Laying foundations for outdoor learning

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School grounds can be an amazing untapped learning resource. SLT visited one school in north-west England to find out how its great outdoors has transformed the whole setting.

Broken, black expanses of tarmac, puddles and dark, depressing spaces. This is the sad truth behind many outdoor areas surrounding schools today. So how can you make your outdoor learning areas a place where young people can learn and play in an inspiring and stimulating environment? This was the challenge facing one school in Lytham St Annes, just down the coast from the bright lights of Blackpool.

St Bedes Catholic High School took on an ambitious plan to become a flagship and case study for best practice in creating a sustainable school environment. This would include the redevelopment of the outside areas of school where pupils would be encouraged to socialise and where creative learning could take place in a safe and clean environment.    

The idea to implement a strategy to transform the outdoor areas around the school – led by an inspirational headteacher in Phil Grice – took shape through a number of initiatives. A fundamental principle was to engage with everyone concerned, including parents, teachers, supporters, local community, businesses and, more importantly, pupils.

The aim was to create a groundswell of enthusiasm among pupils, encouraging them to get involved in changing the areas where they spend a great deal of their school lives.

Phil explains how the project took off from the very early stages. “After the initial idea was raised at teachers meetings and with the PTFA, we identified that the school outdoor areas were a major consideration in our bid to ensure a sustainable school environment and we understood that to reach our goal we would have to radically alter the look and feel of the playgrounds.”

The team went about this challenge by bringing on board a respected landscape architect, Katie Davies, who drew up the initial plans to transform the area. With involvement from Lancashire County Council, the project team then set about finding organisations that would ft the ethos of the school’s sustainability drive.

Enormous help

Ensuring that organisations were interested in supporting the project was the key to getting the best materials at the best prices. This mission was helped enormously when the school was picked as a finalist in the £1million Big Green Challenge, a national competition, backed by NESTA and endorsed by the government. This gave the project a new and inspiring target to deliver the best sustainable school in the UK and act as best practice for other schools. St Bedes was the only school in the UK to be in the top ten along with businesses and ‘green’ initiatives from across the country. St Bedes has also been shortlisted for the Times Educational Supplement’s Sustainable School of the Year award.

The school approached several, well-respected businesses to get involved with the project. The criteria for choosing these organisations were very much based on their commitment to sustainability and ethical considerations.

One company, Marshalls, was chosen because of its market-leading position as a sustainable supplier in the hard landscaping industry and the company has won many sustainability awards for its products and materials. Procuring the services and products of organisations such as Marshalls also ensured that the school used the correct products for different areas of the project. Their expertise was invaluable in ensuring that the overall design was achievable. 

Phil says: “We chose Marshalls as they have a real commitment to ethical trading, to social responsibility, and also to reducing carbon dioxide emission in their products. There’s a range of recycled granite products, as well as ‘Priora’ paving, which helps to improve drainage and therefore the environment of the school.

“It is also the quality and sustainability of Marshalls’ products that impressed us. So much of the emissions associated with a school are to do with procurement, so we have chosen to buy long-lasting and serviceable products which, over time, will result in a lower carbon footprint.”

As with any big project, financial support was crucial to realising the school’s dreams. St Bede’s secured funding through the Department for Children, Schools and Families as part of the school’s bid to update dining facilities and extend to outside areas. Lottery funding came in through a ‘local food grant’, to install an allotment area. The school received further cash through community design teams and groups such as the St Modwen Environmental Trust. Link-ups with other colleges and schools were also important in maximising joint funding for projects and initiatives.

Once the final plans had been agreed and the materials and products chosen, the work could start. A company called Barton Grange Landscapes co-ordinated the landscaping project with Marshalls to ensure a smooth installation. They aimed to minimise the impact on the school, which still had to use the grounds while the work was being undertaken.

From the outset, the project gave careful consideration to the opinions of the pupils. They received questionnaires to fill in, giving their views on how they found the outdoor areas around the school. From this, the school produced a list of the most important issues. Teachers gave their input too.

In all, 115 surveys were completed and the results gave an interesting overview of the general opinion of the grounds:

  • 34 per cent of respondents rated their school grounds as poor or very poor
  • 41 per cent of respondents were less than satisfied with their school grounds
  • 10 per cent of children rarely felt safety within the area shown and a further 20 per cent only felt safe some of the time
  • 63 per cent of children said the area was almost never used for outdoor learning activities.

The school then identified the most important issues of concern for both pupils and teachers. These included a lack of seating and social spaces where pupils could enjoy their outdoor areas, and there were no opportunities to use the outside for educational purposes.

Significant rainfall in the last few years highlighted the inadequacy of the current drainage system around the school. On rainy days there were puddles and flooding, which pupils brought into the school on rainy days. The school was also a hotchpotch of buildings with no coherent direction to link buildings to outdoor recreational areas. This created problems with security and safety of the children, as there were many dark and unseen areas.

Uninspiring black top surfaces contributed to the monotonous look of the school grounds and detracted from the aesthetics of the building. Lack of signage again meant pupils, especially new entrants to the school, were often lost. There was a lack of provision for disabled pupils and teachers, with few ramps and many trip hazards due to poor paving. This excluded disabled pupils from certain areas around the school.

Comments from pupils, taken from the questionnaires, told the true story of the state of the outdoor areas:

“The school grounds look old and miserable. I wish the school was modern and nice.”
“I’d like to feel more safe at break times and lunchtimes and have more space to socialise.”
“It is not a very good environment to learn in... it should look cleaner and more green.”
“It’s messy and looks like it’s not looked after.”

Apart from the involvement of pupils, teachers were given the opportunity to come up with ideas on how to engage the school in sustainable activities. The whole school embarked on a series of ‘green’ initiatives including green fashion shows, building new allotments and energy efficiency exercises, with everyone recycling.

The development of the allotment area at the school was a popular plan. Careful consideration would need to be given to the type of products and materials used, as children would be responsible for tending to the allotments regularly. A ground surface was needed which would be both durable and easy for children to push wheelbarrows up and down. The allotment gardens would give an opportunity to educate students about the sources of many common foods.

Learning to nurture fruit and vegetable plants through simple everyday activities would also teach important lessons about caring for the natural environment.

One area of real concern was to encourage more social interaction between the children at playtimes and when learning outdoors. School grounds should be more than functional spaces: they can encourage young people to experience another dimension of learning. As well as the benefits of fresh air, a change of environment stimulates the senses and enables diverse and new ways of learning. School grounds can be vital for learning and discovery, for physical health, social confidence and emotional well-being, as well as engaging with nature and sustainability.

Romy Rawlings, a chartered landscape architect with Marshalls, feels a school’s surroundings should be attractive and welcoming to all who use them. “If the quality of the environment impacts directly upon the behaviours of those who use it,” adds Romy, “investment in the grounds for a school will surely reap many rewards – staff retention, higher student numbers and an improvement in learning, to name a few.”

As with any development, first impressions count, but another important aspect of the design of school grounds is that they are distinctive and reflect the local identity.

Thoughtful planning will instil a clear sense of place, which in turn imparts a feeling of belonging in those who use the school. Another important facet of the design is that it reflects cultural diversity, both within the school and in its neighbouring community.

Multi-sensory learning

For the most effective education to take place, it is widely recognised that teaching techniques should encompass all the senses, and learning outside the classroom provides wonderful opportunities for the full spectrum of sensory experiences. Outdoor spaces support holistic teaching techniques for a whole body experience that is often missing during traditional lessons, and the entire learning experience can be made more tangible through a multi-sensory approach.

Every school landscape, no matter how small, provides wonderful opportunities for the study of the natural environment and the inclusion of sustainable techniques which illustrate the importance of planet-saving activities. Whether a standalone green space in the midst of a city or a rural school with extensive grounds, there are countless opportunities to demonstrate sustainable lifestyles and encourage a better understanding of the link between human activities and phenomena such as climate change.

The provision of secure cycle storage will support and encourage a sustainable transport strategy for the school and the entire grounds become a practical teaching resource in any number of ways, such as studying the unique habitats and biodiversity of a neighbourhood.

Indeed, environmental issues now present another major opportunity for schools. For decades, sustainability has been of interest only to fringe and minority groups, yet the application of sustainable practices now drives every new development. Protection and enhancement of our physical environment might be the prime focus but, with some thoughtful design, sustainable landscapes also offer students the perfect opportunity to study the natural world around them.

In every respect, it is clear that the quality of a school’s landscape is equally as important as that of its buildings. Specific BREEAM assessment audits exist for school building projects. Companies who lead the way in sustainability, such as Marshalls, can help clients achieve the maximum BREEAM credits by recommending suitable landscaping products and offering its design expertise to ensure a balanced approach is taken in the product selection process, considering product cost, required technical performance, environmental impact (life cycle assessments) and the finished aesthetic.

The aims and objectives of BREEAM include mitigating the impact of buildings on the environment, enabling buildings to be recognised for their environmental benefits and stimulate demand for sustainable buildings to raise awareness of the benefits of recycling.

The second part of ‘Laying foundations for outdoor learning’, featuring the results of the work carried out by Marshalls, will be published in the September issue of School Leadership Today.

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