Sharon Danks is author of Asphalt to Ecosystems. This was THE book of 2010 about developing outdoor spaces and school grounds. It is a remarkable international collection of photos, ideas and inspiration. Thank you Sharon.
What is “Asphalt to Ecosystems” about?
When you think about “school grounds,” what type of image first comes to mind? For many people, school grounds are places covered by paved surfaces and uniform sports fields, adorned with a few nondescript shrubs and trees, and one or two ordinary climbing structures purchased from a catalog. Most school grounds in a given city or region look like all of the others, with very little variation to reflect unique aspects of each school community, the neighborhood’s environmental context, or the teachers’ preferred curricula and teaching methods.
Why did you write this book and how did you manage to collect so many examples of practice?
I’ve been interested in this topic for the past thirteen years—since my days as a master’s degree student in the University of California, Berkeley’s Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Department. As an environmental city planner, my main interest is in the field of ecological design—the practice of designing cities so that they inherently use fewer resources and fit more elegantly within the natural systems that surround and sustain them.
Which part chapter do you like the best, if any?
The ecology section of the book is near and dear to my heart, since that was my entry point into this field. But as the parent of two elementary school children, I’d say that the play section is now my favourite. I’m particularly intrigued by the countries that let their students play vigorously on challenging play equipment—like the incredible “jungle playgrounds” designed by Asbjørn Flemmen (Norway), boulder “mountains” and other rock creations by designers like Frode Svane (Norway), and the hand-crafted wooden play structures (climbing frames) built from robinia wood that are commonly found in Germany and Denmark. All of these are safe play environments that meet their own country’s safety standards—but they allow FAR more exciting play options than American safety standards currently do. I would like to see my own country reassess the way we let our children play, based on the success of play environments like these in Europe.
What key pieces of advice would you give any school wishing to develop its school yard?
Here are some general rules of thumb for starting and sustaining green schoolyards (adapted from Chapter 2 of Asphalt to Ecosystems, pages 14-15):
- Start with buy-in from the school principal (head teacher) – These projects can’t move forward without approval from the head of the school.
- Form a green schoolyard committee to oversee the project’s development and share responsibilities.
- Discuss new ideas with the school faculty before engaging parents. Teachers should be the first to know when something new will be happening in their work environment.
- Make initial inquiries to the school district, and others responsible for maintaining the grounds, to see what’s possible.
- Allow enough time to develop a long term vision for the school grounds, and create a schoolyard master plan drawing to use as your guide.
- Allow project participants to “get their hands dirty” as soon as possible. Experimenting with small, portable, and temporary projects is often useful before building larger, more expensive, permanent additions to the grounds.
- Dream big, but start small. Plan to implement the project slowly, over time. Try building one project each semester or year.
- Never “finish,” so that the project will remain relevant to the school community as it changes over the years.
- Plan for stewardship from the beginning. Green schoolyards are often more work to maintain than standard, paved grounds. It’s important to develop a plan for schoolyard care as you start the process.
- Raise money to start the project and support it along the way.
- Do not give up! Be persistent, flexible, and creative.
What do you think are really useful features in a school yard?
For schools that are planning to use their grounds for outdoor lessons, I think it’s particularly important to have at least one outdoor space that can act as an outdoor classroom and seat at least a full class of students at a time. (Here, that’s typically 20-30 children, depending on their age.) It’s also useful to have smaller “break out” areas so groups of three to five students can sit together and collaborate on their work. These seating areas can be in the form of picnic tables, large boulders, logs, or elaborate tiered benches—as desired by the school. We also find that tool sheds are very handy for storing gardening tools and also for storing outdoor teaching supplies like magnifying glasses, clipboards, and other things that teachers and students like to have on hand.
What are you up to at the moment and what are your plans for the future?
I run a landscape architecture and planning firm called Bay Tree Design, inc. in Berkeley, California with my business partner, landscape architect Lisa Howard. We have been working closely with the San Francisco Unified School District over the last three years on a series of 29 green schoolyard master planning projects. We are also working with other school districts in our area, and on some farther away as well. We welcome future projects from near and far! Have a look at EcoSchools Design website for more information too.
I’m also directing an international green schoolyard conference that will be held in San Francisco and Berkeley, California on September 16-18, 2011. The conference is called Engaging Our Grounds and will include presentations from experts in this field from around the world, as well as tours of some of the best green schoolyards in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our conference brochure will be available soon, and will be posted on the Asphalt to Ecosystems website. I hope you and your readers will join us for this exciting event. It will be a wonderful chance to see some exciting green schoolyards first-hand, and to meet like-minded colleagues from many different countries.
Finally Sharon came to Europe last year on a study tour organised by Frode Svane. He has two study tours in Denmark and Germany in late June 2011 that are planned to lead up to the International Play Association Conference in Cardiff in early July. These study trips are considered very worthwhile by school ground and play professionals and are open to all. For more information contact Frode by sending him a message on Facebook.
Many thanks to Sharon for sparing the time to tell the world about school grounds transformation.
The text is by Sharon Danks. Juliet supplied the photos which are nothing like as good as the ones in Sharon’s book which are mouth-wateringly wonderful…!