Keyword Site Search

The Winnetka Public School Nursery

--Where the 2-4 Year Old Set Go for Fun and Games

A berm was created to form a gentle hill, site of the Castle, an upturned conical octagon of wood. The kids are naturally drawn to this high point and the unconventional design seems to bring out inventive play. In the winter the kids use cafeteria trays to sled down the slope.

The Physical Environment as Teacher

The Winnetka Public School Nursery playground, or what the school and designer think of as the "outdoor learning environment," is an extension of the classroom. It's a playful "work" space where children freely experience the outdoors, science and art. The design takes its lead from the strong educational philosophies of the Winnetka Public School Nursery and its ideas on the developmental, cognitive, and emotional needs of preschoolers.

  1. School Entrance
  2. Drop Off Zone
  3. Train Stop Trellis
  4. Infinite Loop Tricycle & Parade Path
  5. Crazy Box Pavilion Climber
  6. Sand Box
  7. Castle
  8. Art Making Land
  9. Supply Shed
  10. Climbing wall
  11. Tricycle Store- Ride Through
  12. Swings
  13. Musical Forest/Sound & Theme Gardens
  14. Geometry Land
  15. Bridge

Transforming the mission and values of the nursery into dynamic, functioning, outdoor site features was the design team of architect Peter Exley, FAIA, and Sharon Exley, MAAE of architectureisfun of Chicago, and Michael Evans, ASLA, a the landscape architect for the Highland Park, Ill. Park District. They created places, experiences and structures to engage and delight the kids.

The nursery's approach to early childhood education is based on the Reggio Emilia model, a program that began in the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy after WWII. The Reggio Emilia approach is developing understanding through "many symbolic languages," including drawing, sculpture, dramatic play, and writing. Teachers allow children to work together to resolve problems that arise and observe these debates. Drawings (and ideas) are encouraged, and teachers allow children to repeat activities and modify each other’s work in the collective aim of better understanding the topic.

The Parade Path is an "infinite loop" of activity, perfect for tricycles built for two. "Safety and accessibility were the top two objectives," said Mike Evans, ASLA.

The Reggio Emilia model challenges some teaching conceptions. Teachers in the Reggio Emilia schools believe in the importance of children being confused as a function of learning. A major teaching strategy is to allow mistakes to happen, or to begin a project with no clear sense of where it might end. Reggio Emilia solicits points of view from the children, parents and teachers. They trust children to be interested in things worth knowing about, and they trust parents to be informed and productive members of a cooperative educational team. The result is an atmosphere of community and collaboration.

The design of the playground seeks to follow the precepts of Reggio Emilia by going beyond the traditional "cookie-cutter" approach to playgrounds to allow children to experience the out-of-doors, encouraging them to make their own choices, to problem solve, and to be inquisitive, while promoting investigation and exploration. The careful arrangement of the landscape offers accessibility and independence.

Outdoor art on custom-made easels, supported by posts from Landscape Structures. The surfacing here is checkered concrete and a groundcover of wood fibers.

Children do not require the added assistance of teachers, but can navigate the planned environment and make their own connections to it. The work and play of the child becomes the focus of the space. Learning is enhanced and strengthened by a landscape that has been designed specifically for the child with its meandering path, hills for play and reflection, and areas of collaborative play. The physical environment becomes a teacher.

The Design Approach: Respecting Multiple Perspectives

With soliciting multiple points of view about children's needs, interests, and abilities, and finding meaningful ways that children, parents, faculty and the community could contribute to the determination of the play area, developing the design was challenging. Brainstorming sessions were held in which the design team listened carefully to the concepts of the curriculum and the needs, wants, and desires of the parties invested in the project. The result is an atmosphere of community and collaboration that is reflected in the design and landscaping.

Emergent Curricula as Design Informant

The nursery's "emergent curricula" are built on creating programs and activities that the preschoolers find appealing. In the classroom, children are surrounded with rich and engaging materials. Out in the open, the design of the learning environment takes its inspiration and form from trains, puddles, dirt, and the ever-changing landscape, all of which are relevant, if not irresistible to preschoolers. There's the Musical Forest with wind chimes and speaker tubes; the Infinite Loop Tricycle Path with a drive-through; the Crazy Box Pavilion Climber and the Sound and Theme Gardens with their seasonal offerings--all designed to interest, challenge, and stimulate. The faculty feedback is that every space is used by the children and the open-ended structures are usable in all seasons to stimulate creativity and imagination.

The wood bridge connects to both sides of Geometry Land. Mike Evans, ASLA, went with sand for under the bridge, both for safety reasons and not to allow propagation of mosquitoes. He also went for color conservative schemes of beige and greens throughout the play area.

Howard Gardner, a psychologist and Harvard University researcher, speaks about schooling for multiple intelligences. The design at Winnetka integrates areas and equipment where children can engage in multisensory project "work," including art, construction, drama, music, puppetry and shadow play. Understanding that these activities contribute to a child's development, the design team created a variety of settings and equipment in which these learning adventures can take place. "The equipment inspires but does not define," observed one faculty member.

Geometry Land is the kind of place all kids love--an oversized sand box where they can get their hands dirty and play with water. Here they can create streams in the dirt and learn first hand about erosion and stream beds. Trellises overhead provide shade and forms on which pots for clanging or flowers for growing can hang.

The Train Stop Trellis, just inside the entrance/exit gate, is a safety buffer for the busy pick-ups and drop-offs. The trellis, like many of the structures, exemplifies the low maintenance, durable materials that allow the playground components to be used year-round.

Platform #9, another trellis-like structure, is a stage, one minute, and a music-making station the next.

The Parade Path and Infinite Loop are perfect for roundabout tricycle-riding or seasonal celebration. A gentle climbing wall activates a wall between the drive-through shed and the storage shed. The sculptural pipe structures become places where outside art making and letter writing occur naturally. As an outdoor gallery, they showcase the children's work.

According to the landscape architect, at the time it was built, there was only one manufacturer of wall climbing elements, BOLDR Sport Climbing Systems. BOLDR sent the foot and hand holds, which were kid tested and placed horizontally.

Creating changes in elevation gives the landscape more interest. The Castle, an upturned conical octagon of wood, is sited where a berm was created, forming a gentle hill. Teachers and students requested the hill during the initial brainstorming sessions. As kids have been doing for centuries, they want to claim the hill as their own--king or queen of the castle. Some climb and roll down the gentle slope; in winter they borrow cafeteria trays for makeshift sleds.

The Water Table is a place to make sense of physical work by experimenting with sand and water. It is spread out like an assembly line, promoting group work and socialization. The early childhood water play elements are from Kompan, Inc.

One of the main objectives of the play area was creating a physical setting that was engaging yet safe. The design meets and surpasses that objective in encouraging interaction and independence through a variety of accessible and secure activities.

What would being a kid be without the opportunity to climb a tree? This crab tree allows a modicum of climbing. The Reggio Emilia approach is to let the natural environment "become the third teacher." Shade trees were planted to shield the play area from the neighboring homes.

Perennials and planting boxes located under the trellis invite children to a green "thumbs-on" gardening experience. The children learn a flower growing within the playground is part of a living system; they come to understand its connection to the sun, water, wind, and insects. They enthusiastically explore their connection to the plants and to the world around them as they watch the flowers grow. The nursery encourages kids to see, touch, hear and discover the natural world in individual and collaborative ways.

Planning a Beautiful Landscape for Children

The plan for the outdoor learning environment solved key pragmatic issues. Lining up for school buses or pick-up, formerly a worrisome safety issue, now occurs securely at the Train Stop Trellis. The children understand this is the "stopping place" where you wait to enter school or leave it. In the mornings, children gather under its shade in their respective groups and are met by their teacher who takes them inside. Year-round use was critical; the choice of low maintenance but durable materials allows the playground to be in continual use and connected to the seasons. Children are happy to work and play in snow, drizzle, sun, or fog. Earlier problems with flooding were eliminated by the creation of a man-made swale that directs the drainage water to the pond area. Physical challenges within the environment were developed for children of differing abilities.

The atypical stage for impromptu dance, performance and play employs post from Landscape Structures mounted on a wood deck. Wire is strung around the post tops to hang wind chimes and colorful banners.

"The setting provides children with autonomy, freedom of choice, opportunities to explore and investigate the world around them," expressed a faculty member. "The environment provides children with safe physical challenges that grow with a child's age and stage of development."

Learning spaces, by Reggio measure, are beautiful when they are reflections of the children, faculty and families who use them. The design of the play area demonstrates how natural and man-made materials, color, texture, elevations, pedestrian and vehicular movement, landscape, and sculptural and functional learning elements can be integrated into a setting in which children learn and grow.

Mary Bell, director of the Winnetka Public School Nursery, summarizes the success of the project. "I am able to enjoy it on a daily basis. It has been a wonderful addition to our school and the teachers, and especially the children, who continue to find new and creative ways to use the various spaces. New teachers are in awe, and it engages the children just as we had hoped. We have become known in the area as “the school with that fantastic playground.”



Outdoor learning environment and interactive playground at Winnetka Public School Nursery, Winnetka, Ill.
Date of completion June 2002.


Winnetka Public
School Nursery
Kathy Marquardt, director


Peter Exley, FAIA
Sharon Exley, MAAE
architectureisfun, Inc., Chicago

Landscape architect

Michael Evans, ASLA
Highland Park, Ill., Park District

Products used in this project

  1. Kompan, Inc.: Laguna(TM) Early Childhood Water Play Elements
  2. Landscape Structures, Inc.: posts with post caps & speaker phones (used in custom elements, i.e., outdoor easels and performance stage)
  3. BOLDR Sport Climbing Systems: climbing wall holds on custom wall
  4. Custom "Walking Bridge," "Arbor-Trellis," and "Wind Garden Deck"
  5. Community Playthings: Twinstar Tricycles

Related Stories

December 6, 2019, 1:16 pm PDT

Website problems, report a bug.
Copyright © 2019 Landscape Communications Inc.
Privacy Policy