Published on May 15, 2023
As the first school year winds down, Irma Coulson Public School staff say the impact of the transformed space has been far-reaching.
More play, more choice, more learning.
These are some of the sentiments at Irma Coulson Public School in Milton, Ont., Canada’s first Climate Ready School ground.
Officially unveiled last fall, the pilot project — a partnership with Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools program and the Halton District School Board (HDSB) — transformed the school ground into a vibrant outdoor learning environment that adapts to the changing climate while respecting the ecological landscape.
It also reimagines the school ground as vital community space and showcases the important role that public spaces play in resilient communities.
As the first school year with the Climate Ready School Ground begins to wind down, we wanted to learn more about the impact this exciting project has had on students, staff and the community.
Since the early stages of the climate ready school ground project, Ben Harrison, a teacher at Irma Coulson Public School, has been steadily involved.
From helping to lead the consultation process and surveys, to engaging in discussions with students and parents, to taking on the responsibility of guiding visitors through the transformed site, Harrison, has played a pivotal role.
“There was a question whether the excitement would keep up past the honeymoon phase,” he says. “It really has. There’s still so much excitement.”
Many of the areas, like the parkour climbing structure, continue to be popular gathering spots. Even over the winter, Harrison says, students were still engaging with various features in the new space.
“Instead of just standing on a blacktop area and socializing or having nothing to do, our Climate Ready space provides a park or forest area that changes the dynamic of how students socialize and how people move in the space. Especially compared to a stagnant, concrete area.”
Nurturing social and physical development are core principles of Evergreen’s Climate Ready School program. Harrison points out that having all those choices — climbing and jumping on the parkour area, running on the field, strolling through the natural environment — has a ripple effect on behavioural issues as well.
“When there’s nothing to do, children are going to get in trouble,” he says. “We just don’t really have the same behavioural issues in the Climate Ready space because there’s so much choice.”
Supporting the expansion of outdoor learning was central to the improvements of the grounds. Since its launch, Harrison says, staff members at Irma Coulson Public School have been excited to take advantage of the outdoor space.
That has included everything from a teacher wheeling out a whiteboard into the outdoor classroom for a math lesson, to science classes observing seasonal changes or how plants and animals adapt to their environment.
“Outdoor education is such a huge priority for the HDSB,” Harrison adds. “Having this space at our fingertips has been so big for staff. You don’t have to walk miles or go on a field trip to see changes in our environment, for example.”
From the very beginning, engaging faculty was key to the success of this project, says Heidi Campbell, Senior Program Manager at Evergreen.
“As part of this transformation, it was vital that this Climate Ready School Ground would inspire staff as well,” she says. “It helps provide an entry point into outdoor learning.”
Professional development for teachers is a key element in the success of Evergreen’s school ground greening work. Building outdoor routines, lesson plans and a kit of materials all help shift teaching practices.
Through several professional development sessions, Campbell says staff were eager to understand how they could best utilize the outdoor learning space.
“They were interested in learning about how best to manage this and how to let the kids sort of explore this space and their physical abilities,” she says. “Staff were hungry to learn as much as they could so that their students could just start thriving.”
In addition to the impact on staff and students, the Climate Ready School program aims to adapt to the changing climate, with specific considerations to heat, stormwater and biodiversity.
In addition to combating the Urban Heat Island Effect by increasing vegetation and tree canopy cover, the site acts as a giant sponge by removing impermeable surfaces and replacing them with extensive vegetation.
But there was also an emphasis on serving the greater community with opportunities for outdoor play outside of school hours.
“I live in the area, and I’ve seen the area being used by community members on weekends,” says Harrison. “I think there’s an excitement in the community that this space is accessible to everyone. But it’s only in its infancy in terms of being used by the community. Word will spread that this is a cool area to take your kid, that this is a cool area to go for a walk. We’re already seeing signs of that.”
Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools project builds on a 30-year legacy of transforming school grounds across the country into areas of green learning for both children and their community.
The Climate Ready Schools pilot has been generously funded by the Balsam Foundation, Intact Financial Corporation, the LCBO’s Spirit of Sustainability campaign and other key funders, with in-kind support from Arup.