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Nature by Design

Toyota Playground Placemaker Award winner Sandy Clee is creating a new standard for what ‘green’ learning spaces should look like.
Top image caption: Students and teachers have a lesson outside.

Published on September 13, 2016

Sandy Clee doesn’t just step outside the box—she leaps outside the box with her creativity, passion and leadership to provide every Kindergarten class in the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) with a naturalized play-space.

The Toyota Playground Placemaker Award recognizes outstanding innovation in the creation or activation of a Children’s Nature Playground and Sandy Clee, the Senior Planner at the SCDSB in Central Ontario, has done that times a hundred. She spent the past five years working tirelessly to create a new standard for what ‘green’ spaces should look like in not just one school but all of the region’s school yards. These spaces are now being installed in most of the elementary schools in the SCDSB, with the remaining ones to be completed within the next year.

With more than 25 years of planning experience, Sandy collaborates with a diverse team of professionals including educators, designers, engineers and school board staff to develop a natural play-space design that inspires, makes connections to nature, encourages beneficial risk and provides a space for educators to teach. The spaces are designed to engage all of the senses with things to touch, smell, hear, manipulate and climb-on. Sandy also believes that the spaces should challenge the children’s gross motor skills, and encourages them to take ‘safe’ risks—risks that are not available to children in the average modern schoolyard—a concept that has transformed school-ground play-spaces and provided multiple benefits to children.

Sandy insists on accepting this Evergreen City Builders Award on behalf of her team. A true collaborator, Sandy led a group in developing workshops for educators to further their understanding and confidence in utilizing these naturalized play spaces. This work has led to a provincial study on outdoor learning and self-regulation.

The stories she hears back from the schools, parents, teachers, and students are very exciting she says, and demonstrates the learning and exploration that comes out of these spaces has completely transformed the pedagogy.

Evergreen asked Sandy about what her next projects are, who inspires her and what the best decision she ever made was.

Evergreen: When you are not reimagining fabulous nature space, what else do you like to do? 

Sandy: I love to be on the water, be it water skiing, fishing, kayaking, swimming. Love digging and creating gardens. But the most fun I have is exploring spaces with my kids, I am the ‘street mom’ that will explore a stream with the kids, and then next thing we are all swimming in it, clothes and all!

Evergreen: What project/initiative/idea are you most excited about right now?

Sandy: To augment the natural playgrounds with the creation of natural spaces on our school sites. We are exploring the option of contracting the Conservation Authority (CA) to help us design and build natural areas in each of our school yards. The plan is to use the expertise of the CA’s stewardship program to help us choose plant species for the areas that are wet/dry/barren, create a plan, then have the educational division along with our Board staff to have the children grow the plants and transplant them in the targeted space creating what was envisioned. The goal is to create 45 acres of natural space in our school yards, connect students to the natural world, and bring back stewardship/ownership of everyone at the school, and of course reduce our carbon footprint.

Evergreen: What is the best decision you have ever made?

Sandy: Developing an implementation strategy to ensure the Board’s outdoor space was able to be used for instructional time. The strategy included: removal of fences, creation of natural playgrounds, professional development, hiring an outdoor coordinator to model outdoor instruction, parent engagement and research. Each and every piece is crucial to the success of a system change, “if you build something, they do not necessarily come.” We all need to be reminded how important our natural world is, and be comfortable in it, but most importantly allow ourselves to be free to discover again—this is actually the most difficult part!

Evergreen: Is there a person who has had a big impact on you as a leader or mentor? How have they had impact on the work you are most passionate about today?

Sandy: This may be silly, but it is Lady Diana. As a young adult I saw how one person can make a change. She was shy, went about her business quietly, but most important she modeled behaviour. Instead of fundraising for AIDS, which would have been so easy for her, she actually visited hospitals with AIDS patients, she shook their hand, she showed compassion, but most importantly she showed that fear of the unknown is not a solution, every person/living thing deserves respect and dignity.

This has been my philosophy, one needs to model and be a part of the change, there will always be those who are scared, but if you are able to show success, even the naysayers eventually buy in, as they begin to feel that they are missing out!

Evergreen: What are the biggest challenge that you are facing right now?

Sandy: Time. The school board is changing so quickly—we are not able to keep up with the requests from schools to continue this movement at the pace that is needed.

Evergreen: What was your dream job as a kid and why?

Sandy: I wanted to discover a natural diverse area in Canada and create a national park! So it is quite ironic that I am in a position to help create tiny spaces exposing students to our natural world. These tiny spaces can impact exponentially, children are benefiting emotionally, physically and environmentally. Perhaps these opportunities change students and educators for life—imagine that!

Evergreen: What is the one thing you know now that you wish you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self?

Sandy: I would tell my 16-year-old self that I should ask more questions, talk to more people, and never be embarrassed at wanting to have fun exploring and getting dirty. As I reach out to individuals to help the board with our outdoor initiatives, it ceases to amaze me how open and willing people are to help, get involved, be part of change. If I knew the generosity of people and how easy it is to make a difference, I might have done something amazing a long time ago!

Evergreen: Anything new we should know about?

Sandy: The outdoor initiative is a team approach. Without the support of these other “hippies” at the Board, none of this would have happened.

  • Kathleen Corrigan – retired Early Years Consultant – together we ensured the outdoor space was part of the Full Day Kindergarten curriculum.
  • Rick Mutuchky -  Central Operations Supervisor – Rick builds and maintains these areas, he is constantly finding ways to improve our design and function of the spaces.
  • Steve Parker, Manager of Design and Construction, who ensured that our built schools support students to be able to use the school yard, from designing rooms with cubbies, washrooms and doors to the outside, to redesigning new schools to ensure our students exit onto green space not parking lots.
  • Jessica Kukac – Environmental Coordinator – Jess and I organized our first PD – Hands in the Dirt which was the first every outdoor PD for our educators. Jess also helps with securing grant money and experts to help us expand our program.
  • John Dance, Superintendent of Facility Services, who approved the budget and allowed us to work on this initiative.
  • Erin Schwarz – Corporate Risk Officer, who said yes to our crazy ideas, supporting us with the creation of “Beneficial Risk” yards.
  • Heather Ma – Early Years Consultant, who diligently helped provide PD to our educators, and consistently spreads the message that outdoor instructional time is important to the overall growth of children.
  • Crystal Carbino, Designated Early Childhood Educator, who has jumped in with both feet with her goal to train and embrace the need for outdoor instructional time.
  • Marsha Walker – Child Care Planner, Masha ensures our child care partners are involved in each and every stage, providing us opportunities to impact our youngest learners!
  • Scott Martin – Outdoor Education Coordinator, who visited each and every one of kindergarten classes, modelling how easy it is to use the outdoor space as an extension of the classroom.
  • Julie Fisher – Executive Assistant, Julie has our back at every turn, she ensures everything we do is timely, productive and impactful, and of course she makes sure everyone is fed!
  • Paula Murphy – Superintendent Early Years, without Paula’s support, hands on approach and backing each and every one of our crazy ideas, we would never have come this far.
  • Bill Kilburn, Back 2 Nature, who has supported our PD opportunities, and research needs. Bill makes you stretch your imagination, and helps you realize your inner dreams.

Evergreen congratulates Sandy Clee on her incredible work and looks forward to celebrating her achievements on September 17th at the Wild in the City gala

Since 1991, Evergreen has been leading the school-ground greening movement, working to build natural school ground landscapes for hands-on environmental learning. Through the Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds Program, Evergreen taught the value of nature to 1,199,764 students across the country, supporting over 5,000 schools through expert assistance and $3,504,242 in grants.