Are you a Mad March Teacher?

As the Mad March teacher hares towards financial ‘year end’, the race often involves a task that under different circumstances would be a real pleasure: spending money.

However, that last minute rush to spend left over budget (yes, even in these straitened times, most schools and settings have a little bit of underspend) is rarely fun – because lurking in the back of your mind is the fear that by immersing yourself in catalogue and website panic buying, you’re unlikely to be purchasing the resources that will really make a difference to outcomes for your children.  In my experience, it’s often outdoors that feels the ‘benefit’ (I use the word advisedly) of the underspend, with Headteachers and Managers gazing critically at the playground or garden and wondering whether a huge piece of installed play equipment could answer their outdoor play and last minute budget dilemmas in one fell swoop.

I don’t have a solution to the ‘Mad March Hare’ to spend as quickly as possible, but I can offer a few tips to help you focus your ordering for outdoor resources, having helped schools and settings do just this over many ‘year ends’.

This is by no means a substitute for a proper, well thought out and carefully paced development programme – which ideally would involve talking to children, exploring the way your site is used in some detail and over several weeks and undertaking consultations and investigations to identify needs outdoors.  But it could help you concertina some of this work into an intense period of research followed by a sensible, purposeful campaign of last minute spending that will result in the delivery of resources and materials that will make the most of the potential of outdoors.

Put a temporary halt on the buying

Take time out to think about what is really needed in your school or setting.  You’ll still make the end of March spend deadline even if you spend some time talking to colleagues and children and exploring how you currently use the space.

Inventory what you already have outdoors

If you can get hold of a plan of your site (a Google Earth aerial view would do) print it at A3 and mark on the resources and features you already have – such as storage units, planted areas, play equipment, sandpits, etc.

Make a list of the resources available for outdoor play, noting down whether they ‘live’ outdoors (for example in a shed or in the grounds) or are brought outdoors from indoors.

Identify what children are doing outdoors

Use an observation tool you are comfortable with to observe and record how children are using the space and the resources available to them.  Think about affordances – how children use places, spaces and equipment in ways other than those they were ‘designed’ to be used for.

Analyse your observation notes and photographs: what did children appear to be enjoying the most?  Where did conflict arise – and why?  Which areas are over-popular and which are barely used?  Why?  What sort of condition are the resources and spaces outdoors in?  What does this tell children about how your school or setting values their play spaces?

Ask yourself, ‘what do I want children to be able to DO outdoors?’

And don’t ask, “what do I want them to HAVE?” – at least, not yet.  Examine the objectives you have for this cohort of children.  What are you trying to achieve with them?  What are their and your goals?  Where are there gaps in provision?  What could outdoors provide that indoors simply can’t?

List the types of activity or play or learning you’d like children to be able to experience outdoors – for example you might identify that mark making is weak and that outdoors could contribute to improvements.  Or opportunities to be agile might be few, so places and spaces to balance, climb, jump, build strength and co-ordination might be needed. Could your children benefit from places to play in small groups, or to act out stories, or reconnect with the natural world?  Do they need somewhere to make noise or exercise their whole bodies?  Are there elements of your curriculum that could be enriched by being taken outdoors?

If you can, encapsulate this in a sentence that describes your aspirations for outdoors – what you write shouldn’t be too dissimilar to your school or setting’s overall aspirations.  After all, the outdoor space should be contributing to children’s development, learning and wellbeing in the same way you would expect activity taking place indoors to do.

Establish how you could meet these needs with new resources and make a ‘long list’

Examine each item in your list of activities / learning you’d like children to be able to experience outdoors.  What kind of resources would lend themselves to supporting this learning or play?  Think about the development of key skills and where there might be opportunities for resources to meet more than one set of needs.  Open ended resources such as loose parts items are more likely to do this than items with fixed or specific uses.

Brainstorm two or three different ways you could fulfil EACH of the needs you identified above.  As an example, if the priority is to develop children’s communication and language skills, or their creativity, resources to enable role-play outdoors could meet this need.  So a timber playhouse would help, but so would a really excellent den building kit, or a CD player and basket full of clothes, fabric, storybooks and props.  Each of these comes with a very different price tag!

Research costs and logistics for your ‘long list’ of resources

Okay, you can return to the catalogues and websites now!  But this time you’re armed with a clear vision for what you need to buy – and importantly, WHY you need to buy it.  Knowing the rationale behind your spending spree means you are far more likely to end up with resources you’re still using in six months’ time, a year’s time, five years’ time.

Think about open-ended resources; think about sharing resources with colleagues; think about storage (Where will all this ‘stuff’ go?  How will children access it?); think about sustainability (Will it need to be replenished? How often, and how much will it cost?); think about maintenance of the resources (How do we care for it?  Who will do this?  How much will it cost?); think about their management (Should I risk benefit assess this resource?  Does its use need supervision?)

Check with colleagues that you aren’t doubling up on resources you could possibly share (or that they already have).  If you’re ordering several of something or lots of things from one supplier, be cheeky and email or call the them first and ask for a bulk discount – as we say up north, ‘shy bairns get nowt’.  The worst the supplier can say is ‘no’.

Now order your goodies and enjoy!

That’s something of a whistle stop tour of tragedy-free catalogue ordering, but it should be possible to do all of this over the course of a week.  The inventory and observation bits will take longest and it is important to get them right, as they provide the foundations for your decision-making and subsequent spending.Image

These two excellent advice notes by Learning through Landscapes – one for Early Years settings and one for Schools – will help you think about making better use of outdoors, whatever your budget.

If you are in the enviable position of not having to spend a budget in the next two weeks, and would like to explore outdoor learning and play at a more measured pace, please give us a call at Play Learning Life.  We would be delighted to talk to you about how we can help you, your colleagues and, vitally, your children make the most of the potential of outdoors to contribute to better learning and play outcomes.

Announcing the launch of the International School Grounds Alliance: press release

New international group forms to address an increasingly sedentary and risk averse generation of children, disconnected from nature.Growing school grounds movement gains international voice with formation of The International School Grounds Alliance.

Cam Collyer reads the Westerbeke Declaration – the global statement of intent developed during September 2011’s International Green Schoolyards Conference

Berkeley, California (April 24, 2012)

Organisations working to enrich the lives of children through outdoor learning and play have a new global school ground network where they can turn for ideas and support. Leaders in the school grounds movement from Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States have formed the nonprofit International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) (www.internationalschoolgrounds.org), which brings together a wealth of experience in the fields of school ground use, design, education and management around the globe. The ISGA invites like-minded organisations and professionals to become members and collaborate to nurture and grow the international movement to help schools make the most of learning and play opportunities on their grounds.

“Children around the world, growing up in very different environments and cultural settings, all need engaging childhood learning and play experiences for healthy development and enjoyment,” says ISGA co-founder Sharon Danks of Bay Tree Design in California. “The ISGA is not only a resource, but is also a call to action for teachers, parents, and students to go outside, improve their school grounds and explore the world first-hand.”

The ISGA believes that school grounds should:

● provide powerful opportunities for hands-on learning

● nurture students’ physical, social and emotional development and wellbeing

● reflect and embrace their local ecological, social and cultural context

● embrace risk-taking as an essential component of learning and child development

● be open public spaces, accessible to their communities

The ISGA does this by:

● focusing on the way school grounds are used, designed and managed

● facilitating a dialogue about innovative research, design, education and policy

● fostering partnerships between professionals and organisations across the globe

● organising international conferences, gatherings and other programs

● advocating for student and school community participation in the design, construction and stewardship of school grounds

● promoting the value of enriched school grounds as uniquely positioned, engaging environments for children

To commemorate the founding of the ISGA, the organisation has launched a website www.internationalschoolgrounds.org and just released a brief new inspirational film, entitled Voices from the International School Grounds Movement, which includes perspectives from leaders in the school ground movement and inspiring photographs of school grounds around the world: www.greenschoolyards.org/blog.

Water course and planting in the playground at Sherman School, San Francisco.

Context

School grounds are crucial childhood landscapes, both in terms of the considerable time spent there and the messages to children (both explicit and implicit) that come from their design and care. They are located in almost every neighborhood, town and city around the world, and often act as important community gathering places in addition to their roles as places of learning and play during the school day. For many children, school grounds are the primary place they play outside—so what they experience there resonates with them and helps to shape who they are.

“In this rapidly urbanising century, there has been a substantial erosion of children’s outdoor time both for play and learning in the space of a single generation. The reasons for this decline – as well as the negative repercussions – are numerous. With ISGA we want to address these issues and reverse the trend.” says ISGA co-founder Cam Collyer of Evergreen in Canada.

In today’s world, children’s opportunities for outdoor learning and play in nature are disappearing around the globe, due to a variety of influences that include:

● cities that are poorly designed for both children and natural systems

● overprogrammed childhoods that leave children with little free time

● powerful parental fears of “stranger danger” and an increasing fear of risk and liability

● school grounds that are barren expanses with little to support children’s play and learning

ISGA co-founder Mary Jackson of Learning through Landscapes in the United Kingdom says, “As research from around the world tells us, learning and play outside can have a truly positive impact on our children. Their results improve, they concentrate more in lessons, they develop their interpersonal and social skills and have improved mental and physical health. Already many schools around the world are seeing this is true as they develop and use their grounds for the benefit of children, but there is still a long way to go and we want to be able to share lessons learned with schools across the globe. The ISGA is a great way of sharing these lessons.”

Join the Movement

We invite organisations and individuals to join us and declare their commitment to creating and caring for these special environments that support children and young people’s learning, play and wellbeing. Membership is free. Join the ISGA to help build this global movement:

● Visit our website – International School Grounds Alliance: www.internationalschoolgrounds.org

● Sign up to become a member – www.greenschoolyards.org/home/join_us

● Watch the video – Voices from the International School Grounds Movement: www.greenschoolyards.org/blog

● Join the discussion in our LinkedIn group: “International School Grounds Alliance — Public Forum

The next ISGA conference will be hosted by Evergreen in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in Fall 2013.

For More Information

● Please contact Sharon Danks at info@internationalschoolgrounds.org or 510-872-4554

● Inspiring, full color images of school grounds around the world are available upon request.

About the ISGA

The nonprofit International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) is a membership organisation, bringing together leaders in the fields of school ground use, design, education and management. Membership is free. We invite organisations and individuals around the globe to join the ISGA and declare their commitment to creating and caring for these special environments that support children and young people’s learning, play and wellbeing. To join the ISGA, please visit our website: www.internationalschoolgrounds.org  The International School Grounds Alliance also invites organisations and the public to join an ongoing dialogue about school grounds on our LinkedIn group: “International School Grounds Alliance – Public Forum

International Green Schoolyards Conference, San Francisco 2011

The ISGA formed in Fall 2011 as a result of the Engaging Our Grounds: International Green Schoolyards Conference held in California in September 2011, co-hosted by New Village Press/ADPSR, San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance and Bay Tree Design, inc. This event was the first international green schoolyard conference held in the United States, and the second in a new series of international school ground conferences organized by the ISGA’s three co-founders: Cam Collyer, Evergreen (Canada); Sharon Danks, Bay Tree Design (USA); and Mary Jackson, Learning through Landscapes (United Kingdom). The conference series began with an international school grounds conference in Winchester, England in June 2010, entitled The World Outside the Classroom, hosted by Learning through Landscapes. The next ISGA conference will be hosted by Evergreen in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in Fall 2013.

ISGA inaugural steering committee members include (in alphabetical order; * = ISGA co-founders):

Atlanta Taskforce on Play (USA)

Bay Tree Design, inc. (USA) *

Boston Schoolyard Initiative (USA)

Center for Ecoliteracy (USA)

Children in Nature Collaborative (USA)

City Sprouts (USA)

Community Built Association (USA)

CONCERN, Inc. (USA)

District of Columbia School Garden Program (USA)

Environment Design Institute (Japan)

Evergreen (Canada) *

Green Schoolyard Network (USA)

Grün macht Schule (Germany)

Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education (USA)

Learning Landscapes (USA) Learning through Landscapes (United Kingdom) *

Learnscapes Planning and Design (Australia)

Life Lab Science Program (USA)

Movium – Centre for the Urban Public Space at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sweden)

Naturskolan i Lund (Sweden)

New Village Press/ADPSR (USA)

Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (USA)

Play Learning Life (United Kingdom)

PLAYLINK (United Kingdom)

REAL School Gardens (USA)

San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (USA)

San Francisco Unified School District (USA)

School Ground Greening Coalition (USA)

Teichmann Landschafts Architekten (Germany)

Trust for Public Land, NYC Playgrounds Program (USA)

450 Architects, inc. (USA)

Individuals who appear in the ISGA video entitled,Voices from the International School Grounds Movement, include (in order of appearance):

Cam Collyer, Program Director, Evergreen (Canada)

Dr. Petter Åkerblom, Landscape Architect, Movium (Sweden)

Prof. Robin Moore, Director, Natural Learning Initiative (USA)

Manfred Dietzen, Landscape Architect, Coordinator, Grün macht Schule (Germany)

Dr. Ko Senda, Landscape Architect, Environment Design Institute (Japan)

Ayesha Ercelawn, Garden Educator, Tule Elk Park Early Education School (USA)

Arden Bucklin-Sporer, Executive Director, San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (USA)

Julie Mountain, Director, Play Learning Life (United Kingdom)

Mary Jackson, Development Manager, Learning through Landscapes (United Kingdom)

Helen Tyas Tunggal, Director, Learnscapes Planning and Design (Australia)

Sharon Danks, Principal, Bay Tree Design, inc. (USA)

Bernard Spiegal, Principal, PLAYLINK (United Kingdom)

Birgit Teichmann, Dipl. Ing., Landscape Architect, Teichmann Landschafts Architekten (Germany)

Voices from the International School Grounds Movement was filmed and edited by Erika Brekke. The video was coproduced by Erika Brekke and conference director Sharon Danks. The video was filmed during the ISGA’s 2011 conference, co-hosted by New Village Press/ADPSR, San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance and Bay Tree Design inc.  Video link: http://www.greenschoolyards.org/blog

Let’s stick together

Exciting outdoor play activities using sticks collected in the school grounds. These purposeful, simple ideas can be undertaken with little prep and with no funding required, but will allow children who are motivated by working with natural materials to extend their learning in a range of ways.

The value in these activities will be in how you integrate them into your existing curriculum plans; learning beyond the classroom is a route through which the curriculum can be enriched and made more meaningful – it is not a curriculum in itself.

Observing and recording outdoor activities is vital in order to share children’s learning journeys with them, their parents and your other colleagues; use similar techniques to the ones you’d use indoors, but consider quick and weatherproof written records (i.e. post it notes and felt tips).

KEY CURRICULUM AREAS – SUMMARY

  • Physical development  – gross and fine motor skills
  • Problem solving, reasoning and numeracy – working together to solve problems; patterns
  • Creative development – ephemeral art with natural materials
  • Communication, language and literacy – speaking and listening, new vocab
  • Knowledge and Understanding of the World – seasonal change
  • PSE – sharing stories and feelings around the campfire

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES

Mark making with sticks

Five, six, pick up sticks

  • Discuss autumn – what happens to the leaves on the trees in autumn?  When the leaves drop, what can we see on the bare trees?
  • Wrap up warmly for a walk around the perimeter of the field – and other places where there are trees.  Walk around looking for sticks, leaves and fungi.  Sniff the air under the trees – what does it smell like?  What colours can you see?
  • Decide on a place to deposit your stick collection (for the sake of a bit more problem solving I’d suggest choosing a halfway spot rather than taking them straight back to your playground) – how will you transport your sticks to this place?  What will you do if the stick is especially long or heavy?
  • Collect all the sticks you can find on the ground – or at least, all the sticks that aren’t rotten or slimy!  Pile them up in your halfway spot.  Any sticks will do, but ones with relatively few ‘sub branches’ will make some of the later activities a bit easier.
  • Fostering a ‘problem solving’ approach, encourage children to
    • use their whole bodies to transport the sticks
    • collect large and tiny sticks
    • collaborate with one another to carry awkward or large sticks
    • decide when they have ‘enough’ sticks
    • discuss and agree the best way of transporting a large stick collection back to the playground (e.g. wheelbarrows, trailer, bags, one by one…)

Using your sticks

Allow children to experiment freely with the stick collection; record their explorations with cameras, post-it notes and video if possible.  These activities will appeal to children in different ways – some will play on their own, others will want to collaborate; some will see patterns and shapes in the sticks and others will use them to generate stories and imaginative play scenarios.  These are all important lines of enquiry and the play can be built on in future as children’s fascinations evolve.  The list of possible activities below could happen naturally as children explore, or you could plan them to suit curriculum plans.

  • Sorting
    • by length, width or colour / shades; arrange the sticks to show how they’ve been sorted
    • Patterns
      • create mazes and abstract or regular patterns by organising the sticks on the playground; draw round them with chalks to record the patterns; fill in the gaps and spaces with other natural materials such as leaves, flowers, conkers, corks, etc.
      • Lay the sticks along the playground markings; encourage children to choose the correct length of stick to ensure accurate replication of the lines.
    • Mud hedgehogs
      • Use mud or clay to create hedgehog bodies, then use the sticks to represent the spikes on the hedgehog’s back.  Allow to dry completely then place the hedgehogs in spaces around the grounds where children think hedgehogs would live or forage.
    • Mark making
      • Burn or char the ends of the sticks to make ‘charcoal’.
      • Make marks in mud or puddles.
      • Create imaginary words and shapes in the air – can children guess what their friends are drawing or writing in the air?
    • Stick picture frames

      Stick picture frames

      • Lay them on the floor to make pictures using natural materials or chalks
      • Connect the corners with string, masking tape or garden twist ties then hang them from the trees, eaves, fence etc. to create natural ‘panoramas’ and ‘landscapes’.
    • Journey sticks
      • Place 6 or 7 thick elastic bands (found everywhere the postman has been) to each stick.  As the children ‘journey’ around the grounds, the collect found objects and attach them to the stick using the elastic bands – great for practicing fine motor skills and hand eye co-ordination.  I also use this activity to encourage vocab development and speaking and listening skills.

        Eeyore's house

    • Clearing up
      • At the end of each play session, encourage children to clear up the sticks and store them somewhere handy for use the next day.  A huge brush used by a caretaker or cleaner can add some fun and laughter to this task.
    • Measuring sticks
      • If you are lucky enough to find long, straight sticks, slice them up into regular lengths, to use for measuring and estimating.  If you can, create a metre long stick and then a series of 10, 20 and 50cm sticks.  Remember to gently chamfer or sand the cut ends to avoid splintering.
    • Windchimes
      • Make a circle from a wire coat hanger, string different lengths of sticks to the wire circle and hang from trees or eaves – add feathers and conkers for added interest.

Sticky fingers – saying goodbye to the stick collection

By now you probably have quite a mess in your playground, and a depleted stick collection! There are several ways of disposing of the left over sticks.

  • A member of the school community (or another local school) may have a mulcher; if so, ask if they’ll come into school to demonstrate how it works to the children.  This in itself is a wonderful learning opportunity – a mulcher is a large, loud, smelly machine that will ‘eat’ the sticks and create wood chips at the other end, which are fantastic for mulching around your plants to keep the weeds down.  You’ll also have another useful ‘transporting’ problem for the children to solve once the sticks have become mulch.
    • If you use the mulch on your plants, retain some in a small pile somewhere sheltered; children will be interested to watch it start to break down over time and can also experience the raised temperature inside the pile by putting their hands into it.

    Take the sticks back to the places you found them; they will eventually break down or be used by animals, as they would have if they’d never been moved.

  • Use some of the sticks to build a fire pit, to burn the remainder.  Choose a sheltered spot where children can safely sit around the fire and enjoy its colours, sounds and warmth.  Choose sticks or logs with a wide diameter and make a fire pit by laying them end to end in a circle or square – a metre square is a good size to begin with.  You could remove the turf before lighting the fire, and replace it afterwards, or keep the space as an informal fire pit.

    Cooking sausages on sticks

    • Use the remainder of the sticks as fuel on the fire, remembering to retain a few to toast marshmallows on.

Risk assessing outdoor learning and play

A common sense approach to health and safety is now advocated by the HSE and by the Coalition Government[1] and whilst it is important to understand and record risks, a dynamic approach, based on risk / benefit analysis is likely to offer the flexibility needed to really deliver a creative, inspiring early years curriculum.  Dynamic risk assessment and risk benefit analysis materials are freely available on the web: try www.playlink.org and www.forestry.gov.uk for starters.

Other equipment and materials

  • Bottles of antibacterial handrub are a good idea outdoors.  A few germs are no bad thing, but neither is instilling a sensible hygiene routine outdoors.
  • A ‘go anywhere’ outdoor play resource box could usefully contain string, scissors, 10m measuring tape, felt tips, masking tape, baby wipes, nappy sacks (aka treasure bags), an A4 magnifying sheet, garden twist ties…
  • Children love cameras and recording equipment; the Tuff-Cam, available from various educational suppliers is great for stubby little fingers; for children with more developed motor skills or a desire to use ‘grown up’ equipment, the FlipCam video recorders are ideal – both of these cameras are relatively inexpensive.

[1] Tickell Review Recommendations, p6: “To reduce the burden that paperwork introduces, I am also recommending practitioners should not have to undertake written risk assessments when they take children out, but instead be able to demonstrate, if asked, the ways that they are managing outings to minimise risk.”

The Hanging Gardens of Alice Fong Yu: “I used to be a plastic bottle”

One of the schoolyards I was most impressed by on the International Green Schoolyards Conference tours was at Alice Fong Yu, America’s first ‘Chinese Immersion’ school.  The building of this garden has been largely funded through the San Francisco ‘bond’ system whereby City voters choose the projects they wish to see taxpayers money spent on – I have to say, I love this concept!

This is a challenging site – very steeply sloping (the Bay Area is famously hilly) and effectively built on sand dunes.  To create a manageable, productive market garden in this environment is quite a feat, and the school community has been extraordinarily successful.  From humble beginnings in 1999, a really impressive co-operative effort by many stakeholders (parents, staff, children, the school district and the design teams, and of course the voters of San Francisco) enabled Alice Fong Yu to develop this attractive and sophisticated tiered garden.

The original garden was partly taken over when the elementary school expanded, but a keen parent used this setback as an opportunity to concentrate her efforts on securing curriculum buy-in for the growing project.  Her plan of promoting the value of gardening within and beyond the school worked – newsletters annual garden parties (which still happen) and a bulletin board in the school all helped raise its profile.  Her detailed and purposeful curriculum plans included descriptions of which ‘standards’ (learning outcomes, in current UK parlance) would be met through active, participative gardening programmes.

Fifteen years later, each class in the elementary school goes to the garden once a week for an outdoor lesson, making use of the growing areas, and the newer, wheelchair accessible outdoor classroom.  Lessons are taught by a part time garden co-ordinator, who was our fabulously helpful guide on the tour of the grounds. This post is funded by the school PTA to the tune of $20,000 a year… a very significant commitment which is repaid with a rich, varied and progressive on- and off-site outdoor learning curriculum.

Other success factors include support from the school Head and regular use by the teaching staff; but it is without doubt the parent group that ensures the sustainability of this curriculum – providing the original start-up funds, fundraising for the co-ordinator’s job and lobbying to use Bond money on the green schoolyard renovation.  Much of the routine maintenance is also carried out by parents, but the work of the children is an important part of the day to day care of this special space.

There are two main spaces within this green schoolyard – the embankment with raised growing beds on and the newer outdoor classroom, with shelter and shade, permanent seating, secure storage and plenty of interpretation.  I loved the examples of children’s work and the witty displays which gave a real sense of the fun and enjoyment to be had in connecting with nature.

In many ways, the vertiginous embankment has actually forced the creation of a surprisingly accessible garden; each raised bed has a tall length and a short length, as it absorbs the gradient, allowing children of different heights to find a comfortable working position. The beds themselves have been built using recycled plastic (yep, they used to be bottles) and scaffold poles – a relatively cheap but very hardwearing combination.  At 15 years old, these beds still look pretty new and are coping well with the demands made on them by a busy, large school.  Bark chips around the bases of the beds form the pathways and the treads of the many steps needed to manage the incline.

The children grow veggies, herbs, soft and tree fruit and flowers.  School had not long been back after the summer hols so the beds were in the early stages of being seeded.  Picnic benches allowed classes to work on their seedlings, record findings or cook their produce.  Whiteboards, interpretation panels and excellent labelling all contribute to a usable, versatile teaching space.

Storage is vital in school grounds – lack of it is one of the key barriers to taking learning outdoors. At Alice Fong Yu, accessible storage has been cleverly integrated across the whole outdoor classroom area, with large, expensive items of equipment stored securely in the new seating area, and items needed more regularly kept up in the garden area.  When the doors to the secure storage are opened, they become full length whiteboards… very clever!

In addition to the growing beds, Alice Fong Yu also has a pond (with solar powered pump), several different composting systems and a native planting area.  Composting is a core element of sustainable development in the Bay Area and every school we visited had impressive and almost industrial scale composting systems in place ranging from wormeries to a series of linked timber boxes big enough to cope with all the school dinner left-overs.   As an aside, everything we ate and drank over the five days of the Conference, and everything we ate or drank it from, was composted as we went along; it’s had the effect of reinvigorating my own attempts to be a more thoughtful consumer back at home.

In strong contrast to the diverse, vibrant growing areas, the remainder of the grounds at Alice Fong Yu are rather disappointingly, barren and exposed.  These are the schoolyards the children spend most time in – recess and lunchbreaks – and the 2010 Proposition A bond funding will enable the school to continue to improve the whole site, in order to benefit its students throughout the school day.  The school district has engaged Bay Tree Design Inc to create a masterplan design to address the learning and play needs of the school, as well as its culture and ethos.  Construction of these social spaces, recreational areas and wildlife habitats will begin in 2012.

My abiding memory will be the enormous fun our tour group had, experimenting with the clever watering system; a faucet at the top of the garden runs into a series of half-drainpipes which irrigate as they take in the slope.  At the end of the pipes, excess water exits into a huge bucket, in which floated several yoghurt cartons, each with holes pierced in the base.  The young gardeners use these to water the beds, the pierced holes helping to regulate the amount of water each specimen ‘enjoys’.

On the way back to our tour bus, I snapped a couple of irresistibly tactile artworks (can’t stop myself testing everything out – still a kinaesthetic learner after all these years) and left with the impression of a really joyful, industrious and skilful school community.  Love Alice Fong Yu!

  • Visit the Alice Fong Yu school via their website: www.afypa.org
  • Many thanks to Bay Tree Design and the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance for the detailed case study material supplied to us at the conference, which has made sharing this fantastic tour a great deal easier!