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Designing outdoor learning spaces

When we are regularly active, we get many physical, social and mental health benefits. Regular activity is essential to a child’s development.

All children and students, including those with disability, can use an outdoor space that’s well designed. It can be a place to exercise, be social, play and learn with peers.

Designs can be to renovate or build a new site. Existing trees can be included in a design. Nature can be featured, instead of removed or hidden. These spaces are often called outdoor learning environments.

Design features to help people get around

Accessible pathways

A continuous path of travel should link all the different parts of the site. This should be able to be used by people in wheelchairs, and all levels of mobility. The paths should not have clutter, trip hazards, steps, overgrown plants, nearby plants that drop berries or seeds. They should be wide and directional so everyone can get around and people can:

  • use bikes and scooters
  • go on nature walks
  • explore spaces easily in wheelchairs.

A child in a wheelchair, and a woman, go along a path in a park. Photo.Example of an outdoor path

Adjustable furniture

The outdoor furniture should be available at different heights. This allows a wheelchair to have front-on access for all activities that involve things like water play, raised gardens, troughs and sand.  

Space for wheelchairs  

There should be space for the turning circles of wheelchairs. Generally you need about 1.5 metres for a small child and about 2.2 metres for an adult.

Design features to encourage people to participate

Permanent and flexible structures

Structures should be both permanent and flexible. This allows for different activities. It can help everyone to feel independent as they explore.

Outdoor furniture should:

  • be solid
  • be impossible to lift
  • not have sharp corners
  • contrast with the background surfaces.

A place to dig and plant

Getting people involved helps them learn. You can let children and students:

  • dig
  • garden
  • prepare soil
  • plant
  • water
  • care for plants.

People can cook and eat the plants. This extends their sensory and learning experience. This helps everyone, not just anyone who needs more sensory stimulation. The accessibility of gardens or raised garden beds needs to be considered.  People who use wheelchairs need gardens beds at their height or with adjustable height so they can easily reach and participate in gardening.

Use natural features

Use a mix of natural and artificial things. Include tactile materials for more sensory experiences. This helps everyone take part. Some examples are:

  • cubby houses made from natural materials that look like a tree house (consider accessibility for people who use wheelchairs or mobility aids)
  • shrubs and trees
  • edible plants and vegetables grown in garden beds
  • hedges or mazes to hide or relax in
  • murals with different textures
  • posts with learning statements.

It’s important to figure out what might limit a design before you start work.  Think about hidden things, like underground water tanks and pipes.

Outdoor play

These features encourage outdoor play. Think about:

  • things that promote fun and independent play, like animal sculptures, tactile sensory panels, music
  • basketball rings on adjustable poles to let students of different heights and abilities play
  • seating next to play areas for carers and also those with reduced endurance or stamina
  • different kinds of seating, with backrests and arm rests
  • seating under shelter
  • space next to seating so that people who use wheelchairs can sit next to carers and friends
  • a space between the outdoors and classrooms where children can leave coats and rubber boots, so they can play in all weather
  • a combination of large level open spaces and more secluded areas for children to retreat to for some quiet (for example forts and cubby houses).

General design features

Swings and play equipment

  • Swings should be all sorts of shapes and sizes and move in different ways.
  • If swings are on the boundaries, it helps keep things safe as people can be seen and supervised more easily, and they will be out of the path of travel.
  • Circular swings are better for older students.
  • Have at least one swing for people who use wheelchairs.
  • There should be climbing equipment or raised areas and in-ground trampolines that are not in the main path of travel but close to the edge.
  • Allow opportunities for all people to be engaged with play, to challenge themselves, so that they can be safe while also allowing for risk taking.
  • A range of equipment should be used that can engage all the senses.

Structures and surfaces

Make sure you have:

  • no blind spots – to let all children be seen and supervised by staff
  • more outdoor space than the minimum required
  • space for communal activities, like covered outdoor learning areas and picnic or BBQ areas
  • outdoor water and power supplies
  • garden beds and sandboxes at different heights
  • pathways for wheelchairs in areas that are hard to get through
  • a range of ground surfaces so that children with mobility disability or delays in their gross motor development can use the space
  • areas that are smooth, undercover, and heat-resistant in summer
  • coloured concrete or mosaic paving that is visually stimulating, gives visual contrast and feels different from the surrounding fixtures
  • areas that allow children to explore their environment in different ways, for example while seated, shuffling, or crawling.

Sandpits

Some sandpits need a cover or to be under shelter. Smaller sandpits help children to play calmly and independently when they want to. Larger sandpits allow more interaction with a group.

Different edges to the sandpit help in different ways. You can have:

  • a sloping edge like a beach will help a child who can crawl
  • a raised edge can be a place to transfer from a wheelchair
  • a rail or handgrip can help a child with poor balance
  • back support that will help some children to sit in the sand
  • a raised sand table at the edge will allow children in wheelchairs to play with other children.

Contact

Ministerial Advisory Committee: Children and Students with Disability

Phone: (08) 8226 3632
Email: educationminadv [at] sa.gov.au