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School playgrounds are much more than just places for children to play. They are places for socialising, learning and personal development. However, these spaces are often neglected in urban planning policies, which can have harmful consequences for children’s health and well-being. In this article, we explore how the fight against urban heat islands and a gendered perception of public space can be addressed through inclusive and health-promoting urban planning, focusing on the example of school grounds in France.


I. Combating urban heat islands: the example of school grounds in France

Urban heat islands (UHIs) are urban areas where the temperature is higher than in the surrounding rural areas, due to the lack of vegetation, the density of construction and the use of materials that absorb and retain heat. UHIs can have adverse effects on health, particularly by increasing the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The “Climate and Resilience” law adopted in 2021 provides for the widespread use of “cool islands” in cities, by encouraging the creation of cool zones in public spaces.


School grounds are often concreted for practical and economic reasons.  It’s a strong, durable material that is easy to maintain. Concreted areas with little shade contribute to the UHI effect. However, greening school grounds can help to reduce ambient temperatures, improve air quality and encourage biodiversity. France’s policy to combat UHI encourages the greening of school grounds, with the creation of “oasis courtyards” in schools, with the planting of trees, the creation of vegetable gardens and the installation of rainwater harvesting systems[1].


As well as combating urban heat islands, greening school grounds has many other benefits.

It can :

  • improve air quality by absorbing pollutants and producing oxygen,
  • reduce noise by absorbing sound,
  • promote biodiversity by providing habitats for plants and animals,
  • improve the mental and physical health of pupils by providing more pleasant and natural spaces in which to relax and play


Studies on the link between urban green spaces and human health show the following results[2]:

  • A consistent negative correlation between exposure to urban green spaces and mortality, heart rate and violence
  • A positive correlation between exposure to urban green spaces and attention, mood and physical activity.

There is little existing literature on exposure to green spaces and early childhood development. Those that do exist give promising indications of the benefits of exposure to green spaces for the health and well-being of children in an urban world[3].

In other words, nature in the urban environment plays a vital role.


II. A gendered perception of public space from childhood onwards

Gender stereotypes can influence the way children perceive and use public spaces, including school grounds. Girls are often socialized to avoid public spaces and behave in a more reserved manner, while boys are encouraged to explore and occupy space. This gendered perception of public space can have harmful consequences for children’s development and self-esteem.


To combat this gendered perception of public space, it is important to rethink the design of school grounds in an inclusive way. This can include creating mixed play areas, diversifying play equipment to encourage the participation of all children, and raising awareness among teachers and pupils of gender stereotypes and the importance of gender equality.

L’ARObE[4], a specialized office working on egalitarian spatial planning and combating gender stereotypes, has created a lexicon for promoting equality and diversity in the school environment. It highlights 10 key principles for achieving this. Here are a few of them :

  • The right to equality, to put an end to inequalities that may exist between children on the basis of their gender.
  • Non-prescription of practices, i.e. not assigning an immutable practice to a given space (which is often gendered). This avoids gender stereotypes and the inequalities that result from them.
  • Equal value of practices means not ranking practices according to gender but giving them equal value in the organization of spaces. This makes it possible to value different recreational, manual or sporting activities, and to rehabilitate the unequal and divided leisure areas at school.
  • Equal sharing of space means giving each activity area the same “physical” dimension. This gives each activity area a similar status.


These elements are important because the gendered separation of the playground has deleterious consequences for the health of little girls. A World Health Organization study shows that the majority of the world’s teenagers are not physically active enough, putting their current and future health at risk[5]. This is something to bear in mind when you consider : 

  • That a football pitch takes up around 80% of a school playground[6] and
  • That around 75% of public spending on leisure activities for young people goes solely to boys[7].



III. Rethinking space in an inclusive way while adapting to climate change

Climate change is a reality that requires our cities and public spaces to adapt. School grounds can play an important role in this adaptation by incorporating measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change, such as planting trees to reduce UHI, creating areas of shade and coolness, and installing rainwater harvesting systems to reduce water consumption.

However, these measures need to be implemented in an inclusive way, considering the needs and preferences of all children, regardless of their gender, ethnic origin or socio-economic level. This may include consulting children and parents in the design and layout of school grounds, as well as taking into account the specific needs of children with disabilities.




School grounds are essential spaces for children’s development and well-being. However, these spaces are often neglected in urban planning policies, which can have harmful consequences for children’s health. To combat UHIs and gender stereotypes, it is important to rethink the design of school grounds in an inclusive and health-promoting way, incorporating measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

As a last word, it is worth quoting book « Faire je(u) égal » by  Edith Maruéjouls[8] :

” Like miniature public spaces, playgrounds are where the first inequalities occur – particularly between girls and boys. The design of these spaces can play a decisive role in reproducing discriminatory patterns. ” (translated from French)






[2] Kondo MC, Fluehr JM, McKeon T, Branas CC. Urban Green Space and Its Impact on Human Health. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Mar 3;15(3):445. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15030445. PMID: 29510520; PMCID: PMC5876990.

[3] Islam MZ, Johnston J, Sly PD. Green space and early childhood development: a systematic review. Rev Environ Health. 2020 Jun 25;35(2):189-200. doi: 10.1515/reveh-2019-0046. PMID: 32167931.






Article image : L’ARObE – Photos of experiments at the Marie Curie school

A propos de Louise MASSON