Redesigning playscapes with children and youth

Dream Path

Association Škograd

Location: Elementary School Vlada Obradović Kameni, Ledine, Belgrade, Serbia

Participants: school kids aged 3–12, attending the local elementary school or not going to school

Key words: dreams, circle, togetherness, nature, marginalization, hope

Over the past seven years, our collective has utilized a summer school program format to establish a central gathering point within the open schoolyard of an elementary school situated in the suburban neighborhood of Ledine in Belgrade. This schoolyard serves as the sole public space for the local inhabitants, where multiple generations, religions, cultures, and languages intersect. It represents a space where marginalized individuals and diverse life experiences converge. Through a meticulous three-year process of collaboration with children, we have established a framework known as the Collective Dream Path. This master plan aims to further develop the schoolyard as an imaginative and secure space primarily catering to children and youth, but ultimately accessible to all.

PLAY PODIUM - performative playscape

As a result of the first summer school together with the children, we have re:imagined the existing infrastructure our collective has co-created with the community in the years prior to this project. Following the children’s initiative we have re:painted the so-called Circle. But this was not just any visual exercise. As most kids cannot afford going to the seaside, or going to the nearby aquapark that is too expensive for them, the children said the following during the imagination exercise: Imagine a sea at Ledine!
And this is how the sea emerged among us. We learned about sea creatures, painted them, but also embodied them in a performative play for everyone who came to our celebration event. In the second year it was obvious that the re:painting must occur. This time we curated it as an embodied exercise of remembering what was mapped as a good spot in the schoolyard in the first year, but we also found new ones during this walkthrough.
Mapping them out with chalk on the courtyard and connecting them, together with children we embodied and created a unique play that was passed on to the circle and finally became our podium of play with its specific set of rules and acts.

BUSH PLAYLAND - tactile playscape

This intervention emerges from a combination of ideas and dreams communicated through active play with children, who enjoy games like hide and seek. By analyzing their small-scale models, which incorporate sensory and balance elements, we were able to merge various bushes with sensory and visual characteristics, along with aromatic plants and tree trunks.
This approach enabled us to think in a modular way, designing and positioning the plants and elements on-site, in collaboration with children and caregivers.
It is important to emphasize that none of the trees were cut down for the purpose of our project. We have learned that numerous trees are often felled by city maintenance and private investors, without exploring alternative uses such as selling, utilizing them as fuel, or repurposing them. This realization has led us to envision significant potential for implementing additional spatial interventions in various schoolyards, fostering circular economies.

STARGAZING HUT - gathering playscape

Play makes us tired and when we rest, we like to dream.
Thus, from the very first year, we recognized the importance of including a dream net between these three trees, extending into a magnificent dream/voice catcher installation.
Music holds a crucial place in the lives of the residents in this neighborhood, as it explores the power of sound and its musical potential.

POWER OF NATURE - circular playscape

The spring and summer of 2023 were quite challenging, bringing a lot of rainy days and unexpectedly low and then high temperatures, leading to supercell storms. Such weather conditions led to our cities being covered with leaves, branches, and fallen and uprooted trees.
The branch of our precious golden rain tree, around which our climbing net was placed, did not hold to the power of storms. Looking at the fallen branch we could not but admire its geometry. Minutes later children arrived and started to explore, climb and conquer the fallen branch. With the intention to slow down this action and transform it into a more careful but not restricted exploration, a new game emerged: Play branch. Our bodies became frozen like branches too. Together with children we decided we need to secure the branch, so we placed supporting tree trunks. Each branch got its perfect fit firmly fixed with long nails.
With the intention of claiming it as our sculpture and play object, children added color giving it new value and hopefully protecting it from becoming firewood material in the winter for those in need.

VOLCANO ISLAND - perspective playscape

Through a series of walks and learning from children about the specificities of the schoolyard, we came across a pile of burned down coal, forming a hill. Despite its potential safety concerns, we discovered that the children loved to climb it. Fortunately, the pile disappeared soon after, coinciding with the installation of a clean heating system for the school. The site of Ledine and the meaning of its name is “flat land”, so it was not surprising that the children created a hill-like site while envisioning dream spots.
As a result, our once flat schoolyard experienced its first eruption, and a volcanic island re:appeared! The children led the way in the traditional singing and dancing “kolo” plays, contributing to the creative process. Everyone brought their own tools for the planting action along the hill. Similarly to the bush playland, we positioned three logs, symbolizing an open school bus, which was envisioned by the children when creating architectural models for dream spots.
Also, there is a lilac bush near the hill, with a beaten path we discovered last winter that was not visible in the summer. We cut the branches to clear the path and we discovered a pebble path passing through it. Days later children told us that this is a jungle and that lava (a mulch path) appears leading to a volcano after they run through it. Inventing never stops!

LEARN & PLAY - seasonal playscape

During the COVID-19 pandemic it became more and more obvious that outdoor class is the way to go. Our circle in those days served as a perfect spot, but we needed more than just one circle. In our exchanges with the school staff an emphasis was made that it would be of great importance if the future interventions were able to support the outdoor classes. And so the Volcanic island was placed in front of the daycare area, fitting perfectly into their activities, and the circle now has more sitting and play area. So as our final intervention an orchard with a 4x4 grid of 15 fruit trees with autochthonous fruits (cherries, plums, apples, pears, quinces and more) will be planted in November. This play and learn-scape will offer practical nature classes for chemistry, biology and storytelling, and most importantly play!
It will offer the transformative power of seasons and it will award us in the future. Until then the rectangular grid in which the trees will be planted will offer new spatial quality yet to be explored, and new games are to emerge for sure, because as we have seen every step of the way, play happens when children appear! But we also designed a special play — a picnic blanket becoming an instant classroom on the grass, but also a tool for exercise, as well as a costume! Also, together with the children and the school team, we remembered through our collective planting action that collective care of the schoolyard greenery was a big part of the school and community everydayness in the past, and a matter of pride and honor to do it, and we remembered that there was also an orchard there.

Play happens when we show up

During the entire process, particularly in the first year, our primary focus revolved around the subject of play and establishing conducive environments for its occurrence. We hold a strong belief that presence is a fundamental aspect of play; without participants, play cannot take place. By actively involving children in exploratory and embodied play, we not only gained valuable insights into their ideas and qualitatively explored the current play environment, but also fostered a shared vision for collective transformation.

My dream spot — Our Dream Path

The second most important thing to us was to go from the 1:1 scale to the 1:50 scale and from individual towards collective dreams. This is how we curated ideas and final design proposals.

Dream Path is coming true!

Finally, we embarked on manifesting our dreams together, by inviting and engaging everyone interested in the neighborhood into making that happen, but also maintaining it. As a result, a ‘green’ wave initiative was launched among empowered parents who have seen what is possible and more greening and cleaning actions of the schoolyard followed.

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