The quality of a play environment has an enormous influence on children’s health and development. The design of the Harvard Yard Childcare Center play yard addresses this need through landscape experience. As an alternative to catalogue- based equipment, the design utilizes research, design guidelines, and affordance theories to layer a variety of play experiences into an engaging landscape.

The design moves beyond an approach that prioritizes gross motor play to one that offers a variety of play opportunity; creative, imaginative, cooperative and theatrical. Spaces throughout the site are scaled to one or few children, offering opportunities for exploration and respite, which are increasingly important for children with sensory processing disorders. Open-ended landscape play allows children to find and satisfy their own developmental and play needs, offering accessible play opportunities for children of all physical and developmental levels.

Flanked by buildings on both sides, the design sequences major play themes seamlessly meeting one to the next throughout the 50’ by 215’ space. Lower level building walls in poor condition were masked by a new wood storage area with sliding barn doors with closets for materials and trikes as well as small nooks for sitting and finding respite. The pre- renovation playground was completely covered in degraded, rubber surfacing. The renovation sought to provide a landscape of permeable or semipermeable, playable surface material by diversifying the ground palette to include sand, pea gravel, stabilized stone dust, and wood pavers to allow for on- site rainwater infiltration.

Through spatial behavior mapping and coding, the design team was able to inform their initial design and to test results post construction by measuring the effect that the modification has on children’s play, socialization, movement and physical engagement. The study showed that the design expanded the extent of usable/used space with the children playing in a much larger percentage of the space with play types more evenly distributed throughout. Many of the custom features offered their desired play value (running, climbing, scrambling) but also served as social spaces in ways that were not anticipated.

The overall design sought to create a series of landscape rooms with different material character to breakdown the scale of this long, narrow site. As a parti, the design reflects a diorama of scenes that the children can pass through, transitioning from one setting to the next as if moving through a series of stage sets. Changing colors, textures and shifts in ground plane make each “room” a unique experience and offer loose materials designed to be moved, sorted and gathered throughout the site.
Playful topography, a shifting pallet of ground plane materials, a stage, and outdoor classroom frame a series of custom play equipment and natural play elements that build spaces within spaces and encourage children to explore and engage with the landscape. While the infant play space and learning garden were separately enclosed, the other rooms were designed to allow children to move seamlessly between them, encouraging children to explore the landscape and affording them different play opportunities and experiences.

The play space encourages children to go up-over-around- and- through various climbing elements including a cargo rope climber and climbing holds to the top of an embankment slide. Turf circles punctuate the ground plane creating obstacles in the trike circuit and destinations on the ground plane that surround a circuit of balance balls and lead to a spray mister on hot days. Edged by mature Maples, the stage frames a sandbox and wooden post and stepper play labyrinth. The integrated, outdoor classroom includes a black board and loose parts for dramatic play opportunities. The other edge offers a ramp that links the trike circuit from the Gross Motor area to “the Village” an area with a ground plane of peastone, an accessible wood paver trike circuit, and obstacles of fallen logs. Open frame, wooden playhouses invite gazing through windows of yellow, orange and lime plexi- panels. The small forest of Ginkgo trees and boulders is edged by the ‘Discovery Wall’, a custom feature for sorting and collecting natural and found materials. Built from off the shelf pvc tubes, the wall offers tunnels to connect Village to Grove and opportunities for scrambling up and over. The grove itself, at the far edge of the play yard, offers a place of quiet respite in the dappled light.

The Harvard Yard Child Care Center playground design aims to inspire curiosity, creativity, and joy for the generations of children learning and playing here. This is a project where the landscape IS play- where fantasy, creative and constructive play are embedded within the landscape itself. Anchored in current theories of play pedagogy, the playscape delivers age-appropriate challenge in a stimulating multi-sensory environment.

Name of the project: Harvard Yard Childcare Center Play Yard
Location: 25 Francis Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138
Design year: 2016-2017
Year Built: 2018


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