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Participatory design in action at Hawthorne Village Public School

Learn how one school in Ontario is redesigning their outdoor space, inspired by the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation report.
Top image caption: Grade 7 students at Hawthorne Village Public School gather around a Wampum belt

Published on June 23, 2017

When Hawthorne Village Public School in Milton, Ont. began redesigning their outdoor space, they strived to create a responsive ecological design while acknowledging the value added to their initiative by a diversity of voices. The school’s journey through the participatory design process involved local Indigenous leaders in a spirit of mutual respect, resulting in a fulfilling experience that integrated into their school-wide efforts towards Reconciliation.

Throughout the school year, students from grades 3 and 7 have been exploring Indigenous history, culture, land-based teachings and the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

With the help of an Outdoor Experiential Education Special Projects grant from the Halton District School Board, teachers were able to enhance their curriculum and invite Indigenous guest speakers to their classrooms. In the winter, the grade 7 students hosted an event called "Night of Truth," welcoming the wider community to share in their learnings. In attendance were members of the school board, the Ministry of Education and the Mayor of Milton. A local elder, Steve Paquette, assisted the students in presenting their recommendations to the mayor, including a formal acknowledgement at all council meetings that Milton sits on the traditional territory of the Mississauga's of New Credit.

Teachers- Sarah Patterson, Christine Vanderwal, Shannon Jacobs, Shari Keast with a quilt designed by Grade 7 students to represent different aspects of indigenous culture.
Teachers- Sarah Patterson, Christine Vanderwal, Shannon Jacobs, Shari Keast with a quilt designed by Grade 7 students to represent different aspects of indigenous culture.

The scope and variety of partnerships helping transform Canada's school grounds are remarkable and showcase the creativity and ingenuity of schools and their communities. We’ve learned that schools benefit when there are more hands to help, when decisions are representative of the school community and its neighbours, and when diverse skills contribute to creative and tailored solutions. Adopting a participatory approach to school ground greening creates a strong sense of involvement and ownership, which improves the likelihood of long-term support and, therefore, success.

The gardens at Hawthorne Village have always been a place to foster imaginative play and outdoor experiential learning. However, this year, with the help of teachers, Vice Principal Shelley Wigle, the school council and Evergreen design consultant Kim Napier, students engaged in a participatory design process to enhance connections between the gardens, the Outdoor Classroom, and their Indigenous learnings.

Students learn about the Wampum Belt in their classroom
Students learn about the Wampum Belt in their classroom

After reading the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, Suzanne Burwell, the Environmental Sustainability Coordinator for HDSB, encouraged the school to engage the Indigenous Educational Advisory Council (IEAC) in the participatory design process. The school presented their design ideas to the council at their monthly meeting at Crawford Lake. Council members contributed thoughts, suggestions, considerations for future planning and modifications to the outdoor structure. They encouraged the school to integrate culturally and historically appropriate representations of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation when creating a monument to residential school survivors. This small act of engagement has reaped enormous benefits for the school as they learned the valuable lesson of integrating garden elements that recognize the ongoing contributions of Indigenous communities, while maintaining a suitable play space for students.

The Outdoor Garden Planning Team got to work sending surveys to students, parents and teachers in order to gather ideas and perspectives on the new outdoor space. The students analyzed all the data to determine the common themes, and shared ideas for the new outdoor garden and play space. After conducting research, sketching their ideas and integrating the community feedback, Kim Napier and Suzanne Burwell facilitated a collaborative design session with the students. Kim and Suzanne asked questions about the students’ ideas, suggested what should or would need to be considered when completing this new structure and gave positive feedback to the students. Kim listened to the students ideas, took copies of their sketches and incorporated them into the design.

The outcome was to use the very symbolic turtle shell and create not only a learning space, but a multi-purpose form of art in the landscape with integrative properties to allow for play. Indigenous influences in the garden include native medicinal plants, the moon cycles and the ‘Three Sisters’ crops, grown from seed by the grade 3 team. The project is set to be installed in fall 2017 thanks to the hard work of Outdoor Garden Planning Team and the IEAC's support. To honour and recognize the survivors of Residential Schools, a commemorative plaque will be installed in the garden space.

A sketch of the school's newest addition.

"This entire Outdoor Experiential Education Special Project, including the planning process for our new ‘Turtle Garden,' the research of current and historical indigenous culture with current issues, the planting of the Three Sisters, along with our Night of Truth have collectively resulted in a deep and rich Inquiry Based Learning experience for our students," said Wigle.

Overall, this project has built a greater connection with the outdoors as a learning space and created ownership of the school garden area. Students have developed a respect for the environment and our connections to history. By participating in a design process, they now have a meaningful connection to the school ground greening process while developing a greater capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect. Although it takes more time, skill and energy to bring more voices and opinions together, the result is a deeper connection between the nature and people that sustain our communities.

For more information on the principles of participatory design, read our online resource, All Hands in the Dirt.