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The Elementary School Playground Dilemma

In The Past Eight Months

MHS Planning & Design has been contacted by at least five different local elementary schools inquiring about updating playground equipment and the processes necessary to provide much needed improvements to outdoor play areas at the elementary level. Because we are living in a “Post-Covid” world, many aspects of the educational process have been reimagined or re-examined to take into account the educational gap left by the two-plus years of the pandemic chaos.

While the lack of prioritization of funds for recess and playground areas is not a new problem, it is one that has perhaps been brought more into focus through the lens of the deficiencies made evident in the wake of COVID-19. While many have given their full attention to the gaps left in the classroom, what they may not have considered is that in the early years of childhood development, experiences in the great outdoors have a significant impact on a child’s ability to learn and process the world around them.

An article from TCU’s Education Department cited

Multiple Research Papers

that linked increased outdoor play times to improved academic performance in the classroom.

“Some educators reported in a 2017 study that after giving students a chance to move around for just five minutes before a test, they performed better on exams. This point was echoed in a 2018 study that found one elementary school that doubled the number of recess periods offered during the day saw math test scores increase.” (Source: Education Dive)

“Another school in Texas increased recess to four 15-minute breaks each day, and even though teachers had less time in the classroom, they discovered that “after five months of the increased breaks, students focused better during lessons than before the play time was inserted into the day.”

There are countless similar studies

that repeatedly demonstrate a direct link between outdoor recess and play and increased academic performance. In addition to academic benefits, there has also been extensive research done linking outdoor play to improvements in overall mental health.


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Cites that children with low exposure to green space are 55% more likely to have mental health issues.

Outdoor play also contributes to physical health, immune health, improved motor skills, reduced stress and anxiety, and decreased occurrence of heart disease and diabetes.

The research on the subject is extensive and all points to an overwhelming conclusion that access and exposure to outdoor learning and play environments is essential to early childhood and school-aged children’s development.

While our first inclination when we think about educational outdoor play areas is to picture a playground structure, there are various other factors that can be included in the US Department of Education’s definition of an outdoor learning environment, or “an outdoor space that includes diverse features designed to promote structured and unstructured physical activity, play and learning.”

In addition to playgrounds there are:
  • sport courts

  • open lawns

  • outdoor classrooms

  • gardens

  • meditation spaces

  • challenge courses

These are also options that can be included in creating a natural outdoor educational space.

While every elementary school has some type of recess and outdoor play area, there tends to be a highly disproportionate emphasis on the maintenance, improvement, and funding given to these highly influential outdoor play and learning spaces. For example, our local school district recently passed bonds to fund the complete rebuilding of 2 high schools and one middle school in town. Included in these bond funds at each campus were athletic complexes, sports fields, running tracks, and indoor practice facilities for the athletic programs.

A local elementary school in the same district was funded for a rebuild in 2008, and while the campus was completely rebuilt, the playground equipment from the existing building was repurposed instead of replaced. Now, 15 years later, the outdoor playground and play areas have been minimally maintained, utilizing the lowest cost measures, rather than improved or replaced.

When you consider that 100% of elementary school children

use the outdoor play areas daily

while a much lower percentage of middle and high school students utilize athletic facilities, it seems highly disproportionate that these educational components would receive so little of the funding and attention of the district.

There is often an argument made that outdoor play and learning areas are too costly to maintain.

MHS has been building and installing parks and recreational facilities for over 30 years and can confidently negate this argument by saying our experience has proven that an upfront investment in the appropriate playground and outdoor equipment, landscaping, and supplies actually reduces the amount of maintenance and upkeep needed for these facilities, thus reducing the maintenance costs overall versus outdated or aged, lower quality installations. In this case, the adage “you get what you pay for” rings very true. When you consider the daily use and wear and tear an educational playground receives, even compared to a public park or playground, the investment into the appropriate durability and quality equipment is not the place to compromise.

It Is Clear

That in the area of educational play spaces, there is a very big need for appropriate information and planning in order to help overcome the pressing dilemma of inadequate and outdated facilities.

In our upcoming series of informational papers

MHS plans to provide more comprehensive information

concerning the areas of childhood development and education affected by outdoor play, creating inclusive play environments, the planning and design element of outdoor play areas, and realistic funding and maintenance goals to make these areas a reality for your school or district.

Outdoor learning environments are essential to enhancing the development of the whole, well-rounded educational experience as well as the development of students. Promoting the highest capacity of mental and physical development for each child to be able to reach their full potential is generally the mission of the school system and the parents who are represented therein, and providing outdoor learning opportunities is one of the best ways to protect that legacy and ensure the future success of all who have the chance to experience it.


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