Studying a relationship between landscape architecture and education, this research operates under three timely and significant ideas: the widely-held notion of a floundering relationship between children and nature, standards-based education, and schoolyard redesign.
In addressing these topics, the research:
Aims to demonstrate how schoolyard design may maximize opportunities for children to have meaningful contact with nature or natural elements each day.
Aims to advance how the landscape designer may integrate and translate grade level STEM education standards into the built, schoolyard environment by illustrating connections between standards and the designed environments that support the student learning of that standard for the funders, the decision-makers, teachers and administrators, and all other relevant stakeholders.
Aims to inform schoolyard redesign methodologies by transforming “the outdated schoolyard” into an outdoor learning environment using design setting/elements derived from education standards analysis.
The project utilizes these research foundations and conceptually applies them to the schoolyard site at J.B. Stephens, a K-3 elementary school in Greenfield, Indiana.
Viewed through the lens of Robin Moore’s “Nature Play and Learning Places”, current approaches in schoolyard redesign and rooted in Indiana STEM standards, this project advocates that a schoolyard redesign may be the perfect place to achieve a significant impact in standards-based STEM learning while also connecting children holistically to nature and natural elements.
Relationships Investigated - STEM
STEM is a popular discussion topic having been in the national spotlight for the last fifteen years. The U.S. Department of Education postulates that the United States’ position as a global leader has been achieved largely in part by STEM via “the genius and hard work of scientists, engineers, and innovators” (2016). Proponents of STEM are grounded in the belief that as the world becomes increasingly complex, so will the demands for solutions to our world’s future economic, environmental, energy, and social issues. One of the goals of STEM teaching/learning is for students to access conceptual thinking. This type of learning allows students to begin to make connections with and deeply understand the ever-evolving world around them (“the all and all”). With concepts of nature being at the core of STEM for grades K – 3 in Indiana, purposefully designed nature-based outdoor learning environments with STEM in mind could immensely aid student learning of those subjects. The opportunity for elements of nature to help reinforce STEM standards is great.
Nature Play Settings
Currently, a movement is gaining ground to engage children with nature and natural environments. Proponents of this movement suggest a future that will require a literacy in something beyond the traditional disciplines; an understanding in the subject to which much our taught disciplines respond – nature. Nature play is used to describe an experience that connotes an integration of the natural environment into a play one; playing in or with nature. Moore describes nature play as, “a learning process, engaging children in working together to develop physical skills, to exercise their imaginations, to stimulate poetic expression, to begin to understand the workings of the world around them” (Moore, 2014). Succinctly, one key element that separates a nature play environment from other play environments is its emphasis on natural materials. Nature play AND learning places are "designated, managed location[s] in an existing or modified outdoor environment where children of all ages and abilities play and learn by engaging with and manipulating diverse natural elements, materials, organisms, and habitats, through sensory, fine motor, and gross motor experiences" (Moore, 2014).
Current Approaches in Schoolyard Redesign
Schoolyards are quickly becoming thought of as highly valuable public assets. For some communities, they are they only viable, playable, and accessible “green” spaces. Unfortunately, these “greenspaces” are not all that often green, rather, many consist of exorbitant amounts of asphalt, little shade, inadequate or outdated play structures, and potentially harmful tire-chip ground surfacing. The benefits of schoolyard redesign are not only experienced by the students but can also be felt by the teachers/administrators as well as the surrounding community. Various groups have taken a great interest in the value and potential that schoolyards have in their local communities for play, learning, stormwater management, neighborhood strengthening, crime reduction, community events, programming, physical activity and exercise, etc.
Methods of Inquiry
Much literature has been sifted through in unearthing the importance of the nature connection, the definition and illustration of nature play, current approaches in schoolyard redesign, and STEM education standards.
Within the background literature, dozens of case studies provide focused guidance on successful interventions and design elements. From these studies, lists of activity settings and design elements have been compiled and organized.
In 2014, the author was personally asked to conduct a design charrette with the fifth grade classes of Yorktown Elementary. The students desired to re-imagine the playground of their school. Students drew base plans of the existing schoolyard and collected digital images of outdoor play spaces that they were attracted to or in which they wanted to play. Acting as student-designers, the students prepared questions to ask the principal about her desires for the schoolyard. In the final meeting, students shared their drawings with the rest of the school. Lessons learned from this experience were profound.
Critical to this project is the identification/analysis of the state education standards that relate to STEM. Using curriculum maps provided to educators by the IDOE, this project identified the K-3 overarching lines of inquiry, overlapping grade-level themes, and essential vocabulary. In addition, the project employed the author’s former experience as an educator to compile a list of specific teaching tools or elements necessary to effectively teach those STEM lines of inquiry. This list is non exhaustive and was confirmed/added to by a current JBS teachers. Together, those tools, aids, and ideal spatial requirements helped to inform various types of designed spaces and elements (derived from a multitude of schoolyard redesign and nature play case studies) that maximize opportunities for STEM teaching/learning.
Conclusions/ Applicability to LA
This project aims to advance the value of the landscape designer who analyzes Indiana STEM standards and then connects those standards to the specific designed environments/features with which they align. In this way, the designer provides a tool for school administrators, legislators, and decision-makers to see, articulated and illustrated, the explicit links between STEM and designed nature play spaces. Consequently, by designing with STEM in mind, the project opens itself up to be potentially funded by grants/monies geared towards STEM learning; “Playgrounds do not get funding, outdoor learning environments do” (Moore & Cosco, 2015). By using schoolyards as a location to create these outdoor learning environments, the benefits are manifold. Proponents of STEM see illustrated connections and an enriching way to support STEM learning. Schoolyards in need of renovation become natural learning environments creating a win for the nature play movement – connecting children to natural elements & research-proven benefits of nature. The schoolyard (a common element in most communities) becomes an access point to nature, natural elements, and play in a meaningful place. The community benefits from increased natural green space, not to mention, the many other sustainability benefits such as stormwater management, habitat creation, etc. These benefits align with many of the current principles of landscape architecture.
It is easy to recognize how STE(A)M (“arts”) might be stitched into this type of framework. Still, other peripheral subjects) can be incorporated and supported by nature-based design/activity settings. Future research and analysis can be conducted to demonstrate how other standards-based education subjects can be supported and enhanced by nature and natural elements in a schoolyard setting. Additionally, there is a great need for quantitative data regarding the benefits of nature on students’ learning and education.
Nature and the rigid walls of academic disciplines do not have to exist in opposition to each other. Instead, as this project demonstrates, through proper analysis, nature and design can be used as a tool to enhance STEM subjects. A schoolyard may be redesigned to function as not only a place of unstructured play but also a place that maximizes opportunities for teaching and learning. Like a flower in a crannied wall, the schoolyard can become a place that quenches, in part, the thirst of a 21st century child in need of exposure to nature, giving our children an experience and an opportunity to “understand the root & all, & all & all”. This poetic phrase being perhaps, the primary goal of STEM and standards-based education after all.
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