Transforming a school's outdoor space can influence and shift its practices and culture

Bates, C. (2019). Rewilding education? Exploring an imagined and experienced outdoor learning space. Children's Geographies.

Research relating to the greening of schoolyards tends to focus on potential academic and developmental benefits. This study differs by focusing on the significance of outdoor spaces to the school's practices and culture.

The researcher worked with a landscape architect, school personnel, and students in imagining, making, and experiencing a transformed outdoor space. The focus of the research was on how this process allowed for the creation of different possible futures. Prior to changes to the school yard, children's outdoor activities were shaped, in large part, by adult surveillance and risk aversion. The children were restricted from playing in out of sight places and were confined to carefully managed groups and spaces.

The researcher, in addition to documenting the process through observations and interviews, also conducted video tours and photography workshops with the children. These activities were designed to give children “playful opportunities to imagine and experience their school grounds at different stages of the design process.” The process -- which extended over a two-year period -- allowed the children to engage with the future before it had been made.

Elements of the master plan evolving from this process included an outdoor classroom, various gardens, a woodland play area, a wildflower maze, an amphitheater, a fire pit, an orchard path, a zip wire, a beehive, and a chicken run. All of the different areas were connected, so that the children would have access to the entire site. Feedback from the school staff indicated that this design challenged their attitudes about surveillance and risk.

Over time, as the outdoor landscape changed and as children responded to these changes, shifts in adult attitudes and the school's culture also occurred. The shift was from a culture of protection to a culture of resilience. This shift was reflected in the way children were given greater freedom outdoors and in the way adults embraced risk and danger as essential ingredients of a healthy childhood.

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