When schools investigate how to enhance learning environments for their students, there is a tendency to look towards the built structures – the classrooms, the libraries, the sports halls. But I rather prefer the concept of school as a complete learning ecosystem, with the internal and external spaces working together to provide a full learning experience.
The design of effective learning environments needs to consider not just the architecture or the interior design, but critically the ‘spaces in between’ – the outdoor learning spaces linking built forms. One of the most engaging examples of this I have been fortunate to see (in the planning stages) is the Iona Presentation College Junior Campus Playspace by the incredible landscape architects Four Landscape Studio.
This transitional space provides a number of different functions. Practically, this area provides an important physical connection across a space that has nearly 4m difference in height. Large height differences within a school can be challenging, particularly when considering equitable access. Ideally, all users, including students and visitors, should be able to move throughout the school with a level of choice. This design allows users to choose to traverse via a ramp, stairs, a slide, rocks, concrete piers and logs. Providing different options enables students to choose their own adventure as they use the various pathways, allowing student agency in how they access their spaces. So the first lesson this design teaches us is about the value the journey can provide to the destination, especially when students have the opportunity to choose their own adventure.
Students learn lots of things at school. In addition to curriculum, they learn about themselves and their place in the world. As young children test their limits of risk, danger, balance and collaboration, they require environments which encourage this enquiry. This learning scape encourages students to explore their abilities through changes in material, height, width and surface treatment. Students can test how high they can jump, how long they can balance, what surfaces they can climb etc. And then can identify how those skills can change and evolve, based on what they choose to invest their time in.
Whatever you may choose to believe, our climate is changing, and people are getting more disconnected from the natural world. Including natural elements in an external learning environment teaches students about the world around them, as they interact with elements like water and rocks. Additionally they witness the effects of the changing seasons on their learning throughout the school year.
I have followed this project with interest since my move and it has been so heartening to hear how the students have embraced their new space. 4LS worked with the school’s brief to create a a bridge between formal and experiential learning, and they have fulfilled this in an inspirational and challenging way. Having a variety of learning opportunities encourages students to develop their skills and examine their own potential. It is safe to say the students, and staff, are taking full advantage of their latest learning environment.
Throughout the early years of learning, it is paramount that children have the time to experiment with their abilities in a safe environment. Yes, there are some tricky areas throughout the Nature Playscape, and some children will find it difficult to navigate these area; however it its during this time that they will use their problem-solving skills. They will take calculated risks and develop a wonderful sense of achievement when they succeed.Head of Junior School Ray Rose
What stands here today is much more than just a playground. It’s a learning opportunity, it’s a conversation starter, it’s an escape, it’s a place where our students are reminded about the fundamental aspects of being young, adventurous and free, put simply it’s a place to have FUN!Year 5 Teacher Nikk Wright
The most valuable element about our new play space is that it is flexible. One day it can accommodate scientists, dancers and builders; the next mermaids, chefs and gardeners and the exciting part is that none of us know what it will be tomorrow.Early Learning Centre Teacher Kelli Lynch
There really is something for everyone! For the daring and for the not so daring! For the athletic and the not so athletic! For little people and big people…This space allows up to promote positive play, foster friendships, encourage environmental awareness, set physical challenges in a ‘share and care’ environment… Best of all we just love playing in the sunshine together!Student
Who wouldn’t want a learning experience like that in their school?
External learning scapes are integrally as important as internal learning scapes, to the effective learning within a school. As architects we recognise the research and case study precedents around forming effective learning environments through the design of a variety of authentic, flexible, purposeful spaces. But we often concentrate on the internal space, to the neglect of outside spaces. I believe the external spaces should be designed the same way, to provide students the space and opportunity to direct and inspire their own learning journeys. Just as this learning scape from 4LS does so very well.
Thank you to Four Landscape Studio for sharing the school’s comments with me, and for creating a truly wonderful project. All photographs (c) Silvertone Photography.
Happy outdoor learning!