Outdoor play activities are a vital part of a healthy school environment, yet spaces designed for these uses can end up as an afterthought in the planning process. This is especially true in an academic culture increasingly focused on security.
But securing a school campus doesn’t have to mean keeping students indoors under lock and key, says architect Gary L. Owen Jr. with Goodwyn Mills and Cawood. And finding ways to do this is as important as ever in an age of video games, computers and childhood obesity, he adds.
In Athens, Ala., the idea of an open courtyard at a new high school initially unnerved school administrators, who thought the outdoor space near a major corridor would leave their students vulnerable. Goodwyn Mills and Cawood assuaged those fears by incorporating a fence into the design that requires key-card access at the gates. That way, students can benefit from being outside and school administrators can control who has access to the campus.
The fencing will likely be made of wrought iron or pre-finished aluminum with brick piers, lending the fence an aesthetic quality while creating a sense of transparency for watchful school administrators.
“Appropriate scale fencing in the right places can solve the security issue,” says Owen, who is a director of the firm’s education group. “There’s been a big push with ‘Let’s keep everything locked down and keep everybody out.’
“One school of thought is you make everything a fortress, which is probably the most counter-productive thing you can do. If you have fencing that you can see through and beyond – high visibility areas like that are critical for deterring crime,” he adds.
Incorporating these outdoor activity spaces into the design shows students that exercise and nature are just as important as academics, Owen notes.
In the case of Central High School in Clay County, Ala., Goodwyn Mills and Cawood had a large, open piece of land to work with. The firm wanted to avoid the “mega footprint of a school” with everything under one roof, instead opting for a campus-type approach. A group of buildings were laid out around a fenced courtyard, giving students a place to socialize or take a break away from the rigors of school.
The center of the courtyard is formal in style with a tower as the focal point. Words representing the recent consolidation of two schools into new schools – words like “unity” and “respect” – are engraved in the cast stone of the tower. The rest of the space is more relaxed, like a quad with grass and benches.
“You need some places for the kids and the school to sort of breathe a little bit and have places where kids can separate a bit and not be so bunched up together,” Owen says. “In the hallways, they’re sort of elbow to elbow getting from one place to another. These outdoor spaces really tend to create points at which kids can gather in groups, friends can get together and they’re not on top of each other.”