“Brrr! Get those kiddos inside – they must be freezing!” This is a common response when I show people this photo of school children playing outside during a blizzard. Here in Seattle, where the average winter temperature hovers between 40-50 degrees F, we often keep kids inside when it rains. Yet as any parent can attest, a child at play is oblivious to temperature. Sure, rain and snow can be messy. But considering the mounting research on childhood obesity and the importance of daily play for developing minds and bodies, it seems antithetical to keep kids cooped up because of messy drizzle. As a schools architect and a mother of two young, full-throttle children, the connections between play, the outdoors and learning have become central to my professional and personal thinking. I plan to explore the synergies between play and learning by looking at examples of innovative learning environments, playgrounds and other types of play-able spaces.
Now back to the weather. Contrast Seattle’s relatively mild winters with the town of Kirkenes, Norway, where winter temperatures bounce between freezing and 10 degrees F. As in most of Scandinavia, it is considered normal for kids to play outside every day, all year long. This cultural embrace of the great outdoors is beautifully reflected the outdoor learning and play environments of the Kirkenes School.
Designed by Steinsvik Arkitektkontor, the northern edge of the play yard is defined by a series of covered outdoor rooms that form a continuous arcade. The rear and side walls morph from static planes into dynamic triangulated folds that host climbing holds and spill out into the yard to create topography. These ruptured ground planes are ideal for running and jumping when it’s warm and capture snow drifts for romping and sledding in the cold.
Equally important is the use of color. The interior walls of the arcade and their associated geometry are painted bright orange, reminiscent of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park “Gates.” This not only provides a stunning visual contrast with the snow, but it contributes to the creation of warmer “microclimates” within the arcade due to angles that reflect the low winter sun. In other words, it’s a passive solar playground!
Consider this translated quote from the architect’s website: We used the title “white infrastructure” to describe how the snow creates contexts (and violations of contexts) in use. The knowledge of this white infrastructure… we call “snow-how,” and this knowledge has great potential for strengthening and developing an urban culture and for improving public health for most people – both physically and mentally.”
I have no doubt the ability for kids to have year-round access to quality outdoor environments would be a welcome addition to our schools, playgrounds and city as a whole. So what can we do to increase our level of “rain-how” here in Seattle?