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.
This is a fairly standard example of grounds in many Scottish schools
At the same time, children’s domain—the areas they can roam on their own outside of school—have been shrinking over the last few generations, leaving many children with only the schoolyard to explore to discover how the world works. If what we are providing them is limited and bland, how will they develop their curiosity, their sense of adventure, and a well-rounded world view?
A movement is growing around the world to give our children a richer environment at school—to provide places for teachers to teach their lessons in a hands-on manner outside; places for children to explore a corner of the natural world to see how it functions; and places to run, hop, skip, jump, twirl and play in active, challenging, and creative ways.
Asphalt to Ecosystems is a book that seeks to inspire school communities to enrich their school grounds and embrace this paradigm shift toward “green schoolyards.” Students, parents, teachers, and school administrators are the leaders of this movement. In many cases, they are playing an active role in developing their school grounds to best suit their needs, and then acting as environmental stewards for their shared piece of public land. Asphalt to Ecosystems includes examples from innovative school ground projects at 150 schools in 11 countries, illustrating some of the amazingly creative ideas schools have successfully developed on their grounds. The book is a resource for parents, teachers, school administrators, environmentalists, and schoolyard designers. It is intended as an inspiring handbook that can lead school communities through the step-by-step process of reimagining and redesigning their school sites.
Cowgate Under 5's Centre - Children were fully consulted and involved in the planning of this outdoor space which is continuously evolving.
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.
As a graduate student, I wondered how we might build societies that EXPECT that their cities will compliment the natural world, rather than dominate it. It seemed to me that one of the main barriers to creating sustainably designed cities is that many adults don’t understand how basic ecological systems work and can’t see how they are interrelated. If asked, they are unsure of where rainwater flows when it hits the ground, runs across their yard, and into a storm drain. They don’t know where their food comes from and how long it takes to grow. They don’t know which species of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife live in their neighborhoods or what the animals need to survive. Without foundational knowledge like this, it is difficult to make wise decisions about how our communities should be structured. So, I embarked on a study of school grounds as places to teach ecological systems thinking through hands-on lessons. Why teach about the water cycle from a diagram in a book, when you can step outside into the rain and observe it first hand?
This is one way to explore water first hand!
While researching my master’s degree thesis in 2000, I visited schools in the western United States, and studied school gardens, wildlife habitats, water systems, renewable energy systems, and projects built on school grounds with natural and recycled building materials.
A giant minibeast hotel made from wood palettes
After completing my master’s degrees (MLA-MCP), my research journey then took me on a post-graduate traveling fellowship to see more school grounds in Canada, England, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway; and later on my own to Japan and Germany. I found many amazing examples of innovative “green schoolyard” projects on ecological themes, and exciting examples of unique, challenging play environments and creative play opportunities I had not encountered before. Many of these school grounds had been developed by their school communities as collaborative projects over the course of many years. The results were magical environments that echoed their local communities—including art and design aesthetics that reflected the cultural ties of their students and region, and the ecology of their surrounding local environment. Some of these rich school grounds were maintained by their school administrations, but most were a labor of love, involving students, parents, and teachers as stewards of their school property.
Inveraray Primary School has much loved and looked after grounds with bespoke structures like this peace shelter
With a huge range of colorful photographs in hand, along with the stories and best practices shared by hundreds of generous colleagues, I decided it was time to create a book and put this information in one place so that it could be enjoyed by a wider audience. Often, school staff and parents are so busy with their daily work schedules that they don’t have time to visit other schools to see what they are up to. This book allows them to go on a “tour of the world” without leaving their chair.
The Coombes School features in Sharon's book. It's hard to believe that their grounds were once grass and asphalt
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 favorite. 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.
The next part of the post will appear at the weekend. 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...!