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Learning Outside the Traditional Classroom and Throw in Some Physical Development and Socialization Activities, Too
by Steve Kelly, LASN, and Sarah Lisiecki, BCI Burke


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The paving (Pavestone 'Holland Stone Parkway' series) that bisects the First United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas playground was selected to mimic the cross on the main stained glass window of the church, the cross is also used for the church logos and in its publications. The new trees bordering the playground are 'Natchez' crape myrles, which are protected by 48"x72" cast iron tree grates (Ironsmith 'PaverGrate'). The curved leg and armrest benches have wood slats and ductile iron casting frames (Victor Stanley 'Framers Modern'). A two-foot brick wall along the north edge of the playground is the foundation for the fencing on that side, and creates an upper viewing area. The walkway behind it has 6 brick planter boxes used for educational instruction on nature, plants and seasons.


Some of their latest school playgrounds incorporate "learning outside the classroom," i.e., play elements that not only help youngsters in their physical development and social interaction, but allow them to experience making music, engage their tactile and auditory development, or even "enhance their cognitive planning and strategic thinking," as play sociologists are wont to say.

For the kids, of course, playground equipment is all about fun, even if the adults are trying to "trick" them into learning on the playground. Playground designers and planners have plenty of challenges. Selecting fun play structures is easy enough, depending on the budget, but they must take into consideration that some kids have significant physical limitations. Accessibility has been a key playground component for over a decade now, and only continues to grow in prominence. Then there's the consideration that some children aren't as adventurous as others, so it's important to have some equipment that isn't intimidating or that requires little physical effort to enjoy; other kids, of course, are rambunctious and want to be physically challenged and play accordingly, so that level must also be met.

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The artificial turf surfacing allows all children to be at the heart of the action. The green polyethylene fiber safety surfacing, reminiscent of a fine blade fescue or blue grass lawn, is a play element for many of the children; they enjoy lying down and rolling about on the soft uniform surface. The surfacing is 100% recyclable, and backed by a shock and drainage pad. The toddler (left) is about to sound a bell. The light poles (Valmont) and fixtures ('NeoSphere' from Kim Lighting) were relocated from the previous playground. The playground fencing was constructed on site by a subcontractor.


First United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas
Playground Design--la terra studio, Dallas

When Brad Moulton, ASLA, principal at la terra studio, a Dallas-based landscape architecture, urban design, and planning firm, learned about the expansion at First United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas, he knew the project would hold a special place in his heart. Brad grew up in Richardson, a city located about 10 miles north of Dallas. He was a member of the church, and his two children attended the church's daycare, so it was exciting that the church was about to get a new, improved and larger play space as part of a $20 million dollar expansion to meet the needs of the growing community and region.

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The 'Charade Panel' is a two-sided game where kids spin the panel to navigate a metal ball through a maze. The game involves eye-hand coordination and some strategic thinking. Clearly the game is intriguing these little shavers.


First United Methodist Church (FUMCR) serves the north Dallas region, and has over 6,500 members, making it one of the largest Methodist Churches in the country. The church has an active youth program and offers a full daycare for ages 13 weeks to 5 years old, preschool classes through first year kindergarten, as well as more than 15 youth Sunday classes. Throughout the week, the church serves as a gathering space for multiple community programs that offer childcare, so the play space is rarely empty and needs to accommodate different ages and abilities without noticeably dividing the area.

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Among the tactile elements on the playground is the 'Maze Panel.' The toddlers seem quite absorbed in following the circuitous route of their squirrel friend.


As the design of the new building expansion was going to displace the current playground, a new on site location was identified. The existing playground equipment was only about 8 years old, and in good condition. It was donated to an organization that provides shelter to children and families. Child's Play, Inc., the local BCI Burke playground representative, donated their services to deconstruct the old playground, and install the new playground at its new location.

The goal of the playground project was to create a space for children ages 2-12 that could be used for a variety of purposes. The challenge for the team at la terra studio was to take learning and development outside and make it available to everyone. Ground-level play offers inclusiveness for children with mobility limitations. The artificial turf surfacing allows all children to be at the heart of the action. The surface is actually a play element, as many children just enjoy lying down and rolling around on the soft uniform surface. Children learn best while they play, and la terra studio and the members at the church considered the importance of well-designed and developed spaces for kids to grow, move and create experiences that transcend out of the playground.

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For some tots, the Sound Garden panel may be their first hands-on experience at creating musical sounds (piano notes heard by pushing the buttons), creating interesting sounds by spinning the rain wheel, or beating out rhythms on the tom tom (the drum top is the other end of the yellow tube).


Attention to detail and a holistic view of the project created a play space that fits into the design of the overall campus. Areas in between the two playground pods provide circulation throughout the campus, as well as gathering areas for parents while the kids play.

The paving patterns throughout the areas were chosen to mimic the interior of the cross on the main stained glass window of the sanctuary, also used in many of the church logos and publications. A two-foot wall was built along the northern edge of the playground that provides an upper viewing area for parents and family to watch the activity. Six planter boxes built along the walkway in the upper area are for educational programs about nature, plants and seasons. Other projects on the campus that enhance user experiences are a sculpture garden that contains a 18' tall bronze Jesus sculpture "Walk With Me" by artist James Muir. There is also a memorial garden with a columbarium that allows church members a place for cinerary urns. This peaceful garden is in the shadows of the church where they worshiped.

Overall, the children and all members love their new space and look forward to years of play, movement and development.


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On the physical side, the toddlers can slide, tunnel or take their fledgling steps at mountaineering.


As seen in LASN magazine, June 2016.






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October 21, 2019, 8:55 am PDT

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