Grounds Design and Development

The site is an enclosed, rectangular-shaped courtyard at the centre of a three storey 1960’s school building, and the only outdoor space available to Early Years children. The project vision is to create a playful and safe environment with lots of natural elements for pupils to learn, explore and challenge themselves in. Many of the design ideas are inspired by play theory and based on the Early Years curriculum.

The space was divided into five zones with an individual theme and function. The five zones are: Water Play, Watchtower, Sandpit, Hollow & Arch and Central Stage. There are no solid boundaries between each zone, so children can move freely around the entire play area.

What was the problem?

Courtyards like these are a very common type of space in many schools from the period. Typically covered in concrete slabs, with no added interest beyond a couple of concrete planters and an awkward and unguarded level change, it is understandable that many schools struggle to see their potential! As a result, despite being highly visible, ideally positioned and easily accessible, they are frequently underused and often neglected. We hope our project can be seen as an inspiring example for those who think difficult, small spaces and a modest budget can’t result in a valuable and beautiful project! 

What solution did you provide?

How to fit in all the desired features, and accommodate up to 40 children into a confined space was the biggest challenge, so the circulation and zoning had to be considered carefully. The major pathways between different zones not only connect each zone but also act as a buffer. The concise layout with diverse features, sensory planting, natural & tactile materials and textured paving makes the entire space easy to travel through but full of interest.

The space was divided into five zones with an individual theme and function. The five zones are: Water Play, Watchtower, Sandpit, Hollow & Arch and Central Stage. There are no solid boundaries between each zone, so children can move freely around the entire play area.

The water play area relies on children working together to pump water and collect it in the wooden tanks. When water reaches a certain level it will flow into a lower channel and then meander through the sensory planting areas. Children get to play with water and also learn and observe how water behaves, and are encouraged to work collaboratively.

The wooden watchtower is surrounded by lush, shade-loving planting. Inspired by “Prospect and Refuge Theory”, it’s a quirky feature that children can retreat to whist also being able to watch others. It’s also a setting for dramatic and imaginative play. Built over 2 levels and with a planted roof, it adds extra space and aesthetic value to the compact, but highly-visible site. 

Surrounded by wildflowers, The Hollow and the bespoke wooden arch provide important physical challenges; both are great interventions for developing young children’s gross motor skills and physical strength.

The sandpit and loose parts are always popular for digging and constructive play, while the sheltered Central Stage is well used for outdoor classes and performances and for gathering together at the beginning and end of sessions.



What was the outcome?

In a period where school funding is increasingly limited, we, as Landscape Architects, frequently feel frustrated to see expensive play equipment dominating playgrounds without any context to its surrounding environment. Even if the equipment is good quality, without consideration for its setting can it still provide the best value for play, education and the environment? At a time when the very existence of sufficient outdoor space in our schools is under threat, this is a design-led project that re-imagines a traditionally difficult space, and provides unique & bespoke solutions at a budget within reach of every school in the country.

Client: The John Curwen Cooperative Primary Academy

Budget: £15000 to £20000