Thursday, December 13, 2012

Top Ten Reasons to have an Outdoor Classroom in Every Schoolyard

Short on time (hence the lack of commentary) but here's a useful write-up from the Green Schoolyard network on the benefits of outdoor classrooms...

Top Ten Reasons to have an Outdoor Classroom in Every Schoolyard

Edible Schoolyard NYC (
Note the central placement of the outdoor classroom...
(1) Shifts educational focus from secondary to primary sources.Traditional classroom teaching uses textbooks, lectures, video and the internet as instructional tools. The Outdoor Classroom exposes students through direct experience to nature areas and demonstration models such as weather stations, water flow systems and renewable energy installations.

(2) Uses experiential teaching methodologies to engage students. The Outdoor Classroom fosters active, hands-on, inquiry-based learning in a real world setting. Through group problem-solving activities students embrace the learning process as well as seeking final outcomes.

(3) Makes learning a multi-sensory experience. By engaging the senses of touch, smell, hearing, taste and seeing, students retain an intimate physical memory of activities that are long lasting and synergistic. E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis reminds us that the human species, having evolved in the natural world, has a deeply-rooted need to associate and connect with nature.

(4) Fosters the use of systems thinking. As a mini-ecosystem, the Outdoor Classroom emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things. Through exposure to the intricate web of life, students come to understand that complex natural and societal systems often require holistic rather than linear solutions.

(5) Lends itself to inter-disciplinary studies. In seeking a holistic understanding of the outdoor classroom it is often necessary, and desirable, to employ multiple academic disciplines. Laying out a planting bed requires math skills. Distinguishing native from non-native plants provides an opportunity for social studies. Creating a scarecrow is an art project. A garden journal will foster writing and drawing skills.

(6) Recognizes and celebrates differing learning styles. As popularized in Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, people have a variety of aptitudes and ways of learning. Although some students thrive in a text-based environment, others will benefit from a more experiential approach. For example, ESL students, SPED students, and students where reading is not prioritized at home – those that comprise the so-called Achievement Gap – may contribute more in the Outdoor Classroom.

(7) Connects the school to the neighborhood and the world-at-large. Through learning and stewardship activities students come to understand that their schoolyard microcosm reflects global environmental issues. Proximity to the surrounding neighborhood often leads to service learning projects that emphasize social involvement and responsibility. Accessibility to the Outdoor Classroom provides opportunities for out-of-school time programming. High visibility and interest encourages local volunteerism.

(8) Design and installation is a modest capital expense. School systems often struggle with budgetary issues in prioritizing initiatives. The cost/benefit ratio for installing and sustaining an Outdoor Classroom is attractive and the goal of an Outdoor Classroom in every schoolyard is achievable.

(9) Projects a positive message about public education.Schoolyards can be degraded and unsafe or vibrant, dynamic school/community open spaces. Either way, we send a message to students and neighborhood about how much we value the education of our children. The Outdoor Classroom is a reminder that innovation is alive and well in public education.

(10) Blurs the boundaries between academic learning and creative play. Kids love the Outdoor Classroom. When a teacher asks who wants to go outside every hand is raised. Absenteeism goes down on Outdoor Classroom days. By preserving a child’s innate sense of curiosity and wonder we will foster active and engaged life long learners. Yes, learning can be FUN!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What on Earth is "Regeneration"?

Language matters.

To this end, I’d like to clarify what I mean when I refer to “regeneration” or “restoration” (e.g. an “ecologically regenerative” food system).

These aren’t terms that have, as of yet, become as widely recognized (or watered down) as “sustainability”. 

So what do I mean? 

Toby Hemmingway has broken it down quite well in his “Rules for Resource Use”: 

Rules for Resource Use:
Ranked from regenerative to degenerative, different resources can:
  1. Increase with use
  2. Be lost when not used
  3. Be unaffected by use
  4. Be lost by use
  5. Pollute or degrade systems with use

I advocate the viral spread of social, economic and ecological systems and institutions that steer all spheres all of human activity toward the first category, in the shortest amount of time possible; this is “regeneration”. 

To merely promote “sustainability” (category 3) is not enough; why should we even strive for something that will not directly rebuild erroded topsoil, restore polluted watersheds, heal the damage done by deforestation, reverse the effects of climate change (to the extent that we can, over long time scales), break down the piles of nuclear waste back into benign constituents (something I dearly hope we figure out how to do), bioremediate toxic land, and begin the long road back from our unprecedented period of biodiversity loss (a mass extinction on par in its scale with that of the dinosaurs)? 

Is that really a world we wish to “sustain”? I think we can do better. Throughout this blog, I will highlight as many real-world examples of "regenerative" practices in action as possible.

I wouldn't want to leave you discouraged, so here's an entertaining, one minute video about The Plant in Chicago that is sure to boost your spirits. It also happens to incorporate various elements of regenerative design in action — integrating mutually beneficial relationships, bringing economic revitalization to an underserved community, creating a space for small business incubation/collaboration, the recycling/reuse of all "waste", the use of an existing/underutilized building vs. building "green" from scratch, and lots more. Learn more about it here!

Alongside my “no” to sustainability, there is a great leaping “YES!” to regeneration... and now, I hope, you have a clearer understanding of why.

Further fun:

(1) Go outside :-)
(2) Learn more about regenerative design here:  

*Image courtesy of M. Powell.