Argyle Primary School, Camden, London

Playgrounds redeveloped under the Active Play pilot aim to improve children's health and well-being, says Josephine Smit.

Childhood obesity at reception and year six (10- and 11-year-olds) in Camden is higher than the London and national average. Following the trend in modern living, children have swapped skipping or football in the street or garden for technology in the palms of their hands.

The Active Spaces project aims to tackle the issue. It has been funded by Camden Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and delivered in partnership by Camden Council's sports and physical activity team, Camden CCG, ProActive Camden, Public Health, Children, Schools & Families and project management company Developing Projects.

The Active Spaces pilot taps into schools' ability to positively influence health and well-being, particularly at playtimes, which account for up to 25 per cent of the school day. The project has seen playgrounds in seven primary and secondary schools across the borough enhanced with active play spaces. The impact of the interventions is being monitored by University College London and the Institute of Sport Exercise & Health. Pupils' physical activity levels are measured before and after the new play spaces are installed. The programme also aims to extend use of the new resources to benefit the surrounding communities.


Argyle Primary School, which is close to King's Cross station, is among the seven schools participating in the Active Spaces project. The school has more than 400 pupils and is extremely diverse, having children from 23 ethnic backgrounds. Its playground accommodates both formal PE lessons and informal play.

Under the project the playground has been transformed with the addition of such features as new planting, woven willow dens and playful screens and bespoke play features, in a design created by award-winning team LUC.

Before the redesign Argyle Primary School's playground was far from a featureless space. It contained mature trees and some planting that has been retained, as well as a timber hut - known as the Sci Hi Centre - that was built in the 1980s and was well used but was beginning to show its age. Decking, furniture and artworks around the perimeter walls further generated unique character, play activity and greater interest.

LUC worked in close consultation with the pupils to design enhancements that would encourage greater physical activity, particularly group play. LUC director of landscape architecture Jennette Emery-Wallis says: "We asked the children how they wanted to feel in the space, and observed how they played and used the space. It was important to understand their fantasy play - for example, a tree root could be meaningful to a game. We tried to enable group-based play so that children would be encouraged to join in with their friends."

Features of the new space include:

- A bespoke curving willow fence that provides a playful transition as well as a protective barrier between ball games and other activities - it also helps to slow down overenthusiastic runners.

- Existing trees and planting have been retained but supplemented with infill sensory planting.

- A musical path incorporating bounce pads, small trampolines and dance chimes gives pupils the chance to create their own songs because music was found to be a popular activity at the school.

- A hide-and-seek trail of obstacles and nets designed to build core muscle strength was added to link existing spaces.

- New tree trunks and balancing beams were added along an existing climbing wall, which was not well used because the children considered it too demanding. These make the trail accessible and fun.

- A monkey bar climbing frame, full of challenge, that was designed by LUC with the children and produced by manufacturer Grassroots Play.

- A play tower with ramp, slide, steps and lookout platform.

- A tree trunk trail comprising different sized trunks to promote balance and co-ordination.

- Line markings on the ground to allow for timed running games.

- A mini synthetic sports pitch for formal sports. This was not part of the Active Spaces programme but was paid for by the school and installed in the same project.

Key outcomes to date

School records are already showing a reduction in accident numbers as the enhanced environment enables safer play among the children, even though the activity is more physical.

Observational studies have shown that the space and its equipment are being well used. An observational exercise carried out by LUC in January found that at the start of a break children headed straight for the play tower, the monkey bars and the trampolines.

Emery-Wallis says: "The acid test is whether the boy or girl who would have sat on the edge of the play area is joining in, and our observations are showing that they are. Teachers are saying the children seem more confident in themselves."

The school has a Family Learning Centre, which is used by local community groups and parents for coffee mornings, drop-in sessions and classes. It is now opening the play facility too.

Lessons to date

LUC worked closely with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents at an early stage to ensure that the design of the bespoke play elements would fully comply with safety requirements.

It could be possible to have a significant impact on health and well-being at a relatively modest cost. The budget for the work at Argyle was less than £100,000. This included funding from the school for the synthetic turf pitch.

The bespoke play equipment proved to be cost-effective. "It cost less in construction but more in design time. On balance though it cost less," says Emery-Wallis.

The use of bespoke designs is important to the uniqueness of the place too, Emery-Wallis points out, adding: "Children get bored if the equipment is the same as they already have in their local park." For schools, active spaces represent a step change in how they manage play. Play supervisors have to be more active in their supervision.

Next steps

Baseline data has been collected on the health and well-being of 450 children across the seven schools and follow-up measurements are taking place after the construction and after one year of use. Researchers are using ActiGraph technology to measure young peoples' physical activity levels over a seven-day period in conjunction with activity diaries. Further qualitative data will be collated on well-being, mental health, educational attainment and social cohesion. Findings from the research study will be completed by May 2016.

Project team  
Client Camden Council and partners: Proactive Camden, Camden Clinical Commissioning Group, Camden & Islington Public Health, Developing Projects, Erect Architecture and Wayward Plants
Argyle Primary School design team LUC -
Landscape contractor Bowles & Wyer
Research team University College London and the Institute of Sport Exercise & Health

This case study is from Horticulture Week's Landscape4Places campaign hub.

Landscape4Places is a new campaign that seeks to highlight the contribution of quality landscaping to great place-making. For more, go to

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