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Playground in the Sky
Little Playground Offers Big Fun for Students

Landscape Architecture by RKLA Studio

Playground in the Sky

Located in the middle of busy Upper West Side Manhattan, the children of St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's School spend their recess time on a small rooftop play deck. Atop the 7,400-square-foot roof deck are three distinct landscapes: a ball play area, a playground, and an outdoor classroom. Photo: Frank Oudeman / OTTO

Playground in the Sky

With the addition of the 120-square-foot living wall, which features more than 10 species of low light and understory plants, the length of the garden room has become one of the more iconic and beloved elements within the whole play deck. Photo: Frank Oudeman / OTTO

Guided by an educational tradition to nurture the "whole person: body, mind, and spirit," St. Hilda's & St. Hugh's School in Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood embarked on an extensive "greening" initiative to better serve its diverse pre-K through 8th grade community. The curriculum of this independent school is one "which encourages in students a respect for nature and human achievement, as well as a love of art, music, drama, and athletics."

The location of the school's 1960's era Brutalist building, a dense urban environment, meant that their only existing outdoor space was a confining, caged playground on the roof deck of the gymnasium. RKLA Studio Landscape Architecture, partnering with Murphy, Burnham, & Buttrick Architects, was challenged to create an urban outdoor environment that supports physical health, unique play, environmental education, and quiet study.

A lack of suitable outdoor space is a common problem for many NYC school playgrounds, but if one can make the most of a small space, creativity can allow something little to seem like something much bigger. The 7,400-square-foot roof deck is divided into three distinct landscapes. An existing steel cage required by city code and covering the entire space was reconfigured to only cover the ball play area, which was redesigned as an artificial landscape evoking expansive natural environments of field and sky. A radiant snowmelt system ensures year-round use. New paint, chain link, and stretched invisible mesh panels give it a feeling of openness and embrace the plantings from adjacent areas. Outdoor woven shade cloth is stretched over the chain link sidewalls to block views of neighboring apartment buildings. The pattern is changed when the cloth needs to be replaced.

The new play area that runs along the classroom building, now released to the sky by the partial cage removal, was transformed into a park-like playground designed to foster pretend play and imagination at the youngest of ages. Zinc planters surrounding the play zones are filled with a variety of native shrubs and trees - many chosen for their edible, fragrant, or tactile properties. Blueberries, which students are allowed to pick and eat freely, grow sporadically around the play area. Lesson plans were created to understand the plant qualities and growing habits, and an initial study was performed to ensure that no poisonous plants were included, as the children are encouraged to touch and experiment with the plants.

Playground in the Sky

In the middle of a concrete jungle, the expansive ball play area is designed to emulate field and sky. The dark green padded mats recall evergreen hedges, and the green poured rubber flooring resembles a grassy ball field that allows for soccer matches, basketball games, four square, hopscotch, and free-play. Photo: Frank Oudeman / OTTO

Playground in the Sky

A revolving installation of unique play equipment which is changed out every year or soaEUR" here including an airplane cockpit aEUR" and permanent play structures appeal to students of all ages. Installed alongside classrooms, the structures offer students a variety of opportunities to exercise and play with friends. Photo: Frank Oudeman / OTTO

Playground in the Sky

The playground structures were kept small and simplistic in order to stimulate the imagination and creativity of the young students while also allowing for light exercise and strengthening. The wire mesh Silver Green screen forms a barrier between the playground and the ball play area. Photo: Francine Fleischer

A wire mesh wall along the roof perimeter allows vines to creep up and sunlight to shine through while following code requirements and keeping the students safe as they play and explore. A series of playground structures were installed amongst the greenery that cater to different age groups and offer students a variety of opportunities to climb, slide, swing, and jump while three inches of poured rubber cushion the ground. A rotating roster of utilitarian structures adds to the excitement and gives students a unique opportunity to use their imaginations.

The design team proposed the idea of a rotating piece of play equipment to keep things new and interesting for the children at the school while also keeping the space from feeling too cramped. This idea was thoroughly embraced by the institution, and, to this day, the head of the school has been curating the selections and finding people and organizations to donate structures. Some examples of these non-typical play pieces include a teardrop camper, a Fiat 500, an airplane cockpit, and a small rowboat. The school makes this rotation possible by utilizing the thoroughfare on their property between 114th and 115th Streets to crane the old equipment out and the new equipment in. This takes place once every year or two. Anchoring points were installed during construction in order to secure each new piece that is brought onto the play deck.

As for the permanent play structures, the school wanted to keep the designs simple and open-ended, while also limiting the size of the equipment. The climbing structures make less of a footprint than more traditional equipment and allow opportunities for the students to increase their upper body strength. The institution did not want to include any themed structures (ones that look like pirate's ships, castles, etc.) but instead wanted the kids to be able to imagine the structures were anything they wanted them to be. This project was truly focused on the variety of play experiences that could be provided on this small rooftop space.

The north end of the play deck was transformed into an intimate garden and outdoor classroom for quiet play and group study. The students have come to refer to it as the "chill zone." A stair bulkhead and sports equipment storage room in one corner is sheathed in ipe wood and resembles a garden outbuilding. The horizontal ipe wood transforms into an open slat wall the width of the play deck, providing a physical separation from the energetic ball games of the caged play area. Students enter through an opening in the screen wall protected with a sliding steel mesh curtain into a contemplative zone filled with plant life and open to the sky.

Playground in the Sky

The existing steel cage was reconfigured and lightened with a new coat of white paint and chain link. Cloudscape patterns printed on outdoor woven shade cloth and stretched over the chain link sidewalls block views of neighboring apartment buildings while enlivening the atmosphere with an artificial blue sky even on dreary days. Photo: Frank Oudeman / OTTO

Playground in the Sky

A steel cage previously enclosed the whole outdoor space. Students had no access to plants, natural materials, or varied play experiences. Photo: RKLA Studio

The perimeter fern plantings complement a 120-square-foot living wall full of low light and understory plants that runs the length of the garden room. The wall has become one of the more iconic and beloved elements within the whole play deck, with the school showing an ongoing commitment to the maintenance required to ensure the success of the wall in this challenging environment. The special nature of the space is enhanced with wood decking and moveable curved wood benches that can be configured for quiet play or a small group demonstration. A centrally located Littleleaf Linden tree in a large round planter anchors the garden room and reinforces the vertical openness of
the landscape.

The all-encompassing design of the play deck achieved the school's goals of providing varied, immersive environments for year-round use with unique, interchanging playground equipment. The native plantings selected to provide rich visual interest with colors, textures, tastes, and smells that change with each new season aim to foster an interest in, and appreciation for, the natural world. With the completed play deck, St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's students can grow, learn, and play outside the classroom as well as inside.

Team List:
Landscape Architect: RKLA Studio Landscape Architecture LLP
Architect: Murphy, Burnham, & Buttrick Architects
Contractor: Eurostruct Inc.
Structural Engineer: Robert Silman Associates
MEP Engineer: Buro Happold
Lighting Design: Melanie Freundlich Lighting Design
Code Consultant: William Dailey Consultants
Radiant Heating Engineer: Buro Happold Consulting Engineers P.C.
Graphic Design Consultant: Emphas!s Design
Photography: Frank Oudeman | Francine Fleischer

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February 17, 2020, 2:54 pm PDT

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