Wiendl / Schoolyards I The impact of architecture on child development

Schoolyards I The impact of architecture on child development Children from 3 to 10 years old in education spaces in Portugal

Author: Valeria Wiendl, Universidade Lusófona do Porto

Supervisor: Edite Rosa, Dra., Universidade Lusófona do Porto

Research stage: Inicial Doctoral Stage

Category: Extended abstract


Since the 1800's, teachers, pedagogues, doctors, psychologists have advocated the need for a new design of schools, aimed at the scale of the child and more related to nature. Froebel's gardens 1, Montessori method 2, Waldorf schools 3, and the Reggio Emilia 4 school project all point to the direction to take to achieve more resilient, more creative, healthier children who are better able to learn.

Scheme pedagogies and architecture

Figure 1: Scheme pedagogies and architecture

Much has been said and pointed out about the relationship between architecture and child development 4. The sciences of psychology, education, sociology present studies that corroborate this statement.

In Portugal these considerations are considered in the form of building design, where architects are becoming more and more familiar with some of these "alternative" educational perspectives, where they mention the pedagogies that supported their design intentions.

They mention the importance of the use of color; furniture adapted to the ages and their various uses; wide corridors; ventilated openings for light and air circulation (since the health process against tuberculosis and now for the covid-19 pandemic); connecting the classrooms directly to the outside, the concept of the learning street 5 and Hermann Hertzberger’s and Montessori pedagogy. But how do they refer to the design of the outdoor space, the equipment and materialization of the concepts advocated by the pedagogies?

Recognizing the great urban growth that, according to the UN forecast, in 2050 will reach 66% of the world's population 6, schools have been given a key role in the child development process. With school hours between 6 and 10 hours a day, it represents the place where children spend more time awake, and quality education is one of the UN's goals in sustainable development 7.

Trying to make up for losses in gross motor skills, reported in national assessment tests 8, there are more cases of childhood obesity, anxiety or other neurological disorders, and the pertinence of the discussion about the positive impact of the design of schoolyards, both in the transmission and assimilation of knowledge and in the cognitive and psychomotor development of children is raised.

As far as our study is concerned, we will focus on the playground space, the school square, where some authors report as being the space that most resembles the square space in cities, where they can play and develop their social, physical interactions and relate to the environment. Like the concept of the squares designed by Aldo Van Eyck for the city of Amsterdam 9: the playground as a space for socializing or promoting the individual, of catalyzing spaces for creation, action or relaxation - individual or collective.

What are the reasons that courtyard design is being disregarded or underutilized? What is the connection of the courtyard-place design and the search for the consolidation of "quality, "livable" spaces 10 11, or the new concepts of affordance 12 and biophilia 13? How are they related to the studies of other scientific areas? How is there an understanding of the different stages of children's growth and how do they use the design of spaces to achieve these goals?

The research started in case studies in Vila Nova de Gaia-Portugal, but after the last International School Grounds Alliance Conference 2022, we quickly realized that the dimension of the problem goes beyond borders: playgrounds renegade to disuse, or limited to soccer practice for elementary school and a slide for preschool.

In an interview with the pedagogical coordinators, they report that the children's fine motor skills are still at normal levels, but they don't know how to run, jump, or move freely. Something that was acquired naturally in childhood presents itself with the need to have a specific discipline 14.

The same is reported in schools in Chile, Spain, and Colombia, where criticism is made about the lack of quality of playgrounds and how projects have been carried out to upgrade these areas: Micos Project, Asociación Patios Habitables, Anidar-ArqA, Ludantia, LUPO-Fermín Blanco, Eskoola, Rosa Sensat, Patio Vivo, among others.

With the participation of teachers, architects, landscape architects, psychologists, doctors, sociologists, parents, and the children themselves, these projects seek to empower schoolyards to create stimuli and child development: socialization, creativity, motor skills, language, thinking, exploration.

The choice of materials, with respect to their durability, low maintenance and low cost, the importance of light, health, thermal comfort, color, articulation of spaces, mobility, modularity, and the possibility of interaction with the surrounding elements. These and other aspects must be safeguarded in both the architectural and landscape design of schoolyards, respecting the safety guidelines and legislation in force.


It is important to recognize the character of the built environment and to know how to distinguish points of interest and materials to be repeated, as well as those to be avoided as Lynch advocated 15. To this end, we will analyze case studies, based on the common concern in the requalification of quality playgrounds, which have similarity in the daily school hours of children and the existence of working bodies already constituted and involving the study among children, teachers, psychologists, architects, landscape architects.

To begin the study, in order to serve as a methodological test, we will analyze how the outdoor environment and its appropriation by children of preschool and 1st cycle, schools in Chile and Colombia, making a comparison of two works carried out recently, considering their differences in culture, climate, topography, typology, regulatory legislation and programmatic content in the pedagogical process:

  • 1 school redevelopment project: Ayelén School, 2017 by Patio Vivo Foundation (Chile)
  • 1 new construction project: Timayui Kindergarten by Mazzanti team, 2010 by Giancarlo Mazzanti (Colombia)

In these cases, using plans, sections, photos and perspectives, the process of appropriation of space will be analyzed (from the request process, through the joint work between the design team and other stakeholders, and finally, the final proposal). The goal is to try to highlight how design manages to materialize the different intentions of the designers and how spaces that educate are designed and if they are not considered in the design, how child behavior proceeds - based on the various empirical studies on the built space and its impact on cognitive, physical and behavioral development.

It is intended to analyze the spaces for permanence (individual, collective) and the spaces for passage; the playful spaces and the spaces for games, floor typology and solar orientation; as well as seeking to establish the possible zoning of spaces:

1-typology of the school, capacity children, occupational density in playgrounds, hours of the school and non-school period used outside.

2- pedagogy used in the school

3- pedagogy advocated by the architects and how it reverts in the effective design of the outdoor spaces

3- solar insolation and acoustics;

4-legislation applied

5-nature: materials used

6-occupation of spaces, being of individual or collective activity, with the distinct or mixed characteristics of being catalysts

individual/group construction and the fostering of a sense of belonging and safety; fostering creativity and observation; fostering relaxation/activity; fostering resilience/rest; structured/unstructured play; fostering a sense of safety or negative and prohibitive (due to physical safety, fire or accessibility risks); changeable (possible the contribution by children-teachers-parents over time; green/natural elements that contribute to biophilic strengthening of children.

Expected results

With this methodology, we hope to contribute to the extensive studies that are scattered about the impact of architecture on child development and thus define and qualify the essential designs and elements in the design of the schoolyard, designed for children, where children "inhabit" the playground, as being theirs and for them 16.

Tipic public schools grounds in Portugal

Figure 2: Tipic public schools grounds in Portugal

The intention will be to provide good practice parameters/guidance that will serve as a support tool for architects as well as for City Councils and technicians preparing tender bases (in the case of public schools). In the same way, it intends to serve as an aid in the construction of more specific regulations regarding outdoor space and its importance in the cognitive, physical and playful development of the playground.

This research will then serve as support for a pilot project in a school in Vila Nova de Gaia (VNG), which has already agreed to participate in the research and will have the participation of children, parents and teachers. Later on, it will seek to mirror it in cases of public education, currently under consideration.

Figure 3

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