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Benefits outweigh the risks in outdoor education at the 2013 Nature School Conference

Published on November 19, 2013

The Nature School Coference. Photo: Mike Derblich.
The 2013 Nature School Conference in session at Evergreen Brick Works (Photo: Mike Derblich)

By Cam Collyer

In late September, Evergreen and the International School Grounds Alliance brought 140 inspired individuals together at Evergreen Brick Works for a rich exchange about the rewards and challenges involved in bringing nature to schools. The 2013 Nature School Conference was intended to encourage international cooperation within the school-ground greening movement, and to share ideas around the themes of risk and play, hands-on learning and scaling up the movement.

Case studies were an integral part of the proceedings, and landscape architects Dr. Ko Senda of Tokyo and Birgit Teichmann of Berlin, captivated participants with the depth and breadth of their designs, and with their commitment to high-quality children’s environments.

With risk-averse approaches to school-ground development increasing around the world, the conference sessions on risk proved both critical and challenging. Practitioners from the UK and the US led participants through their current work, revealing new ideas and a taking a provocative look at what the statistics are actually telling us. Key moments in this dialogue included the suggestion that discussions about risk start by listing the benefits that risk provides students for their physical, social, emotional and intellectual development. New frameworks for working through institutional risk assessment offer much promise for the Canadian context.

The hands-on learning sessions included presentations from staff at the Nature School in Lund, Sweden, and by celebrated international leader Sue Humphries from the Coombes School in England. Sue led the entire group through an animated session inspired by the work of internationally celebrated artist Christo, cloaking pockets of the Evergreen Brick Works landscape in cloth, ribbon and binding. The session was provocative, revealing the power of an artistic act to create compelling new interest and inspiration from the everyday landscape.

L: Participants with their artistic Christo-inspired creation. R: A presentation on design during the conference. Photo: Bill Wilson.
L: Participants with their Christo-inspired creation (Photo: Sharon Danks) R: One of the breakout sessions on design (Photo: Bill Wilson)

Lastly, there was an abundance of international innovation on display through case studies and panels that focused on local, regional and national models of innovation. The content was rich, including a review of the first 20 years of the Boston Schoolyard Initiative and a discussion of how the Trust for Public Lands’ partnership with New York City helped make over many of that city's school grounds. The sessions also saw examples from Europe, including the incredible work of Grün macht Schule in Berlin and the Nature School in Lund, Sweden. Closer to home, inspired examples of institutional change came from San Francisco and Evergreen in Canada. We also saw a new report from TD Friends of the Environment Foundation on a number of the schools that they have granted funds to in the past decade.

Altogether, participants—including a number of school board officials in attendance—had many questions and an active interest in trying to understand how variations on these models might unlock change at a new scale in their own jurisdictions. The inaugural Nature School Conference was a resounding success, leading the charge for growing the Children and Nature movement across the world.