Asphalt To Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation

At one of the schools where I used to pick up my children there is a field of grass upon which stands a tree.  It was one of the central attractions for all the elementary students just released from school.  They ran around it, sat beneath its limbs, climbed it, hung from the branches.  At one point the contrast finally struck me – here’s an old tree surrounded by young kids.  Is that what drew these kids in some way?  Did they feel safe around it, knowing that its long years of growing strong roots made it relatively stable?  Then we get older and old trees remind us of our youth.

Even if these esoteric thoughts enter not into the young minds playing on trees there is no doubt that the outdoor world has great knowledge that can be imparted to the young.  They get to build their muscles as they climb and run, they learn patience as plants grow, they understand the intertwining nature of the planet upon which we all live.

That, I feel, is the essence of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, a new book by Sharon Gamson Danks published by New Village Press.  As the title indicates, it discusses ways to transform current barren schoolyards into oases of the natural world, kids being collected into outdoor classrooms, planting gardens both for beauty and for crops, learning about natural cycles by experience not reading from a textbook.  Danks takes a school administration and parents and the local community through each piece of designing an ecologically sound schoolyard.  Any group wanting to transform their school will be doing themselves a favor by reading this book.

The book doesn’t just have words to describe these new schoolyards, it is replete with pictures providing inspiration as to how school grounds can be beautified.  Danks goes on at length about how some schools have successfully integrated some of these ideas.  Schools in Sweden and Norway, for example, have done some marvelous work with rocks.  I enjoyed the experience of the Manglerud School in Oslo, Norway.  The school worked with a local architect to create a ‘mini-mountain’ out of 350 boulders from the nearby Svelvick moraine.  The boulders came in many colors, shapes and sizes and represented rock types found throughout southern Norway.  The school carefully  and securely arranged the stones into the rough shape of a mountain, mimicking the rolling landscape.  The resulting paly structure has peaks and valleys and nooks in which children can sit, climb and play imaginative games.  Very quickly you can understand how this natural approach can teach a variety of subjects, from creativity to geology.

Of course, some in this country might automatically start getting queasy when they imagine their little scions clambering about on rocks.  What if they fall?  They’ll hurt themselves, won’t they?  And then who will be to blame?  Due to the litigious nature of American society, modern schools have these very thoughts before parents do and thus try to sanitize all the danger they can from schoolyards in an effort to absolve themselves of liability.  Danks does touch on this subject of safety and liability on several occasions throughout the book.   It’s a subject that local schools and parents will have to come to terms on.  She does make this observance (p. 139):

“These standard school playgrounds also emphasize games with rules created by adults,  at the expense of imaginative games that children make up  on their own.  They make it difficult for children to engage their creativity, their desire for real physical challenges, and their need for exploration and discovery.”

Children – and parents – should consider being responsible when it comes to playtime.

Ah, but alas, while the book advocates a paradigm shift in education and the design of schools, it is plagued by “corporate speak””:  “The strongest ecological schoolyards usually arise from a participatory design process that reaches consensus about future goals and priorities for the grounds.”  That was on page three.  I feared I had somehow printed out my work emails and pasted them in the book.  I found I was wrong.  I then hoped that perhaps this was just a sickness infecting the introductory part of the book and I again found myself in error.  That pattern of speaking permeates the pages.  She mentions “empowering children”, “best practices”.  My mind took refuge in the pictures.  For a time I found no inspiration in the book, only irritation.  Why did such a grand concept as this book presents need to be couched in such stale, lifeless, distant – dare I say it? – verbiage?

But, what is the book trying to accomplish?  Well, it is appealing to existing schools to transform from the standard schoolyard – the barren, asphalt and concrete prison camp – into an ecological schoolyard – inviting, earthy compounds of education.  Thus it needs to grab the attention of an already stale school administration and inspire them to do something new.  Additionally, it is a reference book, a text book, a dense encyclopedia of environmental knowledge and examples.  It’s not meant to be read through like a novel or a manifesto; it’s a handbook to use as a school makes the journey from what it is to what it wants to be.  It accomplishes its purpose.

I couldn’t help but think that the program advocated here echo an older time.  A time when children were taught about the world as they worked in it, as they experienced it with their family.  Alas, now, how many times do we hear how little time families spend together?  Now the schools we force our children into must be transformed to give them the experiences we as parents are not giving them.  Parents should read this book.  Schools should read this book.  Maybe some of these ideas can be put to work at your own local school.  Or, just maybe, some families could institute these or similar ideas at home.  A yard, front or back, could benefit from the same changes promoted in the book for school grounds.  Small gardens at home can be educational and even help a family move towards a self-sufficient status.  So use this material wherever you can.  Unleash some creativity.

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