Davidson Day School Playground Renovations/Outdoor Classroom Gathering Space

Many initial meetings with school boards, churches, and parks and rec committees who are looking for a new playground start with the same statement: “We just don’t know where to begin.” It can be easy to dream up a grand vision of a new park space that allows engagement, learning, and play for all age groups, but making these dream projects come to fruition can be a daunting task. Our recent project with Davidson Day School, a private K-12 school located in Davidson, North Carolina, is a perfect depiction of how a large-scale, multifaceted several year project can come together to enrich a community. 

Beginning in 2018 and finishing in the summer of 2022, the Davidson Day School project consisted of three main phases: a more traditional lower elementary playground, a fitness-focused upper elementary play system, and a plaza for outdoor learning, gatherings and events. Each facet of this project targeted specific needs presented to us by the school system with the overarching goal of enhancing developmental gains for different age groups.

The playground designed for the lower elementary school kids was designed to accommodate different forms of play that begin to emerge in early elementary school such as building upon gross motor, social, and creative skill sets. A traditional play unit outfitted in blue and silver to match the school colors provides a space for active play alongside one of our favorite playground elements: a playside hill. These playside hills are a unique take on a more traditional play unit which incorporate embankment slides, hop-rocks, and boulder outcrops which provide kids with an innovative space to develop gross motor skills through climbing and balance. An architectural sunshade was also built into the hill to provide sun protection for kids and their adult supervisors. In designing this space we wanted to be conscious that kids of different temperaments have different play styles. For this reason, we provided “high energy play spaces which include the hillside as well as overhead hanging bars with hop-rock access for kids who enjoy active physical play. We also designed spaces for kids who are more inclined to express themselves socially or creatively by introducing natural seating areas with the use of faux rock boulders in addition to paint and chalk boards. All of the fall zones of the playground were surfaced with Pour-In-Place (PIP) rubber to accommodate playground safety codes. In addition to a PIP trike path which circles throughout the play space passing storefronts and traffic signs which encourage kids to play imaginatively with one another to strengthen important social skills during unstructured play time. The remaining areas of the play space were surfaced using bonded rubber mulch and artificial turf to provide a safe, clean and low maintenance space for kids to play.

 

    The playground designed for the upper elementary kids was designed to encourage more fitness style play. We were able to achieve this by working with staff to pick out a play unit that incorporated a variety of net, boulder, and overhead climbers, balance pods and a slide. It was surfaced in engineered wood fiber to help the equipment blend into the natural landscape aesthetic. Overall this playground supports the development of motor skills and strength building in older kids. Outdoor learning elements and spaces for social interaction were also designed into the space to support students and faculty. A circle of faux tree stumps and a large “birds nest” basket swing provide great places for peers to mingle with one another at recess.

Our final, and most improved phase of the project is the communal outdoor learning space adjacent to the front entrance of the school. At the beginning of the design process this area was heavily used by students and faculty as an outdoor gathering space that was shaded by trees; but unfortunately, grass struggled to survive. As a solution we proposed replacing the grass with artificial turf that provided a clean space beneath the shade canopy provided by the existing trees. One of our top priorities was to design this space to be aesthetically pleasing as staff and visitors entered the school for events. A hardscape patio with landscaping to match the school’s architecture provides the community a multipurpose space for gatherings, creative fairs, concerts, outdoor dining, socialization and learning.

In a rapidly changing environment with community safety mandates liable to change at any given moment, we have found outdoor learning spaces to be valuable for flexibility in educational settings. Not only are these environments great multi-functional settings, but they provide students and faculty a safe space to engage in learning and socialization. This is especially important in a digital age where the freedom to socially distance while fostering a sense of community is a major priority for educators and community leaders. 

Five years ago when we started this project we never could have predicted a health crisis would disrupt our daily lives and gathering patterns. As we begin to navigate out of this situation we are reminded how integral outdoor gathering spaces are for our communities, places of worship, and education centers. We are extremely excited that we were able to take what may have seemed like a far fetched vision to some and make it a reality over the course of four years. This project couldn’t have been completed without the hard work, dedication and support from the community at Davidson Day School. Even Though the design process for a project like this may take multiple iterations before reaching a final product, it shows the power of unity and commitment to achieve a long term vision. We are very pleased to have played a role in helping Davidson Day school invest in outdoor educational and social centers that will benefit multiple generations of kids in the future.