Buffalo Public School 90, Dr Charles R. Drew Early Childhood Science Magnet: Learning Courtyard
by Joy Kuebler, ASLA

Buffalo Public School 90 is a shining example of how landscape architecture makes a true and lasting difference in people’s lives. Prior to the redesign and construction by Joy Kuebler Landscape Architect, PC, the school’s courtyard was an underwhelming space, with straggly trees and a flagpole. Numerous windows looked out into the space, and providing access to daylight was their only real function. After meeting the project’s oversight team, the school’s principal and staff, we were thrilled that the group wanted a naturalized space for kids to get dirty, run, jump, and roll in a fresh and enriching learning environment.

With ever increasing curriculum mandates, children are losing valuable time in the natural world. The objective for this courtyard was to meet established curriculum requirements for students in grades Pre-K through second grade in an outdoor environment, while encouraging kids to love nature. Water, varying topography, naturalized and constructed gardens, open areas, and gathering spaces are dispersed throughout the courtyard and divided between various curriculums including science, math, music, art, and geography/geology, with language arts and physical education included throughout. Every outdoor space is connected by the accessible “circuit walk” that weaves between class spaces and provides accessible opportunities for learning and physical activity.

Photo courtesy KC Kratt Photography, Buffalo, New York

Through schoolyard environments like BPS 90, we can beat childhood obesity, help reduce the incidents of ADD/ ADHD, and most importantly, encourage and empower the next generation of environmental stewards. 

Curriculum Elements for each Outdoor Classroom 
Central Gathering Space:  

  • Is large enough to hold several classes
  • Provides tricycle ring with compass and clock inscribed in pavers
  • Provides chalkboard for class lessons and group postings
  • One of two sandboxes has organic shapes and poured concrete curbing

Water Channel: 

  • Sinuous water channel flows throughout courtyard
  • The 6” deep and 8” wide channel intersects the circuit path at various points with wooden bridges
  • Activities are encouraged such as timing the speed of a stick, damming the water, and racing ducks
  • A skimmer and carbon filter ensure good water quality

Physical Education:  

  • The entire courtyard has elements for play, mobility, dexterity, and hand and eye coordination
  • The overall circuit path can be fit with markers that allow the students to track the distance they have walked during gym class
  • The logs provide interesting balance beams
  • Mounds are wonderful for running up and rolling down
  • Boulders are placed close enough for students to step from one to the other 
  • The concrete areas are great for jumping rope and riding tricycles

Music Classroom: 

  • Plants here make sound in the wind, attract “singing” insects and birds, and can be used to make instruments
  • A small concrete area allows students to set up chairs and music stands to play outside
  • Area provides a living tee-pee that holds up to 10 children

Math Classroom: 

  • Unit paving of various materials and sizes shows ratios and proportions
  • Raised planters provide area for growing vegetables, counting seeds, measuring growth
    Photo courtesy KC Kratt Photography, Buffalo, New York
  • Various fruit trees are selected to bear fruit when school is in session

Science Classroom:  

  • Large earth mounds aid in teaching about gravity, velocity, and measurements
  • Shade garden features native ferns, sedges, and rushes
  • The water channel widens and students are encouraged to get into the water
  • Logs provide seating as well as an element for experiments and observations
    Photo courtesy KC Kratt Photography, Buffalo, New York

Geography/Geology Classroom:  

  • Boulder “council ring” are provided for small group gatherings, climbing, and jumping. Tree stumps provide for exploration
  • Area provides a living tee-pee that hold up to 10 children
  • Local plants with various survival elements and ethno-botanical uses
  • Sunflowers are planted by kindergarteners and then harvested when students are in first grade  

Art Classroom: 

  • Brightly colored perennials inspire young artists
  • All plants in courtyard are non-toxic so leaves, petals and berries can be used to make paint and ink
  • Small concrete area has interesting score patterns
  • Nearby “Dr. Seuss garden” has oversized, interesting smelling or unusual looking plants

Language Arts: 

  • Opportunities are included for increased language awareness
  • Boulder “council ring”, tee-pees, central gathering space, and log seating provide locations for story telling and group discussions 
  • Chalk board allows students to “post their findings” for fellow classmates to read and provide responses
  • Central gathering space becomes a “stage” for drama activities with seating on the surrounding lawn
    Photo courtesy KC Kratt Photography, Buffalo, New York
  • Each new fall class is encouraged to make and post signs for the courtyard, allowing every student to be active in the “naming” process

Joy Kuebler is a principal of Joy Kuebler Landscape Architect, PC in North Tanawanta, New York, and can be reached at: jkuebler@jklastudio.com. 

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