Within every school, head teachers and governors are challenged with delivering an environment that is conducive to learning and personal development, is safe for pupils and staff, and can be delivered and maintained within the school’s budgetary constraints. School buildings have hitherto been the focus of the learning environment but the external space adjacent to those buildings is an amazing resource waiting to be brought alive beyond the restrictive ubiquitous tarmac playground with its markings for hopscotch and five-a-side football.
There is a growing body of research data to support what we all feel in our bones – that greenery is good for the soul and for our general health and wellbeing. Landscape architects and urban planners are responding to this need for a softer and greener built environment by incorporating ‘green’ wildlife corridors, pocket parks, landscaped squares, green roofs and living walls in urban areas. And school planners, too, are embracing an approach to design that employs tools to solve practical problems common to most schools that avoid compromising an otherwise green environment and, at the same time, enrich the learning experience of pupils.
Creating shade Most of us will have a memory of sultry summer days sat under a large oak or horse chestnut at the edge of the school playing field listening to the teacher deliver a poem or a lesson on conkers. Summers were always hot when we were children, or so our memories would lead us to believe, but today the intensity of the sun is such that we must ensure children have somewhere that is out of direct sunlight to where they can retreat when they are outdoors.
Natural shade can, of course, be provided by existing mature trees or by planting new trees that introduce dappled shade to an area. The choice of trees will depend on the space available and how the area is to be used. But selecting trees with a canopy rather than an upright form will introduce the shade required and perhaps allow seating to be installed around the trunk. Another option is to incorporate natural materials such as willow to weave a structure, perhaps as a play tunnel, arbour, or covered seating area conducive to conducting lessons in the outdoors.
Manmade structures such as gazebos are an option too and shade sails are particularly useful for schools and nurseries. Shade sails immediately add a fun element to the landscape design and are hugely flexible. They are easily maintained, come in a range of different colours, and provide extremely high levels of UV protection, so important for young skins. The shade sails obtained from known reputable suppliers are made from knitted polyethylene fabric, which does not absorb water and will not rot; an excellent way to provide shade and cover from the elements without introducing solid structures that close in an otherwise freely accessible area.
Screening Open Space is wonderful and essential for many outdoor activities. However, for more structured outside learning screening helps to create a smaller, more contained space where pupils can focus without the distraction of movement or extraneous noise.
There are many options for ‘natural’ screening, including woven willow, ‘instant’ hedging and green screens. Green screens are created using pre-formed galvanized steel mesh through which vegetation, usually ivy, is grown from biodegradable pots. The plants are wound through the steel in the plant nursery until they have reached the required height of the mesh and requisite density. They can then be moved into position by maintenance staff but will require setting into the ground where they are to be used. Ivy has been shown to have a major effect on reducing pollution from PM10s (particulate matter) caused by vehicle pollution so in addition to providing privacy and reducing noise they also contribute to improving air quality.
Storage Whether Its outdoor play equipment, gardening club tools, or bikes, storing equipment effectively and sensitively ensures the outside landscaped space remains just that and is not compromised by untidy clutter, which in itself can be a potential trip hazard. Landscape architects and contractors with in-house design facilities will offer a number of storage solutions, from a walk-in timber storage unit, complete with its own ‘green roof’ to prevent rainwater run-off and create a focus for biodiversity, to seating with built-in storage beneath it. The chosen solution should enhance the environment and serve more than one purpose.
Play-led learning Landscape contractors Bowles & Wyer Contracts and Bartholomew Landscaping regularly incorporate active elements in its school landscape projects to encourage play and exploration. Logs act as simple balance beams, rocks and other natural materials found in the landscape are ‘installed’ to help younger children develop better motor skills and an understanding of play without the aid of computers. They aim to introduce as many natural elements as possible into the school outdoor environment, creating interest and opportunity for children to learn more about the natural world. Bird boxes, raised planting beds and bee houses all encourage engagement with nature and offer inspiration for outdoor based lessons that teach children how to grow simple crops and understand where the food they eat comes from. The ability to teach this by practical example and participation, and in the grounds of their own school, solves a major problem for teaching staff who are unlikely to have either the time or the staff resource to regularly take classes out to city farms or other suitable venues.
Delivering the right environment There are many professional landscape contractors who specialise in school projects and who work in partnership with their school clients to deliver outside landscaped spaces for year round learning and play. Many are registered members of the British Association of Landscape Industries (www.bali.org.uk). If the exterior landscaping is to be undertaken at an existing school it is important to select contractors who have a proven track record of working in a school environment and who, in addition to their legal and regulatory obligations with regards to health and safety and overall working practices, are governed by a strict professional Code of Conduct, as required of all BALI members.
With new build schools, landscape architects and planners will invariably invite only BALI members to tender for school landscape projects because they know that BALI contractors must meet exacting standards for skills training, health and safety, financial standing and other areas vital to the successful delivery of major landscape construction projects.
Extending the learning space Clever and innovative landscaping can extend a school’s learning space, enrich children’s learning and play experience, and incorporate elements that solve the problems associated with children in the outdoors. By working with contractors who are experienced in school projects and who are registered BALI members, head teachers and governors will ensure their schemes address and solve the problems common to many schools in a fresh and innovative way that makes full use of the school’s invaluable and perhaps untapped natural capital.