Birkett House SEN School South Wigston
Birkett House School commissioned us to design and build a sensory playground that would allow its pupils with complex needs to access an underused outside area. The process of designing the playground was a unique one and the final design is something that celebrates natural light, shape, and texture in order to bring learning and laughter outdoors. We spent time with staff and students, sketching, observing, and playing with materials so we could tailor-make the best space for them. The space was designed for complex needs and we created 7 separate spaces, each of which isolated an experience so that students could focus on 1 thing rather than being bombarded by sensations. The design came directly out of time spent with the classes and we drew everything out in the space at full scale to test and tweak.
Feb 2012 – we spent a month observing, joining in, asking questions and listening to understand each student’s particular needs.
March 2012 – we began developing ideas through sketches, models and full scale prototypes to create a final design in collaboration with staff.
April – June 2012 – the outside classroom was constructed over a two month period and we held weekly site visits throughout this period.
It was important to learn from the young people and their support assistants how they use spaces, including examples of things that work and things that don’t work. Understanding what stimulated and excited the students was really illuminating; using an array of material samples we could see quite how unique each student’s take on a different colour, shape or texture was and how important it was to incorporate a range of materials.
Having gathered insight the design stage could begin; models were built for discussion and full-scale prototypes of some pieces were built to help staff see what they would be getting. Exploring these prototypes with students helped to ensure scale and sizes worked. Temporarily marking out designs onto the ground and walls allowed us to test how successfully wheelchair users could navigate the space, and whether the space could accommodate all the features the school wanted it to. The designs were adapted and reworked accordingly. Most of the students had a field of vision of no more than 50cm, so this informed how carefully we used scale. We wanted to bring the enclosed spaces as close as possible to the students in their wheelchairs.
Working between prototypes, conversations and chalk drawings we collobaratively produced a design that matched the needs of the students and the working and learning philosophies of the school. The design offers a range of features including a curious bird box providing the roar of a lion or the moo of a cow and rarely fails to stir a smile; the sound and feel of flowing water, the coloured tree that filters the bright sunlight and giant yellow xylophone all of which make for adventurous outdoor experiences.
This school now have an outdoor area that staff are comfortable and confident using and facilitates outside experiences for a group of students who previously were rarely taken outside during the school day.