Making sense of Outdoor Learning at award winning Eastwood PS

Published: Monday 26 March 2018

A natural flow between architecture and landscape creates a fun and insightful environment for students to learn and play.

The drive into work on Tuesday, 20 March 2018 was dreary. The sky was overcast and the windshield wipers worked hard to keep the rain off. Thankfully, the weather cleared in time for Learning Environments Victoria’s tour of Eastwood Primary School in Ringwood. As winner of LEA Victoria’s 2017 Award for Landscaping/Outdoor Learning Area, the design successfully invigorates the school’s masterplan.

Architects Crosier Scott and RB Landscapes developed the brief through consultation with the teachers, administration, and school community. Their key question was “how are the students going to use the space?” Sustainability, water use, and food preparation were learning outcomes identified by the School. These were incorporated through a series of elements including:

•    Indoor / Outdoor learning;
•    Creek system including an exercise station with water play pumps;
•    Outdoor kitchen with wood fired oven;
•    Chicken coop.

The result is a design that successfully makes sense of outdoor learning.

Indoor / Outdoor Learning
Crosier Scott’s architectural design replaced all of the original light timber constructed buildings. The only structures remaining were the original Hall and BER Gymnasium. The new classrooms are a continuous series of ‘open plan’ learning environments. The organic flow of these spaces complements the external landscape design. Principal Rukshana Verzijl indicated that external doors are left open through the day for seamless indoor/outdoor learning.

In a central courtyard formed by the new buildings is an outdoor classroom. This classroom is a circular structure constructed from recycled railway sleepers. It allows breakout opportunities from the surrounding internal classrooms. Students use the outdoor classroom’s concrete tables for gathering seeds and vegetables from the surrounding gardens. It’s also used as a gathering space for lunch before kids disperse into the landscape for recess.

One question raised was student safety and the stepping of the landscape paths and rocks. Richard Bellemo of RB Landscapes indicated that children are more aware of their surroundings when they’re not a flat synthetic environment. Kids take their time and carefully step across stones, grasses, and the creek once they leave the manmade paths.

Sustainability was a design driver and learning outcome identified in the design brief. Timber used in the construction was reclaimed and salvaged from fallen trees and demolished buildings. The tipi was sourced from the nearby Kinglake community. Reclaimed, recycled, and locally sourced material help teach the students responsible sustainability principles.

Even the selection of plants had sustainability in mind. Native grasses have been used for their resiliency. Rather than breaking, the grasses spring back into place when bent by children. The students also have a sense of ownership in the garden. During construction, they assisted with planting. This has given them pride in their accomplishment, and as a result they treat the landscape with more respect.

Water Use
A creek runs centrally through the campus. Children learn about the water cycle and how the creek purifies rainwater before it enters into the stormwater system. Students are able to study invertebrates, water management, and water quality at the creek and wetlands. The relaxing sound of the creek provides an opportunity for students to rejuvenate before returning to class. When not relaxing by the creek, stationary bikes and a manual pump provide the children with opportunities for exercise and water play.

Food Preparation
At the end of the festivities, we gathered in the Outdoor Kitchen for wood fired pizza. The warmth of the pizza oven provided relief from the cold autumn air. The oven’s communal dining area was also an excellent location to gather socially. Created using recycled tyres and timber, this area integrates the School’s original Hall. Students are able to learn about food preparation at the outdoor kitchen, Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden and chicken coop. These features teach them about where food comes from. The children enjoy interacting with the chickens and collecting their eggs. Plus, who doesn’t love a chicken dinner?

How Did They Afford This?
Was the question everyone was wondering. Despite best intentions, the landscaping in most education projects is an afterthought. The architecture usually absorbs the landscape budget leaving only enough for few token plants. Crosier Scott, RB Landscapes, and the School worked hard to maintain their landscape budget. The new buildings were constructed in two stages. Rather than bring in relocatable classrooms to deal with decanting, the school made due with their existing facilities. This meant that money usually spent on temporary facilities could be saved for landscaping.

At Eastwood Primary School, they have made sense of outdoor learning. A natural flow between Crosier Scott’s architecture and Richard Bellemo’s landscape creates a fun and insightful environment for students to learn and play. Learning outcomes associated with sustainability, water, and food preparation have been successfully incorporated into the design. The greatest success was the management of the landscape budget. Through perseverance and clever solutions, the School, architects, and landscape designer were able to afford a landscape well deserving of its accolades.

Article: Wayne Hay

Photos: Gabriella Muto and Wayne Hay