 2000). Where the quality of the environment does not reflect the espoused ethos of the classroom, children get the message “adults say one thing but do another.” The grounds are symbolic: at a macro level they represent the school and its place in the world; at a micro level they represent the child and their place in the school. Children can spend up to a quarter of their day engaged in play-oriented activities in the schoolgrounds. This time, although often undervalued and identified as “filling in time” or as a “break” from formal learning, is essential to learning. Often identified as the “informal curriculum,” what children do or learn during this time can either be positive and productive or negative and counterproductive. The essential issue is that they are learning something and play is a fundamental component of that learning (Titman 1992).

Schoolgrounds are important sites for children to develop both social and cognitive skills. Interesting and diverse spaces increase the intensity of play and the range of play behaviors; bland or crowded play spaces limit behavior, restrict opportunities for social interaction and ecological experience, and worsen problems such as bullying and depression (Evans 1997; Moore and Wong 1997). The schoolground in this way offers a set of affordances. The affordance of an environment is a measure of its capacity to support children's development. Gibson (1979) argues that the affordances of an environment are those elements it offers or provides for the user. Affordances are ecological resources from a functional point of view. They are an objectively specifiable and psychologically meaningful taxonomy of the environment. As children's psychological and physical characteristics change developmentally, the resources the environment offers also change. For example, an environment that offers an opportunity to climb or hide underneath elements, or contains features that are manipulative or malleable, is perceived, used and transformed in different ways at different stages of the child's development. Therefore, there is a developmental dimension to the environment, just as there is for the individual child. The utilization of the outdoor environment increases with the child's age, alongside their cognitive, affective and behavioral capacities; the environment should be designed to facilitate, support and encourage this developmental growth (Uzzell 1988).

Wohlwill and Heft (1987) also use the notion of affordances by articulating the environment-child relationship in schoolgrounds in terms of three characteristics:

  • Sensory stimulation- the potential of environmental features and settings to provide stimulation through variations in color, shape, pattern, dimension and texture.

  • Response feedback- creating an environment that is responsive and malleable to the child's actions, so that it provides constant feedback to children about their competencies, capacities and behaviors. Schoolgrounds that support and stimulate children's actions are beneficial to their development.

  • Affordances- Wohlwill and Heft (1987, 319) provide the following view of affordance: “affordance stresses the action possibilities that environmental features and environmental settings encourage or permit … the affordance framework may aid the designer in explicitly formulating design features with user characteristics in mind.”

Alongside the behavior mapping and observations, children's drawings in the form of cognitive maps of the schoolground as it exists and how it might look after they had made changes to improve it were used to draw out these three areas of the child-environment relationship.

The design and management of the grounds largely determine what children do in the schoolground, though children can and do respond to restrictive rules by deliberately playing prohibited games behind the teachers' backs (Evans 1995b). Even the most social and imaginative child will find it difficult to be creative and sociable in a bleak, sterile and largely tarmac place. The grounds need to provide diversity of places and habitats so those children have the maximum opportunity for interaction with others and the environment. Titman (1994, 58) identified a list of four elements children looked for in the schoolgrounds she studied:

A place for doing, which offered opportunities for physical activities, for ‘doing' all kinds of things, and which recognized their needs to extend themselves, develop new skills, to find challenges and take risks.

A place for thinking, which provided intellectual stimulation, things which they could discover and study and learn about, by themselves and with friends, which allowed them to explore and discover and understand more about the world they live in.

A place for feeling, which presented color, beauty and interest, which engendered a sense of ownership and pride and belonging, in which they could be small without feeling vulnerable, where they could care for the place and people in it and feel cared for themselves.

A place for being, which allowed them to ‘be' themselves, which recognized their individuality, their need to have a private persona in a public place, for privacy, for being alone with friends, for being quiet outside of the noisy classroom, for being a child.

Qualitative studies focusing on the value of improved schoolgrounds as an educational resource demonstrate an enrichment of students' attitudes, behaviors and learning skills (Titman 1994; Young 1990; Moore and Wong 1997). Aside from this research which has focused on the qualitative indicators of improved learning outcomes resulting from schoolground learning, several recent U.S. studies have attempted to measure learning outcomes by quantitative changes in standardized test scores, grade point averages and learning skills indicators. These studies demonstrate positive relationships between learning that takes place outside of the classroom and improved learning (Lieberman and Hoody 1995; State Education and Environment Roundtable 2000).

Schoolground Design

The ways in which children can learn- especially through play- is strongly influenced by the nature, the design and the policies informing the use of schoolgrounds (Moore 1989; Titman 1994; Moore and Wong 1997). Moore and Wong's 1997 long-term project in an elementary schoolground in Berkeley, California, demonstrated the impact on children's play of redesigning the schoolgrounds. Part of the asphalt schoolgrounds was transformed into natural features such as woodland, gardens and ponds. This coincided with children having more positive relationships with each other in these natural areas and exhibiting more creative play and learning activity than previously. The change in schoolground design also encouraged teachers to utilize the new space as an outdoor classroom, reinforcing and connecting children's play experiences through the formal curriculum. Children took on the new role of being knowledge generators rather than just knowledge consumers.

Barbour (1999) provides an important study comparing two school playgrounds, each with very different opportunities for children. Playgrounds that emphasize exercise play show gross motor activity as the primary mode of peer interaction. Such schoolgrounds favor children with high physical competence, while children with low physical competence are “constrained by their reluctance to or inability to participate” (Barbour 1999, 94). However, diverse play equipment and materials can support the low physical competence children and some features (e.g., construction opportunities) encourage cooperative rather than competitive play.

Various elements may be important in high-quality schoolgrounds. These include: water features; possibilities for children to choose their own play activities and create their own play places; access to nature (trees, ponds, shrubs, flowers, long grass, insects and animals); fields to play on; places and features to sit on, lean against or hide in; and an unstructured and manipulable environment, including loose materials for children to play with (Fjortoft and Sageie 2000; Moore 1986; White and Stoecklin 1998).

Frost and Klein (1979) developed a typology of four dominant contemporary playgrounds. Their work was later used in the development of Rohane's (1981) four philosophies of play that informed playground design and more recently by Brett, Moore and Provenzo (1993) in their complete guide to playgrounds. The four types of playground are outlined below.

Traditional- a model where play is seen as synonymous with physical exercise and recreation. Typified by “mass produced” gym equipment, grey tarmac and a high percentage of green, which is the recreation field or sports field. Traditional playgrounds promote gross motor skills.

Designer- aesthetics is introduced alongside exercise in a structured, architecturally designed manner. A variety of materials and textures led to play environments that had predetermined play activities, for example: “red wooden fire engines, blue horses on springs.” They permit a wider range of experiences of play than traditional playgrounds but view the child as a passive recipient rather than an active play maker.

Adventure- the adventure playground, which emerged from Scandinavian countries, utilizes the natural environment of hills, scrub, grass, water and trees, and loose materials, wood, mud, and tires. It typically has very limited pre-designed aspects and is often constructed with and through the child's play. The focus is on flexibility- a place with minimal structure and permanency. Often adventure means risk, as children are encouraged to climb trees, build cubbies and construct water channels. Adventure playgrounds encourage creative, imaginative and constructive play. They require trained pedagogical personnel. Nordic countries are the only countries where they have been successfully maintained because pedagogical personnel are held in the same esteem as educators in formal settings (Brett, Moore and Provenzo 1993).

Creative/comprehensive- the comprehensive playground is a synthesis of all other types. It incorporates a sports field, jungle gyms and slides in amongst natural pathways of ponds, rock features, hills and wild spaces. It is the most diverse type and accommodates the greatest variety of opportunities for informal and formal play and learning. It is a micro-universe of play settings which encourages all types of play experiences.

Frost and Klein (1979) concluded that a majority of U.S. playgrounds fell in the category of traditional playgrounds (ball courts, swing sets, jungle gyms); they were frequently geared towards exercise or functional play and most of the space was devoted to sports fields, ovals or asphalt courts.

Policies and Programs Encouraging Environmental Learning in Schoolgrounds

Organizations in many countries, especially in some European countries, have recognized the educational importance of schoolgrounds. In the UK, environmental learning in schools now enjoys strong national support through the Learning through Landscapes (LTL) organization, which has researched and developed school landscapes since 1990 (Johnson 2000). This led to a change in British government policy on schoolgrounds, and to publication of The Outdoor Classroom as a guide to improving schoolgrounds. By 1997, LTL had improved at least one-third of Britain's 30,000 schoolgrounds. LTL has inspired a similar program in Canada, Learning Grounds , and a Swedish program, Skolans Uterum (Rivkin 1997). Such programs involve a commitment to greening schoolgrounds to improve their value to children, both intrinsically and in terms of environmental learning outcomes.

There are a number of U.S. organizations dedicated to improving the quality of educational opportunities provided in schoolgrounds. One of these is the Boston Schoolyard Initiative , which in a partnership with the City of Boston is revitalizing schoolgrounds (Education Development Center, Inc. and Boston Schoolyard Funders Collaborative 2000). Nationwide, more than 40 organizations or sponsor programs are committed to enhancing the environmental quality of schoolgrounds. Many of these have a focus on wildlife conservation (e.g., the National Wildlife Federation ) and see schoolgrounds as places to encourage environmentally responsible attitudes (Rivkin 1997).

Trends in Use of Schoolgrounds in Australian Schools

In Australia, the introduction of environmental education policies at the national and state levels has advanced environmental learning opportunities in schoolgrounds. However, the resources and support to implement whole school environmental education programs has not been forthcoming. While there are positive initiatives in individual states such as the Learnscapes program in New South Wales (NSW) (see Skamp and Bergman 2001), disturbing trends are evident in the use of schoolgrounds in Australia. Instead of improving children's outdoor play opportunities in primary schools, some changes to Australian schoolgrounds have reduced children's opportunities for creative and diverse play. The most serious of these include: the reduction in the time for play or unregulated recreation during the school day (lunch and other recess periods have been shortened and in some cases not provided at all); the amalgamation of schools in the interest of greater economic efficiency which has increased school populations with very little provision given to issues of space or design of physical buildings and grounds (Evans 1997; 1998) ; the removal of play equipment (Evans 1995a) ; and the implementation of restrictive rules about children's use of schoolgrounds that force teachers into a policing role (Evans 1995b).

According to Evans (1997), part of the explanation for these trends is the lack of understanding of how play provides educational opportunities, particularly in the area of social skills and environmental learning. The learning that occurs through play is often considered peripheral to that which occurs in the classroom (Evans 1997, 14). Man teachers believe that children only need recess to let off steam before they start their school work again. This belief is grounded in the “surplus energy theory.” Several researchers (Evans and Pellegrini 1997; Lambert 1999) find this theory to be seriously flawed. Indeed, they argue that children's use of outdoor environments in schools can make an important contribution to their development and education, not only in informal play during recess periods, but also in more formal teaching initiated by teachers in the schoolgrounds.

In summary, the literature argues that schoolgrounds are important sites for children to develop both social and cognitive skills. Interesting and diverse spaces increase the intensity and range of play behaviors. Bad play spaces, in contrast, limit behavior, and restrict opportunities for social interaction, ecological experience and the production of cultural capital. Bad play spaces have also been attributed to enhancing behavioral problems such as bullying and depression.

Research Methodology


This research aims to gain an understanding of children's capacity to engage in environmental learning during play. We believed the historical notion of play as a time to “let off steam” or use up “surplus energy” has some credence, but tells only a partial story (Evans and Pellegrini 1997). Children in schoolgrounds also seek opportunities to engage in other forms of play which satisfy their inquisitive nature and innate desire to discover and be creative. Studies show that children require more than a monotone environment to allow these natural responses to be nurtured and supported. However, there does not seem to be a coherent link between what has been researched and the practices of schooling. Research has found a tension between what children are doing or want to do in their play time, and the value school staff places on what they are doing. This research, therefore, seeks to unpack the contradictions between these understandings of the role of play as a source of learning and the role of the physical space of schoolgrounds.

Research Questions

Our study was guided by the following questions:

•  Is there a relationship between the design of the schoolground and types of play behaviors?

•  How do children and staff view the role of schoolgrounds in the everyday activities of schooling?

•  What is the relationship between the formal classroom and the schoolground?

•  How can schoolgrounds support and enhance children's environmental learning?

•  How do different schools compare in terms of their approaches to managing schoolgrounds?

Data Collection

We undertook detailed systematic observation and mapping of children's behavior, as well as less structured observations of their use of the schoolgrounds. By mapping and observing children's behavior, we hoped to identify patterns that would indicate the nature of learning that was occurring as well as clues to the extent to which any learning was taking place outside. The systematic observation and mapping process involved a total of ten children from Years 3 and/or 4 at each of the five schools studied. The gender composition of the observed children at each school is as follows: Charles Conder- four girls, six boys; Aranda- six girls, four boys; Orana- five boys, five girls; Frankston- five boys, five girls; and Albert Park- five boys, five girls. Each child was observed over one day. A behavior mapping schedule (see Tables 1 and 2) was established to record each child's activities and social interaction over the recess and lunch play periods (see Table 3).

Table 1. Behavior Mapping Definitions- Social Interaction

Table 2. Behavior Mapping Definitions- Play Behavior

Table 3. Children's Environments Behavior Mapping Schedule

The researchers (or research assistant) met with each child on the morning of the observation and interviewed the child. Each child chose an alias to be used in data recording. For each child, five observations were recorded during recess and ten during lunch, each occurring at two-minute intervals. In addition, we recorded each child's movement on a site plan of the school, mapping spatial patterns during the two separate observation periods. After completing the lunch observation, we talked informally for five to ten minutes to the child (and friends if appropriate) to get clarification of activities undertaken, explanation of any rules to games, to ascertain whether the child's play for that period was indicative of what “normally” occurs, and any other relevant information.

Below is an overview of the methods used across the research sites.2

Formal Data Collection:

  • Behavior Mapping: A coded system of recording behavior and social interaction of children during recess and lunchtimes. Children's spatial patterns were also traced during observation periods.

  • Child/Peer Observations: Casual discussion (following completion of formal observation at lunch) with the subject and his/her peers about the day's play activities.

  • General Schoolground Observation: In note form or by “dot map,” general observation of used/unused playground areas at lunch.

  • Personal Interview: One-to-one audio-taped discussion with children about the school ground.

  • Children's Drawings:
    1. School ground as it exists
    2. School ground as children would like it to be

Informal Data Collection:

  • General Schoolground Suggestions: Comments received from children while outside at recess and lunch over the ten day observation period at each school.

  • Photography: Shots of schoolground, play activities, and local area surrounding school.

  • Discussions with Staff: Listening to staff suggestions, including discussions with Principal.

We made “general playground observations” of the whole school play dynamic to supplement our individual observations. A recording of children's use of the playground space gave indications of spatial patterns of high traffic areas, areas of congestion, and under-utilized space, enabling further investigation into school-wide patterns of play. In addition, general playground observations allowed close-up observations of different groups of children at play.

We gained a deeper understanding of participating children and their views about play through audio-taped personal interviews (see Appendix I for a copy of the interview schedule). Prior to the interview, we asked each child to draw two pictures of their schoolgrounds, the first as they understood it at that time, the second as they would like it to be. This provided the opportunity for children to conceptualize the school pictorially and to think about what they would like to do in a playground of their choice, remaining within the confines of the schoolgrounds. Twenty-nine interview questions covered the following areas: general understanding about their playground and playtime (incorporating an explanation of their two pictures), places they use, activities they engage in, who they are with, issues relating to safety, use of the playground during class time, the impact of weather on play, and whether they feel a sense of ownership and pride in their schoolgrounds .

In addition to the children who were interviewed, teachers asked all other children in the classes studied to:

  1. Draw a picture of the school buildings and grounds and label important places on the picture.

  2. Draw a picture of the school buildings and grounds as you would like them to be, with any changes you would make, and label important places on the picture.

Additionally, all of the teachers asked the children to voluntarily complete the following two-question survey:

  1. If you could make one change to the schoolgrounds what would it be?

  2. What is your favorite place in the schoolgrounds?

Other, more informal data collection included photographing the school and surrounding environment (see photo galleries below), engaging in discussions with staff and listening to their suggestions. Also, the school newsletter was used to involve the wider school community.

The Schools

We selected five schools for this study: two government primary schools in Melbourne and three primary schools in Canberra, one of which was a private school. The schools were chosen to provide a variety of schoolgrounds in terms of the affordances they provided for children. The schools included both well-established, older inner-city schools and newer suburban schools.

The selection of schools was not designed to provide a random sample of schools in the two cities surveyed. Instead, it was a purposive sample, designed to provide enough contrast in schoolgrounds to allow the exploration of differences in children's environmental learning, play behaviors and school policy and design.

Albert Park Primary School

Albert Park is an inner-city neighborhood. Albert Park Primary School is situated some ten minutes' drive from the Melbourne CBD and approximately half a kilometer from Albert Park beach. Historically, this area housed a large proportion of low-income households; however with the onset and escalation of inner-city living in the last 15 years in particular, Albert Park has become one of Melbourne's more desirable suburbs to live in. It now houses predominantly high-income professional households. Amidst an environment of wealth and prosperity, there still exists a socio-economic divide. The high-rise commission flats in Park St. South Melbourne are a mere 15 minute walk away from the school. The school has a student population that is both ethnically diverse and socio-economically divided. After completion of primary school, children from affluent families are most likely to move into the private education system while others move on to the local secondary college. The school also has a transient student population, having both received and lost approximately 50 children in 2000. The school receives children via The Hanover Foundation which provides housing and cares for children in difficult domestic situations. This accounts, in part, for the high attrition rate. The average population at any one time is just under 300 students.

The school is not able to access the entire area of its grounds. An old teachers' cottage was sold by the Kennett Government in the 1990s and has been converted into two townhouses. There is also an old church building on the grounds that is used by the school for assemblies and school performances. A portion of the church was recently converted into a kitchen and canteen. The buildings back onto each other, making inaccessible the corner area of the grounds at the junction of Cardigan Place and Moubray Street, which has become a community play space. There have been significant changes to the school's boundaries over the last 30 years. The old site backed onto a road, which is the current “oval.” The “oval” has been resurfaced four times since the early 1990s, and appears as a mixture of dirt and uneven grass.

Albert Park Photo Gallery


Frankston Primary School

The township of Frankston was established in 1854. Frankston City evolved from a seaside retreat for rich city folk at the turn of the century, to a gateway to a postwar building boom on the Mornington Peninsula, to its present struggle to be a self-contained city with its own employment and retail opportunities. Frankston Primary School is the only school located in the city, and serves an ethnically diverse community that consists predominantly of lower socio-economic class residents. Some of the school's 310 children live in home environments that are not only poor, but where there is domestic violence, crime, and drug abuse. The school has become somewhat of a haven for many of its children, offering a safe and loving environment in which they are nurtured and protected.

The school was the first primary school established in the district, dating back to 1874, and is registered with the Frankston Historic Society. There have been no major changes to the size of the grounds, and the “old school house” has been kept in its original form and is a registered museum. The schoolgrounds are both large and deep (approximately 20,400 sq. m). The naturally sloping topography of the land from front to back, combined with the school building's placement and design, provides a physical environment that offers variety in perspective and opportunities for play activities. The total recreation area takes up approximately 63 percent of the total area of the school. However, the total usable play area makes up 52 percent when factoring in the out of bounds areas, which include the front and side of the school, staff car park, office courtyard and stairs.

Frankston Photo Gallery


Aranda Primary School

Aranda Primary School is a government school located in the center of the suburb of Aranda, an established middle-class Canberra suburb. The school is located on a rectangular site with the school buildings laid out in a formal rectangular pattern near the eastern edge of the school.

The school grounds provide a very welcoming first impression with lots of space and vegetation. The school was built in 1973, and both the buildings the grounds have an established feel. At the front of the school, there are school gardens with a combination of mature gum trees and flower gardens. The school is bounded by fences on most sides, and within the school grounds the lawns are lush, and there are dozens of mature shade trees. There are a variety of play spaces, including two adventure playgrounds (recently built or rebuilt), a shaded eating area, a variety of hard surfaces (one with a ball wall and one with a basketball court). The sets of adventure playground equipment have thick layers of tanbark underneath them. On the western side of the school is a forested area of native trees and shrubs known as the “Growing Homes” area. The “Growing Homes” area is out of bounds for all children during recess and lunch, and they may only use this area during school activities organized by the teachers. This is an area where the school grows trees intended to be homes for birds. Fences bound it, although there are openings in the fences.

The school grounds gently slope towards the north, which is an excellent aspect for catching the winter sun. Most of the hard surfaces and some areas of grass on the grounds have been leveled out. The school also has an area of enclosed gardens, known as the “Serpent of Time” courtyard, between two of the buildings. There is a crop enclosure at the school, but this was closed off and unused during the research. There is also a canteen area where children can line up inside out of the weather to buy treats.

The entire front of the school, including the gardens, is out of bounds. So, too is the area on the southern side of the junior area of the school. Some areas of the school are rostered for use by the children. For example, the adventure playground for the senior section of the school (Years 4 to 6) is rostered so that only one of these years can use it during each recess or lunch time.

The school grounds cover approximately 3.6 hectares, of which about half is available for the recreational play of children. Of this recreational area, approximately 10 percent is hard surface (concrete or asphalt) and the rest is mainly grass, with some small sections of tanbark (under the adventure play areas). In 2000 there were just over 400 children at the school.

Aranda Photo Gallery


Charles Conder Primary School

Charles Conder Primary School is located close to the southern edge of urban development. It was built in 1994, and is the largest school in Canberra. At the time of the survey (November 2000), 650 children attended the school. It is divided into three sub-schools (Allen, Gouldthorpe and Baker), each with over 200 children, and caters for classes from Kindergarten to Year 6. Each sub-school has its own section of the school buildings, and parts of the schoolgrounds are labeled according to their proximity to each of these sub-schools.

The schoolgrounds cover only 3.152ha, not including the community oval. About 50 percent of the total schoolground is used as recreation area by children. Approximately 10 percent of this area is hard surface. The schoolgrounds are very open, with expansive views and a pleasant outlook to the surrounding hills. The openness of the grounds is related to the scarcity of trees, particularly mature trees. The grass is poor quality on most of the grounds. The “out-of-bounds” areas for children include the front of the school, both sides of the school buildings, and all car parks. Apart from the out-of-bounds areas, a few areas are restricted to particular children- one for juniors (Kindergarten-Year 3), one for seniors (Years 3-6), and the Year 5-6 Courtyard.

Within the schoolgrounds there is a variety of spaces, many of which have hard surfaces. In the center of the buildings is a large courtyard with a hard surface used for basketball and handball. Near this there is a large hall and the school canteen, which has a sheltered area outside for the queuing children. There are many other asphalt courtyards, as well as a basketball court set in the open. One of the handball courts (near the Baker buildings) tends to be used just for standing around, by the older children. Near most of the classrooms (including the demountable classrooms) there are verandahs or covered areas with seating. Drinking fountains are located outside the classrooms in a shaded area.

At the rear of the school (on the other side from the main entrance and car park) is what appears to be a large area of open space, dotted with some small trees, an open sandpit, two adventure playgrounds, and an asphalt basketball court. Further away still from the school is a community oval that is not formally part of the schoolground but is also used as part of the playground. Without this area, the playground would be far more crowded. This community oval is used regularly by children during recess and lunch times.

Charles Conder Photo Gallery


Orana Primary School

Orana School was the only private school in the study. It was identified as a valuable school for this research because of its distinctive philosophy as well as its stimulating school grounds. Orana is one of over 600 schools worldwide known as Steiner or Waldorf schools, with a teaching and learning philosophy based on the insights of Rudolf Steiner. The school aims to educate the child as a whole being: head, heart and limbs. Associated with this view is the idea that the child is innately connected to the earth. As a Steiner school, Orana School believes in the importance of a nurturing physical environment for the child.

The physical setting of Orana is rare for an urban school. Although it is located only 6km southwest of Australia's Parliament House, its site provides an idyllic rural setting, complete with a mature pine forest. The school started in 1981 with just four students in rented premises, and by 2001 there were over 500 children at the school, with 380 children in classes from Kindergarten to Year 7. The site now totals 12 hectares, and the landscaped grounds include three ovals, an amphitheatre, and a variety of play areas, including many sets of wooden play equipment (adventure playgrounds each designed for particular age groups).

Unlike the other schools studied in this project, Orana offers classes from pre-Kindergarten through to Year 12 on one campus. The different zones of the school (kindergarten, middle (primary) and high school) are designated and well separated. The children in the primary classes have their own sections of the school grounds, and play in them as if there were no other classes on the site. The area of the playground where the “Middle School” regularly plays covers an area of approximately 3.8 ha, including a section of the pine forest.

The major components of the Orana School grounds used by Primary Classes are: the educational garden, many small gardens that children can use for their own activities during lunch and recess, an oval, an area of pine forest, play equipment (adventure playground), amphitheatre, basketball court, grassed areas with a variety of shade trees, and hard surfaces around classrooms. Less than 5 percent of the schoolground is hard surfaced. Most of this is around the school classrooms, in the laneways (or breezeways or “tunnels” as the children call them) between classrooms where children often sit to have their lunch. The forest provides a secluded, shady play area, with an abundance of logs, twigs, branches, boulders, stones, pine-cones and dirt to play in. Each class can identify particular spaces in the forest as their own, at least for a certain time.

Orana Photo Gallery


Comparative Analysis

The following section of the paper addresses the research questions by contrasting our observations of children's environmental learning and play at the five schools with the findings from the literature.3

Schoolground Design

Using the typology of the four dominant types of western playground designs developed by Frost (1992) and later supported by Brett, Moore and Provenzo (1993)- traditional, designer, organic/adventure and the comprehensive/creative- we found all but one of our study schools could be identified as being predominantly a traditional playground. This is not to say schools such as Aranda and Frankston did not have more natural or organic elements- but our research suggests these were not being utilized in such a way as to impact on the children's play opportunities. Traditional playgrounds have been found in previous research (Frost and Klein 1979; Moore and Wong 1997) to generally promote rule-bound play that inhibits developmentally important creative and imaginary play. Moore and Wong propose the reason why schools chose to design traditional schoolgrounds, or manage schoolgrounds in a way that limits their use to traditional play activities, is consideration of the ease of maintenance and maintaining discipline. This suggests there is a lack of understanding about the importance of play in providing opportunities for learning- education beyond what schools are providing through their curriculum planning and implementation in the formal classroom context.

Traditional playgrounds are geared towards exercise or functional play and therefore most of the space is devoted to sports fields and space for organized games. They promote the view of play informed by the surplus energy theory; that is, children use recess and lunchtime to engage in physical activity. To design a schoolground that permits a wide range of play experiences and encourages creative, imaginative and constructive play would mean the adults had subscribed to a view of play where the child is a stimulus-seeking learner who is utilizing play as a means for developing a range of cognitive capacities. At Orana Primary School the schoolground could be described as a creative/comprehensive playground that supported all types of play experiences. According to Rohane (1981) the creative/ comprehensive playground design is a synthesis of all other types. It is place where the sports fields, constructed play equipment and slides are incorporated into planted pathways, ponds, waterfalls, rocks and hills. It is “a micro-universe of play settings.” It utilizes the natural and the built environment and is seen as part of the school and therefore has a strong emphasis on learning. Rohane (1981) argues the creative/comprehensive playground does not ignore physical education but recognizes that it is only one aspect of the child's development that can be nurtured through play.

Schoolground Observations


Play Behavior

We examined how children behaved in relation to their schoolground environment and compared these behaviors with those of the children in the other schools under study. This comparison revealed some clear correlations between the behavior patterns of children and the role, design and views of the schoolgrounds across the study sites.

Research on the relationship between behavior and schoolground design has shown that the nature of the environment has a significant influence on children's behavior (Gump 1987; Titman 1994). Grump used the concept of “setting coercivity” to describe the ecological rather than psychological or social influence of a setting on children's behavior. That is, certain settings determine particular behaviors in children and even if children are moved from one setting to another they will behave in the way the children in the new setting behave rather than how they behaved in a past setting. If we think of how children respond to indoor classrooms, this does not seem surprising. In a resource-rich classroom, children are likely to achieve more than in a dull and boring one. Children have been known to change their behaviors dramatically in response to a new teacher or a new classroom.

The results of our study clearly demonstrate that particular types of play behaviors were more prevalent in particular schools according to the setting and value placed on environmental learning as an important outcome of children's play (see Tables 4, 5, and 6 below). Of the five schools studied, in only one, Orana, did researchers consistently observe children engaging in what we defined as cognitive play. These observations accounted for 67 percent of all observations at Orana and 85 percent of the cognitive play observations made in all the schools. In contrast, researchers at Aranda did not record a single child behaving in this way. At Charles Conder there was some evidence of a small amount of interaction with the environment and constructing activities, but in Frankston and Albert Park we observed children only engaging in imaginative play and little or no interaction, exploration or construction utilizing the environment. For Charles Conder and Albert Park there is clearly a strong relationship between the lack of access to natural areas and the children's play behavior. Both of these schools had very little vegetation, yet a visual assessment of the quality of the natural environment of the five schools would indicate that children at Aranda and Frankston Primary School were very well served in terms of having a variety of interesting natural spaces. Not only were the schoolgrounds large and green, with lots of grass and plenty of mature shade trees, but both had an area of native vegetation within the boundaries of the school. Visual inspection of the native forest at Aranda indicated that the forest had been well-used (evident by areas of flattened grass), yet this area was out of bounds for the students. The sensory garden at Frankston also showed evidence of being well-used and though not out of bounds, the restrictions on how it could be used meant its potential was not fully realized.

In contrast, Orana had a large forest that surrounded the school. While there were restrictions on how far into the forest children could go, they were still allowed (and encouraged) to play in a substantial area of the forest. Perhaps more important in terms of children's cognitive play was the way in which children at Orana school were able to manipulate their environment in a way that was not encouraged at any other school. The only other school where construction activities were clearly evident was Charles Conder, where children had access to two sandpits. However, nowhere at this school (apart from some out of bounds areas) were children able to play with natural loose materials like those that were available in the Orana school forest (logs, twigs, leaves, stones, stumps, flowers, feathers etc.)

The two Melbourne schools, Frankston and Albert Park, had the largest percentage of children observed engaging in physical and motor skill development activities (37 percent and 25 percent respectively). An equipment borrowing facility at Frankston supported the use of free equipment for small group games such as cricket, handball and basketball. At Albert Park the importance of team games such as Brandy and Tag meant children also played in small groups. At both these schools we also found many children “moving between locations”- these were the schoolground “grazers”- who had either been involved in games which had ceased and were looking for an alternative, or else they were just walking around looking for an activity to get involved in. The school showing the least incidence of children moving between locations was at Orana where we found most children had a predetermined activity in which they engaged as soon as they were in the schoolground and continued on with it until the bell rang. Albert Park was the only school where we also consistently noted that children were positioned as an observant participant. Self-focused play at Frankston was the other play activity that we observed with unusually high frequency as compared to other schools. Self-focused play meant that the child was observed not interacting or playing with other children, but, for instance, may have been daydreaming or reading a book.

Retreating to the inside of a physical building is a play activity often associated with the need to have privacy or avert conflict. Two schools, Charles Conder and particularly Aranda had higher numbers of observations of children resorting to going inside a physical building. We did not investigate whether this was because going inside was not an option at the other schools, or if this behavior was a retreat strategy. It is possible that at the four schools with traditional schoolgrounds, moving between locations and going inside a physical building were evidence of children not finding suitable activities in the schoolground environment.

Social Interaction

The social interaction predominantly recorded across all schools was small group engagement in associated play. Large team games where children organized themselves and played by a set of shared rules seldom occurred. This is particularly significant when thinking about how spaces in the schoolground are divided. It is important for schools to have the capacity to provide space for a large number of small groups of children as opposed to a small number of large groups.

Table 4. Behavior Mapping Analysis Summary Table (Lunch and Recess)- Number of observations

Table 5. Behavior Mapping Analysis Summary Table (Lunch and Recess)- Number of observations as a percentage of the total observations for all five schools

Table 6. Behavior Mapping Analysis Summary Table (Lunch and Recess)- Number of Children Observed

Carrying Capacity

We found that large open spaces dedicated to physical activities did not have a proportional number of users and intensity of use in relation to the distribution of children. For example, the amount of recreational space available for children at Aranda, Albert Park, Charles Condor and Frankston dedicated to open grassed areas or an “oval” was well over 50 percent. This meant the leftover spaces, where the majority of children were attempting to mark out space of their own, was crowded. There were five main consequences of such “crowding”:

  • Lack of privacy or ownership as there were limited places to call one's own;

  • Conflict and boredom due to the necessity to take over or encroach on others' spaces or have no place to use at all;

  • Degradation of natural spaces because of overuse- often resulting in the spaces becoming out of bounds and thus causing further crowding;

  • Retreat of children to indoor spaces such as the library or computer room

  • Limiting of children's choices to vary their play activities.

Privacy and Ownership

In our study we found that children were attracted to places that they could mark as their own territory, even if only for a short period of time (such as a recess or lunchtime). Even in those school sites where there was limited access to a variety of spaces, we found children revisited spaces that they had marked out as their own and had an interest in developing ongoing play activities over sequential recess and lunchtimes. For example, at Albert Park we observed a small group of boys who had taken up residence on one rock in the playground. They had developed over a number of months an intricate storyline of medieval knights and dragons and carried a selection of “magical” rocks in small rock collections to further enhance their imaginative play. At Orana children used loose materials in the forest to construct cubbies over successive recess and lunchtimes and developed complex rituals and imaginary games during and after their construction.

In all the schools we visited we found children had marked out territory as their own. Uzzell (1988) argues that the psychological benefit of territoriality is critical for children's sense of security.

Marking out territories will lead to greater identification and feelings of security which may even lead to feelings concerning a greater sense of control over the environment with the possible psychological benefits this can confer (Uzzell 1988, 12).

Due to the lack of variety and diversity in many of the school sites that did not allow for continuity in play activity, children often found themselves stranded. For a school like Albert Park with very limited space, losing your own space meant either having to encroach on or take over another place or being placeless. We witnessed many children in this situation- those who out of sheer lack of space either ended up in conflict with other space users, retreated to indoor places (such as the library or computer room) or resorted to doing laps of the playground boundary. For one child at Albert Park, Emily, her favorite place in the schoolground was inside. In her interview she explained: the “after care room [is my favorite place]; you get to play on the computers and be alone.” We further explore this issue in the next section on boredom and bullying.

Boredom and Bullying

The systematic study of bullying in schools is relatively recent. In Australia, the first empirical study revealed that bullying was prevalent in the early 1990s. Six years later, results from a national survey of more than 38,000 schoolchildren between 7 and 17 years established that in Australian schools, approximately one child in every six was being bullied by peers weekly (Rigby 1995). Since this time, many schools have taken steps to reduce bullying behavior between children. The Commonwealth of Australia meta-evaluation of methods and approaches to reducing bullying in schools in Australia, published in 2002, has further added to the accumulating findings on the effectiveness of initiatives to alleviate bullying. None of these studies have given much attention to the relationship between the physical design of schools and schoolgrounds and bullying and aggressive behavior, despite the recognition that the schoolground is the site for much of this bullying behavior. As Lambert claims (and our research findings support),

destructive behavior is sometimes encouraged by…large, boring, open play areas, where space is not broken up by trees, low bushes, hedges or other natural boundaries… environments like this, which often incorporate little or no natural shade make it impossible for small peer groups to get away from others, and find quiet restful spots (1999, 26).

Many schools emphasize the intervention of bullying through formal curriculum implementation and teacher training in conflict management. These conflict management techniques often incorporate more regulatory means for policing the schoolground and can add to the restriction of children's free and creative play. We believe the schoolground, as one of the few spaces where children can regulate their own activities and interactions with other children, is a critical site for encouraging cooperation, positive social interaction and a caring community.

The results of our study suggest that there is a relationship between the carrying capacity of a schoolground in terms of density and the incidence of aggressive schoolground behavior. This was particularly evident at Albert Park primary where teachers identified bullying as a substantial issue in the school. The school had developed a series of strategies to restrict children's interaction in order to reduce bullying, including zoning particular areas in the playground as age-specific. Conflict over space use and the impact of crowded and “boring” play spaces need attention and should be viewed as a significant factor when considering interventions to reduce bullying.

Like Evans (1995b), Brett, Provenzo and Moore (1993) and others, we argue that the obvious way to reduce aggressive behavior and conflict on schoolgrounds is to provide sufficient play activities with differing levels of complexity and variety that engage students and provide opportunities for cross-age interaction. Evidence from our study reveals that the only school that did not have a bullying problem was Orana, with its highly interactive and engaging environment. Like Rivkin (1995), our research supports the view that the principal cause of bullying on playgrounds is boredom.

Management of Schoolgrounds

At all schools other than Orana, we noted situations where children were attempting to develop some contact with nature in their play activities, but teachers intervened to stop them. Sometimes the motive for this intervention was to protect the student's safety (e.g., climbing trees, collecting bees in long grass) or to prevent children from becoming too dirty (e.g., playing in the mud or puddles). On other occasions it was to compensate for the physical and ecological degradation of the schoolground due to overuse and to prevent possible damage to existing flora and fauna. Even in spaces which looked to be places children would or could enjoy, we found that regulation of these spaces meant children had little opportunity to access them in a meaningful way. Takahashi (1999) directs attention to this preoccupation with “neat” schoolgrounds which offer little more than asphalt playgrounds. He states, “neat manicured landscaping, although it offers an improvement over asphalt, may suggest a “hands-off” orientation discouraging children from being participants and stewards in their own environment (Takahashi 1999, 11). Often the most colorful and interesting natural spaces in the schoolground were found in the front of the school– creating a lovely vista for parents and local community members to view. These areas were mostly out of bounds for children.

A school policy on clothing at Orana meant that teachers were less concerned with children getting dirty. Children wear boots in the schoolgrounds, and then change into classroom shoes or slippers. Teachers at Orana were happy for children to get dirty and to manipulate their schoolgrounds (at least in the forest) in ways that teachers at other schools might regard as untidy. At no other schools did we find children able to sustain ongoing activities such as digging holes or building cubbies over days or weeks.

Physical and ecological degradation is a clear indication of the lack of carrying capacity of a schoolground environment. Rather than manage its impact by restricting access it is important to view this as an indication that the school needs to provide more of these spaces. The school needs to ensure that the number of users and the intensity of the use are commensurate with the available spaces. For this to happen, the designers and managers of the spaces need to have a shared understanding of how and why children are attracted to these spaces and view their use as valid and important for children's development.

We found children discussing the regulations on the types of play activities in which they could engage (similar to the findings of Titman 1994). Many of these regulations appeared to exacerbate rather than alleviate schoolground concerns. Many of the school policies on schoolground activities (particularly zoning restrictions) seemed to evolve out of a necessity to streamline schoolground supervision rather than protect or manage the limited resources. For example, rotating the spaces designated as out of bounds meant that while on the surface schools looked like they had an extensive schoolground, in reality they were very limited in their diversity and scope. This is not to deny the significant role of teachers in schoolground supervision and that schools often did not have enough staff available to safely monitor all that was going on in their schoolgrounds. In response to staffing constraints, we found that many schools resorted to narrowing the surveillance area by containing the children within a holding environment of only partial areas of the schoolgrounds.

Teachers at Orana overcame the problem of children playing in areas that were difficult to visually police by directly engaging with children in play activities. For example, during the cubby-building activities, teachers encouraged shared decision-making on the safety of particular structures, often helping children to disassemble those cubbies that were becoming unsafe. On one occasion at Frankston the researchers happened to be making observations at a time when a trainee teacher was visiting the school. This teacher spent a significant amount of time organizing a soccer match that involved both males and females. Many of the girls commented after the event that this was the first time they had felt secure in participating in a team game during lunchtime. Teachers connecting with children during play rather than just adopting the role of the arbitrator, policeman or first aid assistant can have a number of positive effects. Drawing predominantly on our observations of play activities at Orana, we found teachers' playing with children had two very significant consequences: first, it conveyed a message about how teachers regarded the value of play; and second, it allowed children to partake in risk-taking activities under the watchful eye of teachers who could monitor and respond to children's inquiries. Titman (1994), in her study of schools in the UK, identified how one head teacher organized a program of teaching traditional games to children. The teacher noted:

the games have worked because adult involvement has added dignity to what the children are doing. It's not the game itself that's important but the fact that an adult has taken the trouble to get involved which changes things (Titman 1994, 121).

Ownership and Responsibility

Sense of belonging

Children who had a positive view of their schoolground were more likely to feel responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the schoolgrounds. There were fewer incidences of vandalism and littering in those schools where a shared culture of ownership and responsibility was present in the schoolgrounds. A majority of children, regardless of their school, said overwhelmingly that they felt proud of their schoolgrounds and wanted to be able to help improve it. They believed it conveyed messages about how the school valued the school environment both to them and to the outer community. Children often felt distressed when they found evidence of vandalism or litter in the schoolground. This was particularly evident at Albert Park where children often found cans and bottles left behind by out-of- school users. The litter from the street merged with the school litter and overall created a sense of hopelessness. Children found the schoolground to be dirty and ugly.

Environmental Education

View of the child learner

Schoolgrounds that look from the outside to be well-maintained, with hard edges and well-kept spaces given over to pre-determined activities by children with particular characteristics (e.g., age), with a controlled and undifferentiated environment for easy surveillance, reflect a traditional view of playgrounds and the learner- the passive learner. If we view the child as a passive “empty vessel” waiting for organized and planned educational input, then the type and style of schoolground we create has these particular characteristics. But, if one imagines a schoolground that appears to be disordered, unkempt, and with soft or even no edges between activity spaces, it could be seen as a space with no obvious place for learning. This schoolground would on the surface seem to be antipathetic to learning and education. However, if we switch to another model of the child- the child as the stimulus-seeking learner- then the school landscape takes on different attributes. This disordered imaginary schoolground would now seem to be an ideal place for learning, encouraging children to seek out the stimulation they need for learning. This is the creative/comprehensive playground type.

Unfortunately, many of the schools visited, with their sterile, hard  spaces, lack of differentiation and pre-determined teaching spaces (Uzzell 1988, 5), implied a view of children as passive learners, only capable of responding to their environment, rather than as social actors with a reciprocal relationship to their environment. This view does little to encourage children to construct, explore and investigate their surroundings.

Value of schoolgrounds for formal learning

Teaching science and environmental education provides unique opportunities for children and teachers to investigate the natural world. Our findings support other studies (see Lisowski and Disinger 1987; Titman 1994) showing that schoolgrounds can be important sites for field-based investigations and that these investigations can promote cognitive learning and other worthy outcomes. Our findings also support the notion that schools do not have to be restricted in providing rich and varied natural experiences for their students because of space limitations. A place for flower boxes, a small vegetable garden, a tree, or a patch of grass can be experienced all year and are important for providing access to nature regardless of the size of the schoolgrounds. No matter where the school is located, its size, site, history, or financial resources, schoolgrounds are rich in potential opportunities to create meaningful learning places. After his study of 850 primary age children in 21 schools in South England, Harvey (1989, 10) noted that there was evidence of “…higher general as well as specific botanical knowledge among students from schoolgrounds characterized by more vegetation and more complex landscape features.”

In our study, children who were exposed to classroom activities that were relevant to their schoolgrounds followed them up in their informal play activities. For instance, after a number of formal habitat investigations in the sensory gardens by children at Frankston during classroom time, they showed a keen interest to observe and protect a nest in a tree where a small swallow was precariously sitting on eggs. Therefore, we argue that working to transform these spaces can improve the quality of life for children and provide significant experiences for stimulating children's environmental learning, whether through planned formal curricula or informal play activities.


A long-term solution to the problem of children's reduced access to nature in cities would involve making streets and neighborhoods safer for children, and allowing children to use more of their city as a play space (Tranter and Doyle 1996). There is a danger that restricting children's play to playgrounds and schoolgrounds may lead to “childhood ghettoization” (Matthews 1995, 223) , wherein children are excluded from all but certain parts of cities. However, given the difficulty of making whole cities more child-friendly (at least in the near future), it is appropriate to focus attention on enhancing children's use of their schoolgrounds as a significant site for natural learning. This study suggests there is considerable potential to expand children's environmental learning opportunities in schoolgrounds, but that in many Australian schools, due to the lack of rich and engaging school environments, children may be missing out on valuable and enjoyable play experiences. Matthews reminds us that within cities, “most large-scale environments are designed to reflect only adult values and usages” (1995, 456). This study suggests that many schoolgrounds (and policies on their use) are also molded more by adult values and needs, rather than those of children. In much the same way, many new commercial playgrounds provide primarily for the needs of adults to have a break from children, rather than to stimulate children themselves (McKendrick, Bradford and Fielder 2000).

Children's ability to manipulate their environment and take part in the process of place-making (and place-naming) is a significant part of the school experience. Yet adults responsible for children are often overly concerned with keeping schoolgrounds tidy and aesthetically pleasing, and keeping children looking clean and respectable. Many schoolgrounds may “look” impressive to adults, with shiny new play equipment, neatly mowed lawns, no “clutter” or untidiness, and aesthetically appealing flower gardens that are carefully tended by school gardeners. Yet children may extract little benefit from each of these features. Instead, our study reveals their preference is for loose materials to manipulate, long grass to play in, the freedom to make their own constructions and even to develop their own gardens.

Another possible reason why children may be missing out on environmental learning opportunities is a lack of understanding of the value of play to children. Play can be justified purely on the basis that it is fun: children enjoy it. But play is also a “significant shaper of adult intelligence, values and self-sufficiency” (Cunningham, Jones and Taylor 1994, 82). Schoolgrounds should are not the only places that can provide for the environmental learning needs of children. Yet, this study illustrates they are a significant site and are likely to become more so in the future. Children spend a great deal of their childhood in schoolgrounds and for many it is the most significant experience of an outdoor environment (Titman 1994).

The results of this study clearly reveal that the design of the schoolground and the school philosophy are the two most significant factors affecting the ability of schoolgrounds to enhance children's environmental learning.

Schoolground Design

Environments most conducive to environmental learning were those that were unstructured and not specifically designed for children's play (e.g., forest areas, garden beds). This was most evident in the Orana School which recognized through its policy and practice that unstructured playground designs allowed children to express and co-construct their own relationship with the natural surroundings. In natural or un-designed spaces, structure and permanency are reduced to a minimum, which allows the environment to be flexible in the hands of the children. Schools had a tendency to over-design the environment as a means for monitoring and maintaining control over children's play activities. This was often a means for managing the physical maintenance of the schoolground, not to enhance children's learning. By over-designing and regulating schoolgrounds, schools are designing out the capacity for children to engage in natural environmental learning.

School Philosophy

Our study found two very different educational views on the role and value of schoolgrounds. At Albert Park, Aranda, Charles Conder and Frankston, staff on the whole still subscribed to the “surplus energy theory” where the schoolground was primarily viewed as a site for “letting off steam.” This was evident by the way the schoolgrounds were designed and managed. Teachers reinforced this perception by using the schoolground site simultaneously as a reward for “good” behavior and a punishment for “bad” behavior. Children were told that if they did their work they could go outside to have a game, but teachers also used the schoolground as a punishment (e.g., “if you are naughty, we will go outside and pick up papers”). In contrast, the children in Orana discuss the schoolground as an extension of their overall learning. This was particularly evident when they talked about the activities they did outside with the teacher; primarily they were cognitive rather than physical/motor skill activities such as gardening, or a farm lesson. The activities in which children wanted to participate when going outside were very different in each of the schools. In Orana the children focused on reconnecting with the natural space- getting fresh air, walking in the forest– or returning to complete a project that was already in progress such as rebuilding a cubby. In Albert Park, Frankston and the other Canberra schools the activities they focused on tended to be “game playing” or “quiet/retreat activities.”

Most schools operate on a very narrow view in regard to the value of schoolgrounds as sites for learning. Teachers and principals were often aware of this narrow view. In most cases when asked about this, they blamed the lack of facilities as the main cause. But the determination of the philosophical value of the outdoor environment expressed by the school community is complex and impacted by a number of variables. These include the design and management of the grounds, staffing (do they have a physical education teacher? a science teacher?), curriculum content, timetabling and historical and policy-oriented cultural norms. Nonetheless, all the schools from which we collected data had areas within their grounds that could be utilized as sites for learning. This ranged from Orana which had an educational garden as well as a large forested area, to Frankston which had extensive open green spaces and a private treed sensory garden, to Albert Park which had the least supportive schoolground, but still had ancient trees that lined the school boundaries and a small native bush area on one corner. As explained in the “Learning through Landscapes” resource materials for implementing science activities in schoolgrounds:

Many of these activities can be attempted immediately, even by those [schools] with only the most basic schoolgrounds provision, including tarmac, grassed areas and flower-beds (Thomas 1992, 4).

Therefore, our results suggest that the schoolground design, although instrumental in the potential for extending curricula, is less vital than having a view of learning that connects the indoor and outdoor environments. When researching the overall behavior of children using the schoolground in Albert Park, we found a large number of children pacing the boundaries like captive animals– yet in their hands many held the large leaves of the plane trees, a handful of dirt or piece of grass. This highlighted the importance of loose natural materials for children– even at this very limited sensory level. Nicholson (1971) and in more recent years Evans (1998) have identified the importance of loose materials for children to play with. In this school particularly (Albert Park) the lack of resources seemed to encourage more imaginative play. Skamp and Bergman (2001) in their recent study of two schools involved in the learnscape projects, noted that even when schools had developed their schoolgrounds as sites for learning, teachers had very limited and stereotypical views of their application in the curriculum. The schoolgrounds were not being utilized to their best educational advantage by teachers.

Orana School provides us with an interesting contrast. Intrinsic to the school's Steiner educational philosophy is the view that the child is innately connected to the earth. The school has a “bioscape group” that is a subcommittee of the school council. The website for the school states:

Bioscape plans, coordinates and carries out Biodynamic gardening and landscape activities to develop a nurturing physical environment to support the curriculum and benefit the whole school community, including in the area of landscape design, plantings, water management, support for the educational garden, redeveloping natural ecosystems and playgrounds.

This has been an ongoing venture; the schoolground facilities have been driven by the educational philosophy. While there have been a number of “constructed” environments in the schoolgrounds (garden, amphitheatre) particularly to enhance its learning potential, the area most valued by the children was the forest, which contained trees and loose natural (and some man-made) materials.

The children in this school were encouraged to make maximum use of these materials: to dig in the dirt (or mud), to re-form water channels, and to build cubbies or make-believe restaurants or “horse-jumps.” Teachers enjoyed observing such activity, and were often invited to participate. Thus, it is not sufficient to have child-friendly schoolgrounds. Having a philosophical commitment to the value of schoolgrounds for developing children's environmental learning is vital.

Although the evidence is highly supportive of the potential of outdoor environments to enhance pedagogical pursuits in science and other curriculum areas, comprehensive studies of teacher's use of the outdoor environment support our findings: teachers tend not to use outdoor environments for formal learning (Keown 1986; Orion et al. 1997) even if they have an environment that has been designed with this in mind (Skamp and Bergman 2001).


Children have a unique and direct experiential way of knowing the natural world. This affinity with nature is judged not by its aesthetics but rather by the nature of their interaction with it (White and Stoecklin 1998). Environmental learning happens through direct (observations, sensory stimulation, movement in the space) and indirect (education, interpersonal communication, popular media) experiences of nature. When children lived on farms or had access to neighborhood green spaces or natural backyards, these experiences could occur outside school. However, with the limiting of children's environmental experiences, schools and schoolgrounds are increasingly one of the few sites where this can happen.

It makes good pedagogical sense to provide real life environmental experiences for children drawing on their natural curiosity. Science educators, especially in early childhood, have argued for many years that children learn best through discovery and interaction with concrete experiences (Fleer and Hardy 2001). Why learn about frogs from a book or a computer screen when you could have them in a pond outside your window? Allowing children to discover for themselves the natural world supports the link between experience and developing environmental learning.

Our study also emphasizes the role of teachers and the school community in developing a shared philosophy and culture that values and supports children's relationship with the environment. This is equally as, if not more, important than the actual physical design of the environment.

Appendix I. Interview Schedule



1. The authors are grateful for the support of two research assistants who worked with the authors in the development and design of this study: Will Ward-Ambler was based at the Melbourne sites and Jeanette Stanley who was based at Canberra sites.

2. Not all locations used all methods, although the core methods such as behavior mapping, observations (child and playground), interview and children's drawings were completed at all sites.

3. Detailed findings on each of the participating schools are available from the authors upon request.


Dr. Karen Malone is an Associate Professor in science and environmental education at RMIT University in the School of Education. She is also Asia-Pacific Director of the UNESCO-MOST Growing Up In Cities (GUIC) project. Her recent publications include Researching Youth (ACYS Press) co-edited with Julie McLeod; co-author of Case Studies in Environmental Education (Deakin University Press); and various chapters in the books on children's environments including the GUIC project book Growing Up In An Urbanizing World (Earthscan). In 2001 she was invited to be the editor of a special edition of the international journal Local Environment on children, youth and sustainable cities (vol. 6(1) 2001). She was a recent finalist in the prestigious National Eureka Allen Strom Research in Environmental Education Award, for the Australian National Museum and is an Australian delegate for the IUCN World Conservation Union- Education and Communication committee. Her research interests include narrative inquiry and participatory research, children's environmental experiences, environmental activism, popular culture and community sustainability.

Dr. Paul Tranter is the Geography Program Coordinator in the School of Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Sciences at the Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, where he lectures in Social Geography and Transport Geography. He has particular research interests in sustainable transport, the use of public space in cities, and child-friendly neighborhoods and cities. He has conducted research on sustainable transport systems in England, and has investigated children's independent mobility and access to their local neighborhoods in Australia and New Zealand.



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