Redesigning playscapes with children and youth

Green School

Qendra Marrëdhënie

Location: Elementary School Mihal Grameno, Tirana, Albania

Participants: kids aged 5–15, parent council, school staff, municipal workers and department leaders

Key words: green schoolyard, public park, depaving, public space

Schoolyards are the last large patches of public space in Tirana; they just happen to be locked behind a gate most of the time. At 1.2 m2 per person, Tirana is currently far below the WHO recommended standard of 9 m2 of public green space. Schoolyards are evenly distributed in neighborhoods and have enormous potential to provide new park space close to where people live.

“Greening” schoolyards, or in other words replacing vast areas of hardscape with softer, absorptive, natural materials improves learning, the work of teaching, and can have a neighborhood-scale benefits to the ecosystem. Green schoolyards act as sponges absorbing and filtering rainwater, reducing pressure on the city storm drains during winter flooding. They provide oases of shade, thick buffers of clean air, and offer respite from the high levels of road noise. By adding trees and wildflowers we can offer new homes to populations of birds and insects whose work is essential for the functioning of local ecosystems.

The reasons why we should retrofit Tirana’s schoolyards are clear. But RE:PLAY offered the chance to pilot a green schoolyard retrofit project in Tirana, as an experiment on the how. We have created a long-term, deeply collaborative process which can be used to make design decisions at Mihal Grameno.  

On this project we joined forces with the Municipality of Tirana, Directory of Public Buildings, to deliver a new concept for the sports fields in the back of the schoolyard.
Besides the new fields, we proposed to remove the “cage-like” structure surrounding the fields and create a more open and welcoming area. This doesn’t only create a huge impact visually, but it actually gives the space that was initially fenced or unmaintained back to the schoolyard.
A big part of the project was depaving a huge part of the schoolyard, creating a green zone which is suitable for trees and plants, but also hanging out. Here we planted trees and shrubs, and even though the trees are young, the area is already very popular with kids.
We added some picnic-style sitting on this new depaved area to fulfill the kids need for more social sitting. To make the area cosy also in the afternoon and evening we installed string lights in the schoolyard.
We designed a track that goes all around the school. This was highly requested by students, teachers and parents as it serves many purposes. This track is a good route for parents with strollers to go around the schoolyard, kids can use it to go for a walk during their breaks and it also serves as a track for sprints as part of the physical education program.

In collaboration with six classes from the school ranging from ages 8–14 and over a period of twelve months, we evaluated how the spaces of schoolyards worked in order to make a collaborative map that would be the basis of future design projects. 

That mapping was carried out live on the spot: by acting it out, building new forts, creating right then and there, and then talking about the values of each location. Our experiment was to show not tell, act not predict, and as much as possible, experience the future schoolyard physically through temporary projects. 

We held neighborhood parties by opening up the school gates on weekends and used tents and umbrellas as make-believe trees, to create a different understanding of how the space could work and what could happen there. It felt like collective imagining, but one we were all witnessing first-hand. 

In other settings we asked the teachers some serious questions having more to do with their work: how could the outdoor space of the schoolyard be shaped to better fit your day and even open up new opportunities for teaching? Simply: what would you change here to make it more helpful? The same questions were put to the security guards and the maintenance staff. For all the benefits a green schoolyard offers, it creates many new challenges too, that need to be addressed collectively. 

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