The Importance of Play: Collaboration in Design

August 19, 2022 by Clayton Truscott

Yesterday’s interview with nature+play designs Principal, Jane Tesner Kleiner, offered a peek into the process and vantage point of an expert in the field. Today, we’re speaking with Karen Knauss, an Associate at LSW who has worked alongside Jane on several recent school projects.

As the need for playful outdoor spaces becomes more of a priority to schools and other educational facilities, the indoor environments we design are slowly starting to mimic the natural environments that surround them. We asked Karen to talk through the elements of play that exist in and around a few recent projects and unpack the ways that play has informed the design.

Exploration at Ogden Elementary School

“We don’t design in a vacuum - we work with a whole village of people,” Karen says. “Learning and play go together. For us, play is a way of bringing the expertise of educators, landscape architects and consultants, and us together on solutions that we’re all excited about. From a planning standpoint, we’re looking at ways to incorporate nature play into the site, trying to take advantage of the trees and the areas by building them into the playground.”

Research shows that students need places to explore and investigate on their own, without necessarily having any guidance at that moment in time. “At Ogden Elementary, one of the things we did was create a central courtyard with plantings and a rock and mineral garden to get their hands dirty. There is open seating for people of all physical abilities. It’s made to feel welcoming and warm.”

Discover and Wonder in the EPS Prototype Schools

Play helps you learn, helps you regulate, de-escalate. Having playful and different spaces allows the kids to use their environment to meet their needs. “In the Evergreen Public Schools prototype schools, the first thing that kids see when they walk into the entry is the commons area, the learning stair, and a giant window beyond it. Kids are encouraged to sit however they want, lay down, find a nook, climb up and over, around the stair – to make their own choices. This is all with the idea of creating intrigue for students, to stimulate curiosity,” Karen explains.

Evergreen Schools prototype building

View of the stairs and open area for Evergreen Public Schools Prototype buildings

“The learning stair sets a tone and provides a transition from the social commons to the academic commons. As they move into the classroom wing, they’ll find alcoves where students can write on the walls, reading nooks and sitting areas. Around every corner, there’s something a little different and the possibility to explore,” Karen continues.

Karen concludes, saying that the “experience of discovery and wonder is so important to the learning experience. We go to great lengths to support this with spatial variety and different types of seating, classroom configurations, viewpoints and learning tools. All of these things together help create a learning environment that feels like an invitation to engage and connect with the space.”

As our week of ‘play’ focused articles draws to a close, we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the inherently collaborative nature of our work. Our sincere thanks to Jane and Mary from Columbia Play Project, Jane Tesner Kleiner from nature+play+designs, and all of the teachers, administrators, and representatives from our local school districts.

Read the full series: