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Daubeney Primary School

Location: Hackney, London E5, UK

Artist: Hattie Coppard

Landscape Architect: Kinnear Landscape Architects


In December 1999 Hackney Wick Public Art Programme commissioned artist Hattie Coppard to work with Daubeney Primary School to develop a creative programme of consultation and participation, leading to ideas for improvements to the school playground. The programme culminated in a week of experimental activities giving every pupil the opportunity to participate in the process of imagining what the new playground might be through play and creativity.

At the time of writing (March 2003) Daubeney Primary School is experiencing the final stages of the transformation of its playground. This case study examines the ways in which artist Hattie Coppard and landscape architect Lynn Kinnear have informed the process of imagining change as well as the final design solution itself. Their collaboration with the school and Hackney Wick Public Art Programme has sought not only to improve the physical appearance of the playground, but also to affect a change in the role and culture of play within the school.


From 1998 to 2001 Hackney Wick Public Art Programme and Learning Through Landscapes Outdoor Curriculum Project were working to develop and promote innovative ways of improving local primary school grounds. These projects were delivered under the management of the London Borough of Hackney and were commissioned on behalf of the Hackney Wick SRB Partnership by Renaisi, an independent not for profit organisation specialising in the design and implementation of regeneration strategies and programmes. In 2002 the management of the Hackney Wick Public Art Programme was transferred to The Learning Trust, both of which were funded with Single Regeneration Funding.

To launch the initiative in March 1999, Hattie Coppard was invited to organise a seminar for Primary Schools in Hackney Wick to advocate the use of artists in the design of school playgrounds. The Artists and School Grounds seminar presented the experiences of artists and landscape architects in developing school playgrounds to teachers, governors, school staff and parents and put forward the question ‘what makes a successful playground project?’.

The debate generated by the seminar signalled a real need for new thinking about what a playground might be and was a critical starting point for what was to become the Daubeney Experimental Playground Project. Key issues arising from the discussion informed a step-by-step guide for schools written by Hattie Coppard. As well as advising on practical matters such as planning, selecting and contracting the artist, budgeting and fundraising, the author placed great emphasis on the need to

“Allow time and space to explore and experiment, keep an open mind and find inspiration in and beyond your school grounds.”

The guide was published by Hackney Wick Public Art Programme in association with Learning Through Landscapes and distributed free to eighty schools in Hackney.

Daubeney Primary School had been discussing making changes in their playground since 1996. Following the seminar, staff contacted Lucy McMenemy, Curator of Hackney Wick Public Art Programme, expressing an interest in working with an artist to progress consultation and ideas for their playground. Inspired by Hattie’s advocacy of the value of working with pupils to explore how the playground was used, and her resistance to simply cherry-picking ideas and elements from existing models, they planned to make time to undertake open-ended experimental work with pupils and staff to identify and address the issues specific to Daubeney. Due to the school’s empathy with her philosophy Hattie was approached to undertake a period of preliminary research and consultation.

The school was committed to creating opportunities for the pupils to have a real impact on their environment and to integrating the arts into the school culture, although this would introduce an extra stage into the lengthy design process. They were convinced that by fully involving the pupils in the development of the playground there would be many ways in which the activity could support the school ethos and curriculum objectives.

“At Daubeney …. Art is greatly valued as it allows children the means of expression and communication of their ideas, emotions and feelings, irrespective of academic ability, gender, background or language skills ….

… an arts based project can be used to initiate and support learning across the curriculum.”

Halima Rangrei, Arts Co-ordinator, Daubeney School, Jan. 2000

The enthusiasm and commitment of the school persuaded Hackney Wick Public Art Programme to support this project and to develop it as a model that could be used by other schools.

Daubeney Primary School

Daubeney Primary School is made up of a complex of Victorian buildings with two playgrounds, a smaller one for Infants and a larger one for Juniors. The school is in inner city London with 485 pupils aged from three and a half to eleven years, from a range of cultures.

At the outset of the project the Junior playground was one large open asphalt surface, with a slope in the middle and three huts on the periphery. The site had a narrow garden area with mature trees along one side, two shelters and a little seating. In her initial observations of the playground Hattie Coppard described it as:

“typical of many inner city schools, overcrowded, dominated by football, with little to demarcate different areas of activity. The playground is frenetic, chaotic, incredibly noisy and sometimes violent. In a questionnaire children identified the first aid hut as the most important feature in the playground, followed by the security cameras.”

An earlier consultation on the playground carried out by the school identified key problems that they hoped to address:

  • football dominated the playground
  • incidents of anti-social behaviour during playtimes
  • a blurred dividing line between junior and infant playgrounds
  • lack of shade and seating

The Experimental Playground Week

The idea of the Experimental Playground Week developed in reaction to the limitations of traditional forms of consultation such as questionnaires and interviews. Seminar participants had demonstrated that consultation on playground design was often fundamentally flawed. Although adults and children may be extensively consulted, outcomes tend to be limited by experience and stereotypical notionsof what a playground might be, often leading to a mishmash of predictable benches, timber seats and pergolas.

From December 1999 Hattie met with teachers, lunchtime supervisors, parents and pupils to inform them about the research, get their feedback, and recruit involvement for the planned week of activities in March 2000.

She set out the aims of the week as follows:

"This project will investigate the life of the playground. It will be a chance to imagine, try out and experiment. We will use different media to explore the territory as it is experienced now and to imagine how it could be. Every day for a week a variety of materials and objects will appear that focus attention on a particular aspect of the playground. Children and adults will experiment with materials, changing what is there and re-arranging the territory to suit their needs.

… I hope that we will learn more about how the structure of the playground affects the children and in what ways it can be improved."

The approach both to consultation and to design development was based on the recognition that children – and many adults - generally find it difficult to express their feelings about space, and to imagine and articulate possible changes. The project intended to draw out conscious and subconscious thoughts, fears and desires about the playground, and to enable participants to imagine new ways of using and seeing familiar spaces.

A synopsis of activities is in the Experimental Playground Week.

The week’s activities generated a wealth of information and ideas and great enthusiasm within the school community. An Evaluation Study undertaken by specialist in arts and education, Eileen Adams, recorded the responses of a number of adults who had experienced the project as teachers, playground supervisors, school Keeper etc.

For the artist, the week provided a valuable basis for the development of design ideas, and confirmed her conviction of the need for a variety of zones or ‘rooms’, with calm and active spaces . It also underlined the children’s positive response to different textures and to moveable elements that they could influence and shape themselves. Alongside the positive, a more challenging finding was the difficulty in engaging and getting feedback from teachers already overstretched and under extreme pressure to cope with the regular demands and tensions of school life. An additional project – although welcome in theory - can in practice create an unmanageable burden.

Key outcomes observed as a result of the temporary changes and further information are in Documentation and Evaluation.

Design Development

With the information generated by the Experimental Playground Week, the school and Hackney Wick Public Art Programme agreed to take the project forward to the stage of developing designs for the playground in response to Hattie’s findings. In September 2000 the team appointed landscape architect Lynn Kinnear from a shortlist of practices, in partnership with Hattie Coppard, to work up an outline, then sketch design, leading to a detailed proposal for the playground. Kinnear Landscape Architects are renowned for an interest in play and an innovative use of materials and colour. Reacting against a tendency within current playground design to divide space in a way which does not allow for the flexible use of the playground as a whole, KLA conceive of playgrounds as small public spaces at the centre of community life, potentially providing a network of high quality public spaces with a range of potential uses

Lynn Kinnear had participated in the Artist and School Grounds seminar, and had followed the progress of the Experimental Week. The idea of working on a project with Hattie arose from the seminar and the design partnership therefore began with conversations that picked up the threads of their earlier dialogue. The partnership was based on complementary skills and approaches. Lynn Kinnear focused on the function of the whole space and the interrelations of the various elements and territories, and Hattie Coppard working from a very hands-on perspective, wanted to create a space which would enable children to feel comfortable, safe and encourage co-operative play.

The design partnership was successful due to a mutual respectfor each other’s strengths and a number of shared goals. The colour, movement and ingenuity of the proposal bring a sense of playfulness and comfort, even domesticity, to the previously asphalt-dominated site. Both Hattie and Lynn saw the project as more than simply about making something, but about changing the culture of the playground.

A small steering group of pupils, staff and governors was established to work with artist and landscape architect during the design development period. In November 2000, Hattie and Lynn presented findings and initial ideas, asking the school to identify prioritiesfrom a ‘shopping list’ of ideas and possibilities.

The dialogue between artist and architect, and steering groupled to a final proposal – a flexible overall space, with a kit of parts or props which could be changed by children’s interaction. It incorporates treatments that both unify and articulate spaces within the whole, and the introduction of specific elements that characterise and distinguish particular areas of the playground. The final design proposal was put before the school community in the form of an exhibition and presentations in March 2001.

Following responses to these, designs and specifications were finalised in April 2001.

Project Management

Hackney Wick Public Art Programme has been an important catalyst of the project. As well as fundraising, Lucy McMenemy has acted throughout as a key point of liaison and support for all parties and the existence of the Public Art Programme was critical in allowing this process to evolve. The SRB funded playground initiative had 3 year funding which allowed the partners the flexibility to move forward one step at a time. Encouragement from Lucy, Jez Elkin of Learning Through Landscapes, and the design team, gave the school the necessary professional support and confidence to undertake this ambitious and pioneering project.

The project has involved a major commitment for the school and as a key member of the project team, Deputy Head Teacher, Lesley Duffin has taken on significant additional workload and responsibility for leading on the playground initiative within the school. Her role has been vital in providing both internaland external liaison for the school community on behalf of staff already stretched to the limit by their workload.


Funding for the project has been secured by Hackney Wick Public Art Programme. Initial stages of consultation and the Experimental Playground Week were supported with funds from the Hackney Wick SRB Partnership, administered by Renaisi which currently manages the Hackney Wick SRB 3 Programme (1997 - 2004).

In the capital stage construction costs totalled £80,000. Costs of professional fees, evaluation and documentation were in the region of £20,000. £25,000 was awarded from the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) from the ‘Grounds for Change’ programme, administered by Learning Through Landscapes and Sport England. The rest of the budget was provided by the Hackney Wick SRB Partnership.


The scheme was put out to tender in July 2002. Contractors Baylis were awarded the contract and capital works were programmed to take place in September 2002. Although Hackney Wick Public Art Programme has been the effective commissioner of the project and handled all professional fees and contracts, the school/Local Education Authority became the client at the point of commissioning the construction work as the NOF monies were paid directly to the school.

The scheme was originally planned to be completed in summer/autumn 2002. However delays in applying a specialist paint finish to the playground surface meant postponing a second and final phase of construction until May 2003 when weather conditions and temperatures were more suitable. The playground was completed in June 2003.


During June, the school hosted two residencies, each about a month long, for a poet, Kit Wright, and a dance company, Emashi, both recruited from the Borough. The residencies once again focussed the school on the playground following the construction phase, and helped pupils and staff to explore the potential of the new playground space. The poet concentrated on encouraging pupils to look at what the playground means to them, and the dance residency allow dedicated time to physically explore the space. The residencies played a critical role in re-engaging the school with the designs and in celebrating the new playground. They led up to the opening event in on the penultimate day of the summer term in July 2003 at which poetry and dances were performed.

Practical sessions in the playground were also held for techers and midday meal supervisors. For teachers, the sessions helped them to expand the ideas they already had for cross curricular teaching. The school also arranged additional training in play for staff and supervisors.

The school is still exploring the use of the playground by pupils and by staff as a teaching resource, and its impact on the behaviour of pupils. A framework for evaluation has been developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) to enable the school to self evaluate the project. It is managed through the School Council (which has pupil, staff and supervisor representation), using methods which integrate into learning in the school and the ongoing programme of the School Council.

Documentation of the project includes a summary report on the evaluation process and how it was set up, and a video by Hackney-based film maker Lucy Thane which records the whole project from the Experimental Playground Week, through construction to how the children are using their new playground, and including discussions and interviews with the children.

© Copyright Jane Connarty 2003.