In the Wakefield neighborhood of the Bronx, community areas for free play are scarce, making P.S. 16’s schoolyard an invaluable opportunity for children to connect with nature. Inspired by the freedom that comes from wandering meadows and rolling down hills, a split-level asphalt schoolyard is transformed into a wonderland of challenging obstacles and shady areas underscoring the importance of plant life in combating urban heat. With an emphasis on free play, the schoolyard cultivates the seeds of imagination, physical strength, language, and social-emotional skills, showing this 98% minority student population there is no limit to how high they can grow.

Schoolyards are as important as classrooms. They are laboratories for discovery and growth, and sometimes the only opportunity for students to connect and learn from the natural world. PS 16’s schoolyard is designed to support the whole child. We applied three principles for play that universally support the physical, developmental, and emotional needs of students:

1. Set the Stage, Inspire Play! Our design is aimed at muting the endless noise and screens of the city and creating an immersive atmosphere to amplify nature and cultivate a deep concentration that allows for children to get lost in play. The rainbow trail that ascends a zig zag path through the forest leads to the upper playground, stimulating the senses with its changing landform, whimsical use of color, balance of natural materials and surprising elements of sound.
2. Kids need outdoor space! Creative movement is proven to enhance learning outcomes, but in small apartments, sidewalks, and subway platforms, most of the time children are being encouraged to do the opposite, making access to open space crucial for their physical and mental health. The variety of open-ended spaces in P.S. 16’s schoolyard addresses these needs. Whether hosting picnics, scientific discoveries, celebrations, or free play, the schoolyard is open to interpretation and designed to be a gateway to infinite imaginary worlds, stimulating the ever-changing mind and body of a child.
3. Provide Challenges. Growth comes from pushing ourselves to experience new things. Overcoming challenges requires problem solving, strength building and bravery, which are essential skills for navigating the adult world. The balancing, climbing, and bouncing features of the schoolyard are safe spaces for risk taking and boundary pushing. While children are lost in their play, these obstacles allow for self-discovery and the opportunity to learn about safety and responsibility within the context of their imaginations.
Urban areas around the world face a common challenge. A lack of space that affords children the freedom they need to safely move, explore their bodies, and grow. School yards are an increasingly important layer of the public realm. In New York City they are an unrealized opportunity to bring the natural, freeform elements of play to children in our otherwise over-programmed urban environment. There are many political and bureaucratic hurdles to this challenge. Urban schoolyards are underfunded with low standards for play. Maintenance, cost and liability are the factors that drive schoolyard design while play value is often left as an afterthought.

The PS 16 Wakefield Schoolyard in the Bronx is a beacon for change. In a historically underfunded school in the Bronx, we were able to use the removal of Temporary Classroom Units as an opportunity to renovate P.S. 16’s split level, asphalt schoolyard in a way that transcended NYC Department of Education (DOE) design norms. Working closely with the authority and the school principal we were able to encourage the use of the schoolyard as an opportunity to demonstrate healthy and active living design principles that could ultimately impact all areas of student life. As a play space that offers three outdoor classrooms, an abundance of opportunity to observe earth science and a diversity of physical challenges this school yard has impacted the entire community. Enrollment at PS16 has increased due to interest in the outdoor facility and the curriculum has expanded to include outdoor physical education, mindfulness, and STEM workshops.

Location: Bronx, New York

Design year: 2018

Year Completed: 2021


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