With many states requiring that a minimum of 75 sq. ft. of outdoor recreation area be allotted to each student at every school, it would follow that landscape is a priority in the design of new schools. And it is, after the building requirements, maintenance yards, urban infrastructure, parking and fire access requirements have all been satisfied. Often this leaves little more than asphalt, chain link, a few trees and some lawn to work with. The trick is how to use these elements to shape useful outdoor spaces and recreation areas that encourage constructive social interaction and physical activity.

Shaping Outdoor Classrooms

Responding to concerns for safety and limited funds, school administrators often have a pretty good idea of what a proposed new school should look like before any design professionals become involved in the project. Generally the school will have a compact layout with a mid-block, single point of entry on a relatively quiet street. Given this formula, architects and landscape architects can work together in the initial design phases to find opportunities to form connections between indoor and outdoor spaces.

As in the design for the State Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, these opportunities can occur in the creation of an entry court on the public street linking a neighborhood to the school, connecting the main entry and building circulation with views and access to outdoor spaces. Classrooms with corresponding outdoor components, such as Kindergartens, can be planned with adjacent and integral outdoor play and learning areas. Likewise, other major programmatic components, such as the cafeteria and auditorium, often have a corresponding outdoor space that can be strategically integrated into the overall building design to support daily activity as well as special events, such as graduation and other all-school events.

At a new, large public high school near downtown Los Angeles, two separate buildings form opposite edges of a large court that is rimmed by a 20-ft.-wide asphalt fire access lane, complete with regulation turning radii. By carefully shaping the center of the court to correspond to the building’s geometries instead of the awkward path of the fire lane, a crisp, green quadrangle is formed. Planted berms perpendicular to the buildings enclose the quadrangle, forming a large“outdoor room” with a“carpeted floor” of lawn. The enclosure, while highly visible from the multi-storied classroom buildings on either side, is at the same time a protected, informal meeting space for students.

Two distinct kinds of outdoor spaces that are designed to link with adjacent indoor program spaces comprise the landscape renovation for a high school in El Segundo, Calif. The cafeteria and auditorium and gymnasium form the edges of a highly active court at the school, where kids meet and socialize between classes and at lunch. To accommodate a series of slight level changes due to a gentle change in grade between buildings, a combination stair and ramp, or “stramp,” is designed to link the levels, while also providing places to move, meet, sit and talk. At the other end of campus a garden of planters and raised concrete platforms forms a contemplative quadrangle surrounded by academic classrooms. Raised concrete platforms extend onto a shaded lawn meant to encourage quiet study. Unlike standard benches, concrete platforms can be used in variety of ways: as back rests, benches, tables, and even as performance platforms.

From a school administrator’s point of view, open space is generally consolidated for ease of surveillance. Principals and teachers know that kids gravitate toward smaller, temperate spaces. Planning shaded courts as transitions between classrooms and playing fields allows for a variety of scale of outdoor spaces along with requisite surveillance. This approach to integrated site planning and landscape design can be seen in two primary centers for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Landscaped courts serve as foyers or “outdoor classrooms” to the buildings they front. Like fingers on a hand, these courts connect to a large, communal play area.

The Perimeter

Urban schools are generally fenced to keep kids in and unwanted persons out. However, to be an asset to a community, rather than a fortress from it, a school must allow views both into and out of the campus. At the LAUSD primary centers, buildings flank the perimeter of the site with block walls in-between, forming a solid, while undulating, secure edge. The schools engage the community through screened “windows” within the perimeter walls that allow selected views into and out from the campus. Wide planting areas around each school provide a protective buffer between classroom windows and pedestrians.

Perimeter fencing can incorporate signage, graphics and material detail that can also serve to present the community with a positive, welcoming sign. Perimeter walls at the entrances to the primary centers have murals that “advertise” a kid-friendly message to the community. The murals, together with planting, seating and flagpoles, provide a social gathering space for children, caregivers and parents.

Patterns and Surfaces

Learning how schools conduct outdoor activities can inform playground design in a variety of ways. At State Street Elementary School, children line-up according to their class and grade before filing into school in the morning. Our hardscape design is conceived as a set of stripes that supports this routine. The stripes are made with alternating bands of concrete and corresponding bands made on asphalt with tennis court paint. Within the concrete bands are rows of raised planters for trees that provide shade within the large expanse of sports courts, as well as seating for those who may be waiting for their turn to play.

Game markings are a great opportunity for creativity and design if some leeway is permitted. Using standard traffic paint colors at the LAUSD primary centers, new forms and backgrounds for standard games combine to make a carpet of color in the center of the playground. Within the banded playground design at State Street Elementary School rows of games from nearly every nation pattern the court. The school district has carefully assembled a portfolio of hopscotch games from around the world to address their multinational student body. Rather then choose among them, we include them all to allow children to make their own choice.

Some attention to otherwise mundane landscape elements can turn them into celebrated site features. Patterned glazed block serves as the mounting wall for outdoor drinking fountains. A safety-orange restaurant floor grate is recessed into the concrete to provide an over-scaled entry mat for pairs of classrooms at one primary center. Six different varieties of tree grates help to bring pattern and spontaneity to the hardscape at another primary center.

Understandably, high maintenance and water consumption have made the unrestricted use of lawn in playground design obsolete. However, lawn is a great permeable play surface and can be used in limited ways to create berms and collection areas for heavy rains. Combined with shade trees, small lawn areas can be places for passive recreation, storytelling and small group activity.

Rather then be bound by the limitations of budget, maintenance and security that are often the prime concerns of school projects, through our creativity we can embrace and celebrate these constraints. School projects require that design professionals look for opportunities to link indoor and outdoor space in ways that encourage active use and socialization. Use common materials in new ways to reinforce daily rituals of school life but also interpret those rituals in surprising and spontaneous ways. Understand that the landscape for a school is at the same time a landscape for the community and can be designed to welcome and inform the public.