Constructing an environment fit for learning

In November 2013 the Landscape Institute – the professional chartered body for landscape architects – published an authoritative document to answer the question ‘can landscape help create healthy places?’ In turn, and in the context of this article, it went on to ask ‘can landscape facilitate better learning and development for our children?’
‘Public Health and Landscape: Creating healthy places’ provides compelling evidence that investment in landscapes – or green infrastructure if you prefer – is money wisely spent and brings a raft of benefits, not least when invested in school grounds.
We would all acknowledge that the natural landscape – the countryside or, for urban dwellers, public parks and green spaces – has a restful and calming influence. However, when access to a green environment is limited, particularly for those of us living and working in urban and inner city areas, there can be a negative impact on our health and sense of wellbeing.

Children and young people should have more opportunity than most working adults to benefit on a daily basis from the joys of the great outdoors; outdoor play, sport and other activities are an important part of the learning and development process. But as society changes and web and internet-based activities take an increasing proportion of our children’s time outside of the classroom, there is an even greater need to provide a learning environment where green infrastructure plays an intrinsic part.
Local authority planners and architects responsible for designing the schools that have been built in the past ten years have embraced the concept that landscaping school grounds to provide opportunities for outdoor learning makes good sense. In providing a green environment appropriate to the learning needs of the students, landscape architects are expanding schools’ learning resource whilst creating healthy places where children’s health and wellbeing is also addressed.
Unfortunately, not every head teacher has the good fortune to run a ‘new build’ school and must therefore work with the external environment delivered at the time of the school’s construction. Where that environment is not currently conducive to providing outdoor learning opportunities, being devoid of green infrastructure other than maybe a sports field, the ubiquitous tarmac playground or hard‑landscaped area may be the only outdoor space available for some financial investment and conversion into a green learning space.
Raising the funds for a project of this nature is an article by itself but let’s presume you have an active parents’ association and additional sources of funding available and look at the process of redesigning your school grounds to provide a whole new world of learning opportunities.

The planning process
As you begin the planning journey for your school’s outdoor space, it’s important to consider carefully what you want it to do, and that will depend to a great extent on the ages of the users.
Do you want to provide engaging ways of delivering the school curriculum? Provide space for sport, extra-curricular activities, and break-times? Is there a need for a quiet area? Are you hoping to increase physical activity? These are all questions that must be asked and discussed. By engaging staff, pupils and parents in those deliberations you will start to formulate a list of must haves, would likes, and don’t wants.
Having established what you do and don’t want, it’s time to contact professional landscape contractors with experience of designing and constructing school landscapes and play areas. Where the safety of children is concerned it is essential that the landscaper you eventually select to go on this journey with you is reputable, experienced and accountable to a professional trade body. Registered members of the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) for example, undergo a strict quality standards vetting before they can claim registered status, and thereafter must submit to regular periodic standards reviews to ensure their business practices, skills and professionalism are being maintained to the very highest standards.

Where appropriate, they will work in conjunction with members of the Association of Play Industries (API) to ensure that playground equipment is correctly specified, supplied and installed as part of the overall contract. It is important that your landscape contractor can manage the entire project, from the initial concept and design (the contractor may use a specialist landscape architect with whom they work on a regular basis, or their in-house designer), to the installation and commissioning of equipment, construction of the hard landscaping, and soft planting. This simplifies the project from your perspective and ensures total accountability on the part of the contractor in the event of a problem arising.

First steps
The outdoor space design will evolve from your initial list of wants, would likes, and don’t wants, plus consideration of how the space is used currently, what technical, logistical and legal constraints there may be, and when the space is to be used, i.e. before the school day starts, break-times, lunch time, after school and weekends. A design brief must then be developed, with your desired outcomes for the space clearly articulated.
The brief could contain a list of what areas the space might encompass, e.g. storytelling, performance, outdoor learning, fieldwork areas for science and geography, art creation and display, vegetable growing and compost bins, adventurous play, discovery, pond and wildlife areas, bicycle storage. The possibilities, as they say, are endless but need to remain focused and achievable within the available space. The age of the pupils and the education level is fundamental to driving the ultimate design and your desired outcomes will undoubtedly reflect both these criteria.
It is at this point that you must consider the available budget, the timescale for delivery, and the members of your school team responsible for seeing the project through. Project management by committee is not advisable and the contractor will appreciate one day‑to‑day point of contact who has the authority to make prompt decisions, avoiding unnecessary project delays and, potentially, associated additional cost.

Project management and contract administration are roles that require a professional, business-like approach, coupled with knowledge and confidence. Finding the right person or people for those roles is essential if the project is to run smoothly.

Making it happen
The contractor or designer will first carry out a comprehensive survey of the site as it is currently, detailing what features you want retained and what elements must remain in place (e.g. access points, emergency egress, storage, utilities). In addition, any underground and overground services, protected trees etc. will also be detailed. The proximity of any neighbours to the school is another consideration, as is the requirement for security and for screening from public view.
Once an initial design has been developed, the contractor will revert back to you and your project team with a proposal for discussion and agreement, which can then take a further period as everyone’s input is considered and accommodated as appropriate and feasible. There must, inevitably, be compromise but provided you have taken time at the outset to choose the right contractor with the necessary safeguards in place you should take heed of their recommendations, which will be based on broad experience of working with other schools.
Depending on the scheme, there may be a requirement to obtain planning permissions but as you are more than likely attempting to reduce areas of tarmac playground and hard surfacing in favour of a more wildlife-friendly, environmentally sensitive ‘natural’ environment, planning permissions are less likely to be needed. Your contractor or designer will advise.
In terms of scheduling, major construction works are best undertaken during school holidays when the obvious issues arising from the contractor’s vehicle movements, delivery of materials, workers in proximity to children, dust, noise, restricted access to existing play areas and a host of other logistics, health, safety and child protection considerations are less likely to impact on the school’s daily life. Discuss this in detail with the contractor at the outset and agree a mutually achievable timetable for the works to take place.

Ideas for your outdoor learning space
Landscape contractors experienced in creating outdoor classrooms and play spaces will have their own favourite solutions to enabling children to enjoy being in the great outdoors whilst learning about science, nature, horticulture, art, music, sport, and so on.
Ideas for your space could include raised timber vegetable beds and borders for perennials and herbs, with compost bins and storage sheds with ‘green’ sedum roofs.

Conversely the space could be used for pergola with wind-blown pipes and hanging features that can be struck to make music or paths with mosaics made by the children. It could even be used for storytelling areas with bench seating and willow screening or wildlife stations with feeding tables, bird boxes and hedgehog nests.

A wildlife dipping pond, rock-filled gabions to divide areas and use as seating, timber play equipment and colourful safety surfacing, willow tunnels and a maze are all further options that could be explored.

Further information