Posted by
Nicole Bradley on Feb 9, 2016 10:30:43 AM

Experiential, themed courtyard playgrounds at Community Consolidated School District 59’s new Early Learning Center provide preschoolers with four safe, engaging environments that enhance outdoor time.  


There’s no better place to play and learn than the outdoors. Children can run sand through their fingers, splash in water, dance around, dabble at art easels, whoosh down slides, and take a break on tree stump seats. They can experience native plants, and dig around in raised beds, too. It’s all there at multiple themed courtyard playgrounds designed for ages 3 to 5 at the Community Consolidated School District 59’s new Early Learning Center.

Sebert partnered with construction manager Nicholas & Associates to complete the landscape installation for the 57,000 square-foot center, which is an addition to the Holmes Junior High School. The center accommodates up to 600 pre-kindergarten students and more than 50 teachers from five districts.

The new site provided a fresh palette for the school to plan the ideal outdoor space for children. At their previous schools, preschoolers had outdoor time at shared school playgrounds that were also open to the public.

At the new center, three small themed courtyard spaces and one larger courtyard provide different, safe settings for play. The courtyard design offers a great sense of security, says Gary Stofcheck, construction manager at Sebert.

 “Now, the students can play in the protected courtyard spaces so teachers don’t have to worry about the security—the courtyards are enclosed, so no one is going anywhere,” Stofcheck points out.

Sebert’s charge: collaborate with Nicholas & Associates to bring the landscape design to life, while working within the complexity of confined courtyard spaces. “The most challenging aspect of the project was the limited access to courtyards,” Stofcheck says of installation logistics, noting that execution required careful planning.

The ultimate reward: “Seeing the kids enjoy the playgrounds,” Stofcheck says.

Many Ways to Play

The courtyard design provides safe, enclosed open-air environments that are visible from surrounding classrooms and corridors and an opportunity to present preschoolers with different play themes. The distinct play spaces include a Sensory Garden, Fine Arts Garden and Nature Garden, along with a common courtyard that has play equipment and other imaginative landscape features.



The Sensory Garden’s sand play area entices children to touch and build, while water tables fed by a farm pump add a splash to recess time. The purpose of a sensory play space is to encourage children to feel and experience different sensations. So, the courtyard includes stone textured benches, native plants that give the space living texture, and cobble pavers that surround the play space.

            In the Fine Arts Garden, a small stage gives children a platform to express their creativity. Art easels offer a way for teachers to present lessons outdoors and tree stump seats add a rustic, forest feel to the space. Musical notes are etched into the concrete and instruments including a xylophone and marimba encourage preschoolers to play along together.

            The young learners can dig around in raised garden planters and learn how plants grow in the Nature Garden, which also includes birdhouses and benches. “The plant selection was based on the court yard theme,” Stofcheck says.

            In the main courtyard, playground equipment includes slides, a playhouse, a stage and trellis and stone amphitheater seating. Multi-colored rubber playground surfacing features a blue “river” and is stenciled with fish and turtles. Stofcheck notes that the school selected the design in advance and Sebert installed the surface to its specifications.

Open for Inspiration

The project scope, variety of materials employed and contained environment of courtyards called for experienced landscape professional to bring the playground design to life. “We study the drawings and ensure that the materials specified are installed according to the plan,” Stofcheck says of the process.


             The Sebert team’s plant knowledge was helpful for creating the diverse courtyard spaces. Sebert installers worked with native plants in the Nature Garden and selections designed to touch-and-feel in the Sensory Garden.

            Beyond the school courtyards, Sebert added finishing touches to the new addition and updated school landscaping around the building exterior and in parking lot spaces. The team planted new trees, shrubs and perennials, and laid brick pavers.  

            A large-scale public project like this is gratifying because it enhances the lives of so many young people and dedicated teachers, Stofcheck says. After completion, the spaces are ignited with activity: preschoolers playing, learning, and using their imaginations.

            “When you go back to the project and see how the children enjoy the spaces, you see on their faces how much they love exploring all of the features,” Stofcheck says. “There’s nothing better than that.”


Topics: community partnerships

Written by Nicole Bradley

Nicole Bradley