A lowcost outdoor classroom in Cobham that’s bound to more stimulating than sitting indoors

An outdoor classroom in Cobham that’s bound to more stimulating than sitting indoors

How do you go about  about creating healthy environments in schools? As a guide to others I have posted an extract from a school environmental management report written for Tanunda Lutheran School who are working to deliver a vision they call the

Sustainable Outdoor Learning Environments project. The idea is to transform the school from the existing typical school yard look, large grassed ovals with a few hard courts and scattered trees, to one which is stimulating and environmentally efficient  that provides ample opportunity for practical learning experiences and fun for students. Pretty visionary stuff which is progressing at a rate of knots, it’s really exciting!

Here’s a description of the process I used to help create a master plan for their school grounds. It’s a part of the overall plan to convert the school over a number of years with the involvement of both the students and school community along the way.

Holistic Environmental Design

When undertaking the development of grounds along the themes of sustainability, schools need to consider how separate initiatives are placed within a holistic environmental and educational plan so that all these elements work together and projects can endure regardless of the transience of staff, students and resources. It is therefore necessary to consider how each component of a design interacts with each other and the site as a whole so that they are organized in a complimentary manner.

Holistic environmental design (refer to permaculture, holistic management and ecological science) views the school as an ecosystem where each individual component of that system has a number of relationships with other components. Good design ensures that as many of these relationships are beneficial as possible and resilience within the system is developed by introducing diversity so that nothing within the design serves a single function (i.e. it simply looks good) or is reliant upon any one thing.

For example, the school orchard within the master plan receives water from the ephemeral stream but will also be irrigated from water captured onsite in water tanks or the dam or from mains water supply. Deep mulch throughout the orchard will act to reduce water demand by conserving soil moisture and providing protection from sun and wind while at the same time improving soil health by providing food for beneficial soil organisms such as fungi and bacteria. These organisms will liberate nutrients which improve the health of the trees in the orchard and both the trees and the soil organisms will help aerate the soil, which helps increase the soils’ water storage capacity, and so on. The orchard will also provide shade and wind protection, a learning environment for the students, improve the aesthetics of the school and is well placed so that it is highly visible and accessible and therefore more likely to be well maintained.

This awareness helps us design better living systems as we no longer choose design elements for a single function (such as appearance) and instead choose and place design elements to complement the whole school ecosystem.

A set of environmental design principles and techniques that can be easily learnt and adapted (by students and staff) to almost any situation can be accessed through an environmental design science known as Permaculture. One of the primary strengths of this approach is that it is governed by 3 important guiding principles:

  • Care of our natural resources – whatever’s planned must take into account the natural environment and leave it in as good or better a state than it was previously
  • Care of people – what is planned must be beneficial for as many people as possible
  • Return of surplus – systems should be as designed so that they produce more than they consume over their lifetime and so that the energy it produces is reinvested to improve the ongoing profitability of the system as a whole

Using this process you first consider how whatever you want to do incorporates this ethos before moving towards a situational analysis which takes into account the physical attributes of a site such as climate, aspect, topography (slope), geology and the available local resources (both natural and man-made). You then look to make synergistic connections between these elements. This results in designs that satisfy design criteria, rebuild natural systems and are easier to maintain because they are working with rather than against the environment. It is an approach where appropriate technology is paired with low tech design solutions that take advantage of natural processes and environmental resources. It is easy to learn and maybe a useful method for getting staff and students involved in the development of the school grounds. This approach can improve an individual’s resourcefulness and problem solving abilities.

So there’s my process and thoughts on how to look at school design. The same approach would be just as relevant inside school builkdings although you probably wouldn’t use the mulch!!

I will be creating some helpful resources for schools and homes to assist them create healthier environments using these guidelines. If there are any questions or you need help in a specific area drop me a line and I’ll be happy to help out.