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Restoring your school grounds is about restoring a spirit of place. School grounds are special places for play and for learning, and nature has an important role in both. For children, school grounds are the setting where they develop lifelong social skills and receive subtle messages about what matters in their social and physical environment.
Naturalizing school grounds necessitates learning how to read the landscape. Observing the stories in the landscape guides the naturalization of your site. The inspiration for improving school grounds comes from people of varying ages, personalities, skills and experience. It is their collective vision of what the site can become that will transform your school grounds from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Focus on two key issues throughout the naturalization process: ecological design, that is how to develop a design that is responsive to the landscape as well as to all of its inhabitants, human and non-human; and group process, how to move the project along in a way that involves and respects the input of everyone who might have an interest.
Every landscape design should be an expression of the conditions --built and natural-- of your local "bioregion." Every project is unique and should reflect local conditions and the interests of participants.
Geraldine Payton, Columbiana Magazine, Journal of the Intermountain Northwest, Summer, 1988
The following four guiding principles will help you to translate the values of ecological design and group process into action. Using them as the foundation of your design process will create an ethic of stewardship to foster and sustain your school ground naturalization project. These principles are the foundation of the participatory design process.
Create a design process that responds to your school's ecological setting and to the community in which it is situated. Design with the understanding that both nature and communities are continually changing and evolving.
An ecological design strives for a balance between a site's natural history, its current ecological setting and human interaction with the area. It encourages diversity and the nurturing of communities of species using community-based processes and allowing for creative expression. One of the most important goals of ecological restoration is the creation of natural corridors between ecosystem fragments. Although the possibilities for creating corridors are limited by the size and surroundings of the school grounds, one effective natural corridor could be a hedgerow or a planting along a fenceline.
Using responsive design provides powerful opportunities for those involved to make connections between their daily lives and the natural resources that sustain them. Where does our food come from? What species of wildlife roamed these river valleys? What medicinal uses do native plants have? What plants do insects, birds and other animals eat? How did this landscape sustain Native peoples' needs for food, travel and shelter? What materials have been used to build our homes and workplaces? Understanding these relationships will help root us firmly in our home landscapes.
Responsive ecological design means adapting your design as natural conditions dictate. For example, if some species don't survive, you'll have to adapt your plant list and planting order. If invasive plants take hold, you'll need to spend more time weeding than originally planned.
Just as natural conditions change, so too will the school community. The size and makeup of your committee will likely change each year. Incoming members will bring much-needed new skills, while the departure of others may leave a skills gap in your group. Or, if you exceed your fundraising expectations, you may be able to plant the woodland garden you had planned ahead of schedule.
A responsive design process involves periodically taking stock of the challenges and opportunities brought about by changes in the natural environment and community and responding to them. In so doing, you will be able to keep your eyes on your long-term goals while adjusting, when necessary, the numerous elements that are helping you to achieve those goals. Strategies for achieving a responsive design are explored in greater detail throughout this book.
Using a participatory process means inviting everyone who might have an interest in the school grounds, or may be affected by them, to provide input and participate. A partial list includes teachers, caretakers, parents, the principal, school administrators, neighbours living adjacent to the school and, most importantly, students.
A participatory process involves working together in a spirit of mutual respect and acknowledging that each person brings something of value to the initiative. It is about inviting the school community, including its neighbours, to create a collective vision, to determine the agenda and, later on, to carry it out.
Transforming the school grounds provides a wealth of exciting learning opportunities, full of possibility and reward. For a naturalization project to be successful at school, every effort should be made to integrate the development, monitoring and maintenance of the grounds with what happens in the classroom. The opportunities for engaging students are tremendous across the full range of subject areas. St. Monica's Catholic School in Barrie, Ontario has taken advantage of this opportunity by creating a full-time school garden teaching position.
Connecting to the classroom recognizes the critical role that teachers play, both in realizing a project and maximizing the educational value of it. There are a growing number of resources that support teachers in capturing the power of hands-on learning while meeting their prescribed curriculum requirements. For a partial list of curriculum-based resources for the outdoor classroom, see the reference section.
No discussion of a participatory approach would be complete without mention of the importance of partnerships. Reaching out beyond the school community for everything from dollars to materials to specialized advice will help your group achieve all that it sets out to do while engaging others in the joy of helping to realize a good idea.
The scope and variety of partnerships helping transform Canada's school grounds are remarkable, as are the creativity and ingenuity. Some examples of partnerships we've learned about include:
As you proceed through the following chapters, keep in mind the four principles discussed in this chapter. Regardless of what task you are working on -- design, fundraising, planting, outreach, communications -- striving for a responsive and adaptable design, broad-based participation and opportunities to connect to the curriculum and to the broader community will become the keys to a successful and sustainable school ground naturalization initiative.
At Blueridge Elementary in North Vancouver, British Columbia, staff, parents and students have been working together to extend the learning environment beyond the school building. As with any new undertaking, our outdoor classroom project has, from time to time, been overwhelming. Here are a few of the lessons we have learned in creating the gardens;
Submitted by: Jackie Best, Blueridge Elementary, North Vancouver, British Columbia
Between starting up and breaking ground, there will be many decisions to make, so it's important to agree on some ground rules. Just as with a participatory approach, there is a way to make decisions that respects different points of view -- through consensus. Unlike taking a majority vote, making decisions by consensus requires participants to try to reach agreement before a decision is finalized. Deciding by consensus can be done by any group -- from senior managers to school-aged children.
Before implementing consensus decision making, everyone must agree to the process. Generally, it works best in small groups as it is more feasible to hear everyone's view. As with the participatory approach, deciding by consensus takes time and commitment to the process.
Choose a facilitator. His or her task is to remain impartial, keep the discussion focused and ensure that all members have an opportunity to express their views.
Explain that when a participant puts forward an issue for discussion, each member of the group is allowed a chance to voice approval or concern.
Following the discussion, the facilitator asks if there are any unresolved issues or concerns.
If there are not and everyone agrees, the decision is made. If consensus is not achieved, however, the discussion continues. Each member of the group has a chance to voice his or her opinion without interruption.
Following the round, the facilitator may summarize the views that have been expressed. Someone suggests a decision, again seeking the agreement of other members.
The proposed decision is discussed and adapted until everyone agrees with it or at least can live with it.
Remember, some decisions will be made quickly and easily while others will be more difficult to reach. In some cases, a previously agreed upon "backup process," such as taking a break to think things through or breaking into small discussion groups, may be necessary.
Given that any project is the result of a large number of decisions, it makes sense to delegate decision-making powers to smaller groups. Reserve large group decision making for key decisions. This will help focus all meetings on pursuing action items and will keep participants more actively involved.
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