School landscaping has traditionally produced fairly straightforward plans of open lawns with play yards or athletic fields scattered about. A few sturdy evergreen shrubs to hug the building and deciduous trees for shade might provide interest. Today’s plans for schools treat the schoolyard as an extension of learning spaces in the school. Students, parents and teachers are often part of the planning process that was once the province of school boards and architects.
School landscaping must be utilitarian but should also provide outdoor learning spaces. In places where an effort has begun to design (or re-invent) school campuses as “learnscapes,” environmental laboratories and arboretums have become part of the school architect’s vocabulary. The side of a north or east-facing hill can be terraced into a few rows of seating for environmental education or high school classes. Some areas provide boulders to make back rests or define spaces, as well as examples of types of rock for science experiments. Provide shade and definition the perimeter of classrooms with smaller native trees, like birches and conifers. Involve students in choosing native species and in engineering their placement. The resulting landscape will invite the community into the school yard as well.
School boards can learn from parent groups who contribute safe play equipment made of natural materials and recycled rubber to replace dangerous surfaces. Parent groups are a natural choice to take leadership in more ambitious play area projects. The National Child Care Information and Technical Assistance Center of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides guidance on safe playgrounds and Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility. The department also offers contact information for organizations that can provide contacts for help in developing play area plans, community partnerships and zone-model playgrounds which provide different play areas for children of different ages or have varying needs (see Resources).
Sense of Place Projects
Eventually, the arborvitae planted in the 1950s will grow ungainly and new diseases will take old trees. Replace old trees with native species, from oaks to redwoods, because native woods require less maintenance. Involve the community and students in projects on the grounds that replace old plantings with environmental areas that reflect the climate and geography of the local area. A prairie garden replaces turf grass in a large, flat, open area with plants and wildflowers native to a temperate-zone area. Rain gardens are collections of moisture-loving and marsh plants that students can assemble in low areas that do not drain well. Both will require students and community volunteers to root out invasive plants. Local university extension or natural resources department field offices are good resources for information or even educators to help supervise the projects.
Instead of sitting in class watching the custodian mow grass and prune shrubs, classes can “adopt” small areas of the landscape to become stakeholders in their school’s environment. For the investment of a few class periods a week, students can develop a personal stake in the landscape by developing small areas, called arbors, with foliage and seating. They can plant and maintain shrub roses or dogwoods along walkways. The main rules for designs would be that areas are easily visible from the school or other areas of the property (no bushy, short evergreen shrubs), that plantings be native species and that the class that plants them maintains them.