The School Landscape - an opportunity for outdoor learning

Published: Tuesday 26 March 2019

LEA QLD’s March 12 event was a great success, with around 60 educators, occupational therapists, designers, architects and landscape architects in attendance.

Held in “The Edge” auditorium at State Library Queensland, with a view of the Brisbane River, a diverse range of speakers, from different professional backgrounds, presented their work in a series of short Pecha Kucha style presentations.

The 6 speakers challenged attendees to re-think predominant teaching pedagogies and environments, which encourage sedentary indoor play, contributing to problems ranging from obesity, anxiety, depression and behavior issues, to delayed physiological development.

Nicki Farrell, of the Wildlings Forest School, a provider of early learning programs and out–of–school–hours care, provided some sobering statistics. Only 19% of Australian children (5-17yrs) meet the national activity guidelines (AHAK, 2016), and 26% (aged 5 – 14yrs) are overweight or obese (AIHW, 2016).

A recurring theme in all presentations was that getting kids outdoors gets them more active, which has many benefits in addition to exercise, such as improved attitudes and behavior, better social interactions, creativity and resilience. Nicki also emphasized that allowing children to follow their own innate curiosity, leads to learning outcomes of equal, or greater importance, than that gained in a classroom.

Nicki Farrell (Wildlings Forest School); Tamara Scutts (Forest School at Immanuel Lutheran College)

The importance of the elements of risk and challenge, were also common themes, emphasized by Chris Jack, Principal of the Birali Steiner School, in his presentation showcasing the many exciting outdoor excursions the children participate in during the school year.

Rock climbing at Girraween National Park and Mt Tibrogargan offered opportunities for children to challenge themselves, build confidence and team work skills, as did canoe and sailing trips and bike expeditions, that students were encouraged to plan and organize themselves.

The school also makes a point of celebrating the seasons with festivals such as the Birali Winter Festival. This sort of event encourages the children to pay attention to changes in the environment around them, and help develop an appreciation of the world around them.
Ralph Bailey, of Guymer Bailey Architects, gave an inspiring presentation focused on their work in engaging the 5 basic senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch), and 3 other senses many of us were not as familiar with (vestibular, proprioception, interoception).

Ralph demonstrated how the senses can be engaged through the inclusion of scented plants (not all pleasant smelling either!), edible plants, bee hives, different textures and colours of foliage and ground surfaces, and the creation of habitats for animals, insects and birds.

The provision of swings, stepping stones and balance beams engages the vestibular (balance) sense. Frew Park playground is a great example of physical challenges, for kids to engage their proprioception sense, or sense of body awareness. Repetitive activities, such as skipping, running and climbing, help in the development of the interoception sense, or the brain’s process of interpreting signals from other parts of the body.

Another benefit of engaging all these senses is that it provides something for everyone to experience, including those with a vision, hearing or other impairment.

Landscape architect, Greg Thomas, of Greenedge Design, asked us to “Rethink the School Playground”. His “whole child” approach to learning through play involves considering autonomy + creativity, mental health, socialization, cognitive learning, physical development, challenge and risk, in the design of outdoor spaces.

This approach has led Greg to involve children in the design of their own play spaces in projects presented. Children are inherently creative thinkers, and given the chance, will come up with amazing ideas, as evidenced by some outstanding proposals drawn by the kids, during an interactive workshop with him.

A number of case studies were presented, implementing a range of natural materials and textures, water play, mud and sand, for early years education, and physical challenges, kitchen gardens and clever screening structures showing molecular diagrams, for more senior students.

Greg concluded with the pertinent point that the current education system needs to encourage educators to engage with outdoor environments, and that current funding models need to be reviewed to allow for adequate investment to be made in outdoor teaching spaces.

Occupational therapist, Mary Rydstrom spoke about the link between reduced tummy time for babies (due to SIDS prevention), lack of core stability, delayed physical development in kids, and links between the vestibular system and emotion regulation, attention and focus.

She also raised the issue of a number of children presenting with reduced visual development for their age, which they attribute to the use of screen devices, and more time spent doing sedentary activities.

The Forest School at Immanuel Lutheran College, led by Tamara Scutts, makes full use of the school’s idyllic forest location. A previously disused forested area, was re-deployed as a wonderful resource, and location for outdoor learning, for the Forest School out-of-school-hours care program. The children explore, play and build in the forest, but not only that – they are also actively involved in the maintenance and caretaking of the area as well, removing rubbish and debris, and caring for the plants.


Workshopping up a storm; Live-streaming

The 6 presentations were followed by a few ‘break the ice’ exercises, to help us get to know our neighbors, and to limber up for some creative group workshops, directed by Amanda Cheetham.

Groups were given the task of designing an engaging and sensory – stimulating outdoor play space, in a variety of contexts. All groups fully embraced the concepts of risk, challenge, sensory play, and gross motor development in the creation of models, using cardboard, pipe cleaners, paddle pop sticks, plasticine and other odds and ends.

With a hefty amount of creative talent in the room, boundaries were pushed, senses stimulated, and amazing designs emerged!

It was great to hear how outdoor learning is being approached by different professionals, and how this is inextricably tied to the various teaching pedagogies.

Some of the facilities shown were purpose designed with the pedagogy in mind, while others did not have a purpose-built space, but made use of nearby environments and field trips to achieve the same end result – happy outdoor learners.  This shows how, with a bit of creative thinking, and passionate staff, a lot can be done with a little.

However, a lot more can be done with greater investment in outdoor play spaces, to both support and encourage staff to change teaching methods, and in the funding of physical outdoor learning spaces.

I believe this is the key to achieving better outdoor learning environments in schools, and is possible food for further discussion with the various educational funding bodies.

Sessions like this one are great for raising awareness of the issues. Outlining the enormous benefits of outdoor play, in a tangible way, (with a bunch of statistics if necessary) helps educators and designers to push for greater investment in these spaces.

Networking with river views. Photo: Derek Bartels

And if the session ends with a drink and chat with a group of like-minded individuals, and a view of the river, even better!

Article: Wendy Hay, Senior Architect, Fulton Trotter Architects
Speaker photos: Greg Thomas; Workshop photos: Derek Bartels