Green Grounds for Health and Learning

I think we’re facing a major health problem if we can’t get the kids more outdoors. It’s not only a matter of changing the physical landscape of the school grounds, it’s also a matter of changing the landscape in people’s minds. We have just finished the 5th international school grounds conference here in Lund, Sweden, and it’s been arranged partly by the International School Ground Alliance, which is a network of city planners, designers, educators and researchers from different countries. The main purpose for this network is to create, green, challenging and good learning environments for children and young people. A good environment for children is one that is play rich and language rich, which is why green play spaces are the best. Because nature is so fascinating and wondrous, it sparks their curiosity. It is full of questions and things to explore and discuss and chat and share, so its ever-changing, it’s never static. So for me nature-based play environments offer the most diversity for children. The other things I encourage teachers and schools to think about are not just physical things to climb and hang from, but social spaces. Spaces for gathering, for hiding away, for being on my own or being with my friends. And interesting ways to move through the space, that challenge me physically or that guide me around a hidden curve, so there’s something to explore on the way. I think the green ground, with its diversity and its complexity, is a great model in which to teach children. The more we go outside, the more examples we have in front of us. The last thing you want to do is to need to travel a distance to put the children into this context. You want it to be immediate. So the school gardens, school grounds, should be that green landscape for the children. My school is located in the natural condition, natural location, and we have a river near our school. We have a village, we have the bridge, and then we have a forest, the tree, and we make wall climbing with the class. We use all this media as a tool, to make a challenge. They must feel! They must experience! They must do! So when they do, the challenge is the energy to change. And then when they have a commitment to change, let’s make the commitment together. We must change together. You become what you experience. That’s important to be able to have, first-class experiences. That goes back to the school grounds and gardens. If we offer surroundings of high-quality, the children benefit much more deeply. If we benefit the ecosystem, we benefit ourselves. By loving and understanding nature, we understand that we are part of it. There isn’t anything more beautiful, there isn’t a better kind of sense. You are at one with all the peoples of the world, with every plant. We’re part of the great ecosystem. Death is the ultimate way of coming home. It is the ultimate peace. There is no greater silence. It’s about the absence of pain. There’s nothing alarming about it, once it’s taken place. So if we can put the dead pheasant on the table, in front of the children, and talk in these terms, we take away some of the terrors, the nightmares, the anxieties. Of course, before you get to death, and in every course of life, you meet pain, you meet difficulties of an immense mental kind. This is where you have to have the green landscape, as a place to move into, where things are tranquil and where you can be helped to understand your feelings. The school ground is a very important arena for children to get know the nature. Together with the adults from the school. They can lead them, and make them comfortable outside. I’ve met children that are afraid of walking in high grass. I don’t want it to be like that. I would like them to feel the confidence, the well-being, the nature can give them. They need places for quiet, places that they can be alone and pick up sounds. They need places to harvest things, to taste Children love to collect things. That’s a need they have to express, and the school grounds, that’s really the place to pick flowers, to pick berries, to pick apples. It’s very important, it’s a need. Families have become disconnected from the from the land. They have become disconnected from their food, or their search of their food, and so children really often don’t know where food comes from, and that has a number of implications. That means they don’t know about farming, they don’t know, if they’re city children or suburban children, they often have a low regard for farmers, they don’t appreciate what farmers have to do to grow the food that they have. They don’t appreciate the power of growing. There’s a difference between soil and dirt, and dirt is something that they avoid, that they are taught to avoid, they’re taught that there’s something wrong with it. Something is dirty, and that’s bad. But soil is not dirt, soil is life. Soil is an immensely complicated community of plants and animals and microorganisms, and life depends on it. We’re moving into a transition, because of climate change, because of energy changes, when it’s going to be much more important to have strong resilient local food systems. And if a community can’t create a food system, if it doesn’t know how to grow… We don’t just learn from teachers, thankfully, we learn all the time from other adults and from each other, children learn from each other. Here we go on with that pattern, it serves us until we die. Why would we not admit that at school? Why wouldn’t we use scientific evidence about the way that children learn, about the manner that they’re motivated and tie those things into their education. We are not using research enough. We really think about the design of school yards, as lifelong learning, and to be able to create an environment that continues on. You’re really creating a culture around these outdoor environments. And if a child is excited about a garden he’s just planted or a a bug that he found that day. When he can come back after school, or on the weekends, with his family and show that to them, that idea that they are then the teachers and that they’re sharing that knowledge with their other friends or with their parents, is a sense of empowerment, and that’s what you really are looking for. One of the things that I’ve noticed in my research, as a as a professor in landscape architecture, is that children can, if you empower them to understand, and the schoolyard tends to be the children’s world. The classroom is the teachers world. So even if you bring a teacher out, into the schoolyard, it’s still their place. And children, if you give them something that they want to respect, if you give them something other than a slab of asphalt, that just starts to happen. And it really enables and empowers them to want to take care of it. And that’s where changing that built environment becomes so important. In the US, schoolyards and schools are the second largest landowner. So as a network of spaces within a city, they can have incredible impact. So we really try to think about how you scale that concept. How can you in fact remove asphalt, have an impact on the heat island effect, create cooler spaces, increase shade that reduces the incidences of cancer in children, as they grow up and are older. And then also, how do we help create schoolyards that are green infrastructure? And that that green infrastructure really starts to look at reducing flooding and those types of impacts. And when you start to do that, then you move away from the idea of maintenance. Because everyone says, well you can’t green a schoolyard, because of the maintenance. Well it’s stewardship, and when you start to get children to understand that notion of stewardship, you’re changing the culture of a child, of their family, and of the city as a whole.

1 Comment

  1. Wow! Powerful film. Good for reflecting on school grounds in the context of not just education but society.

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