Castle Tower in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, is a teaching and learning environment for over 325 pupils with special educational needs. The pupil’s range of abilities spans multiple and profound complex needs, severe to mild learning difficulties, and social and behavioural difficulties.

The school community has a strong ethos of aiming to prepare their pupils for life outside school, and for independence after school, so the new building was designed to enhance the learning of life skills. The £20m building, which opened in September, is an incredible facility that will transform the education provided for the pupils.

An important part of the school design was to develop play facilities that could cater for the needs of each and every pupil. Not only across a range of moderate to complex needs, but also across the entire age spectrum of three to nineteen years. And this is where Nature Play came in.

Internal Courtyards

We designed three internal courtyards intended as as welcoming and calming ‘green hearts’ designed for play and for simply enjoying a breeze at the centre of the beautiful new school building.

Each courtyard was designed with a specific theme and purpose. One courtyard focuses on sand and water play to enhance team-work, spur imagination and get little hands engaged with the earth. The second focuses on music play to get children moving or just listening. The third is a remembrance courtyard, with the soothing sound of water falling through Virbela basins.

Castle Tower playspace - inner courtyards

Age Appropriate Play Spaces

Outside, a number of age-appropriate grouped play spaces were created close to the classrooms. These include:

  • An ‘active’ space for children to ‘break-out’ in, with dynamic equipment such as a cableway, hexagonal swing and climbing wall

  • A sensory garden with oak sleeper planters for pupils to grow their own plants, and special equipment to stimulate the senses

  • A special garden with a shelter for rainy days, with play equipment that can accommodate wheelchairs

Castle Tower play space - outdoor areasCourtyard play space at Castle Tower, Ballymena


The outdoor spaces have been a huge hit with pupils and staff alike. Castle Tower staff member Aleck Ford said:

“Nature Play Ireland worked with the design team and staff for over two years to develop a scheme that is truly breath-taking. Their knowledge and understanding about the fundamentals of play-based learning is second to none. Each and every piece of equipment chosen has play value, something we found Nature Play prioritised in their design proposals throughout.”

“The children want to be outside all the time now because they have so much fun on the equipment.”

“Outside play is an absolutely essential part of school life at Castle Tower and playgrounds are an incredible learning space for our children so I felt it was really important that we picked the correct equipment. One visit to Dumfries House (Ayrshire) created by Nature Play was all it took for me to know that the Nature Play equipment was exactly what we needed for our new school. It has superb play value, is well built and looks great.”