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Renowned Landscape Architect Birgit Teichmann Talks Outdoor Classrooms

Teichmann has been reimagining school grounds as resilient ecosystems that foster learning and play for decades.

Children playing in an outdoor school ground

Published on November 23, 2020

How much do you know about outdoor classrooms? Chances are, more than you did before the start of the pandemic. 

The need for learning spaces with room for social distancing and proper ventilation has launched outdoor classrooms into the public consciousness. But for acclaimed landscape architect Birgit Teichmann, the need for outdoor learning is nothing new. 

Teichmann has earned international renown by reimagining school grounds as resilient ecosystems that foster learning and play for decades, in her home city of Berlin and around the world. Her designs replace asphalt with greenery and nature-based design features, and help manage stormwater and high temperatures. 

She shares these insights in a conversation with Jewel Amoah, Human Rights and Equity Advisor, Halton District School Board, and Maia Puccetti, Executive Officer of Facility Services and Planning, Toronto District School Board. Their conversation, moderated by Cam Collyer, Evergreen’s Senior Advisor and Principal, People and Places Consulting, is part of the final week of Future Cities Canada: #UnexpectedSolutions, six weeks of free virtual programming, running until November 27. 

Below, we give a sneak peek into the conversation, by speaking with Teichmann about the importance of her work, and how schools can continue to design for outdoor learning and climate resilience. 

Tell us a bit about your career — when did you start designing school grounds, and why? 

I started designing school yards 25 years ago — back then it was just an idea, part of the ecological movement in the 1980s. The idea was to really change the paved school yards into natural areas. In Berlin, we had many school grounds that were entirely paved. We wanted to introduce green areas for children to learn and play. 

What are the first steps when designing a school ground? 

We make a master plan for the whole school ground. You have to look at it like a whole universe, with everything the kids need. 

Participation is key: Kids, parents and teachers are all consulted about what they want from the space. We want to offer kids not only space to move and climb but also places for reflection. 

We try to design the school yard in a way that all the different groups of kids find what they need. Some need movement, others want places to hide or be in small groups. 

When we design a school yard, we split it into different distinct spaces — atmospheres, almost. It helps to add typography to the site, small hills planted with shrubs. This also helps with the climate, humidity and shade. 

The school grounds are designed to help with climate mitigation, including storm water management. Can you tell us about that? 

We have this word for those school yards, we call them ‘sponge school grounds.’ They are supposed to act like a sponge for the stormwater. The soil should be unsealed as much as possible so it can hold and drain the water. 
 
Water can then be given back to the environment through evaporation. We also try to design with surfaces that are not so dark. Asphalt becomes very hot in the summer; it absorbs the heat of the sun. The school yards we design are heat resistant. 

How have you seen reaction to your work change over the years? 

At first when we began designing school yards, we had a lot of resistance from municipalities, lots of discussion about maintenance. But because we worked with the schools and their communities, the schools themselves would advocate for it, because the understood how important it was for the children. 

Have you seen interest in your work grow in past year? 

We had a lot more interest in the school yards this year. I think people are realizing it’s so important to have the space to have classes outside, to give the kids the chance to play outside. 

Hear more at #UnexpectedSolutions 

Listen to Teichmann share her insights on outdoor learning in conversation with Maia Puccetti, Jewel Amoah and Cam Collyer, during their session “Learning Outside at Schools: Future, Fad, or Fantasy?”  on November 25, as part of #UnexpectedSolutions. Register today for over 60 free virtual sessions, running until November 27.