Learning in the landscape

Chris Gutteridge of landscape architects Second Nature reflects on the changing face of landscape design for schools

We are currently seeing a small revolution within our schools: an unlocking of the potential of the outdoor spaces with which so many of them are blessed. And every bit as revolutionary is the range of different roles that these spaces are being asked to perform. It is no longer acceptable just to chuck down some grass and paint on a few white lines to mark out some form of sports area: we are now seeing multifunctional spaces that allow children to learn, interact, play, relax and grow. 

As landscape architects, we have been privileged to work on a number of school projects, each fulfilling different roles. School projects allow us to have a huge amount of fun in what we design and this, like all good design, is client-led. The difference when it comes to schools is that we have to think hard about whom our client actually is. We see the client as the school – its governors, teachers or parents. But are the true clients the school’s children?

Just like the schools with whom we have worked, we engage with all of these parties via classroom visits, newsletters, open days and more. This is time-consuming and challenging but, ultimately, it enables everyone to have their say and should mean that there is an investment by all into the success of the project.

This is best demonstrated by one of the first school projects we worked on, for Christ the King Primary School in Leicester. The basic brief was to create a space that allowed the children to pass through and onto the play trail beyond, as well as incorporating a seating and teaching space and enough room to grow a few plants.

From this we created some large coloured crayons to stop the children running straight off the play trail and into the seating area, and a large mosaic snake to act as the seating/teaching space. We had the snake coming out of a bed of grass planting, to make it look as though it was emerging from a meadow. The growing area was achieved using some large raised planters.

This project was huge fun to design and create, and the children loved it. What primary school child does not want to be taught a lesson sitting on a giant snake? The emphasis for this project was on the way that the design could engage with the children, not only on a practical but also on a visual and humorous level.

The notion of growing areas within school grounds has been around for a long time, but these areas are now more popular than ever before. The demand within the curriculum for a space to grow some vegetables, or simply to see who can grow the largest sunflower, has never been stronger. Just as excitingly, this concept is now going beyond the vegetable plot and even finding its way into school canteens. What could be better than a tomato or courgette, picked on school grounds in the morning and served to the children and staff that very lunchtime? There are plenty of examples of schools teaming up with parents and allotment societies to ensure that their kitchen garden not only produces great healthy produce for the school canteen, but can also grow things for parents to take home.

Kitchen gardens are also a fantastic way to get wildlife into the classroom – but there are other brilliant ways to do this. A meadow area is not only relaxing and stunning to look at or walk through: it also provides a real haven for wildlife. We recently created a science garden for an Academy, one of whose stand-out features was a series of bird and bat boxes complete with night-vision cameras. These cameras could then be streamed across the internet, so that they could be viewed remotely by any pupil at any time. This struck me as a great example of the changing face of school landscaping – taking the learning from the outside into the classroom, and then beyond the school perimeter to anywhere with an internet connection.

I haven’t yet mentioned one obvious use for landscaping within a school: the playground. Some schools are limited for space, so it’s really about being creative with the space that you have. I have always believed that if you give a child a box they will amuse themselves for hours, whereas the toy inside it will bore them within minutes. And this idea can often be seen in action in playground design. We created a space for an inner-city school that needed to try and get its children active, as fitness and activity levels were low. Our solution was to create a ‘Slinky’ – a series of metal rings that children could run through, swing from, clamber up and more. The options were endless – think Louis Smith at the Olympics!

At the opposite end of the activity spectrum, schools also need an area for calm and reflection – and landscapes are increasingly being asked to fulfill this role. We all know about the relaxing effects of the great outdoors, and many schools are now demanding a dedicated reflection area within their grounds. This can also serve a religious function as an area for prayer, meditation or general religious learning.

Landscapes can also serve to remind and educate a wider community. School landscapes are the perfect places to house permanent or temporary displays – be they work by pupils or an exhibition of local history. The grounds at the front of a school are particularly suitable here, as they are probably the only area that everyone walks through. They are the common ground for the teachers, parents and pupils – and this makes them incredibly valuable spaces.

The landscape has always played a prominent role within our schools: but now teachers, parents, governors and pupils are able to really unlock its potential as a teaching resource. More than this, though, the landscape is increasingly being used as a sanctuary for pastoral care, a place for fitness and wellbeing and for teaching beyond the school boundaries, somewhere to welcome in the community and, most importantly of all, a place that can put a smile on the faces of those for whom it was designed in the first place. 

Chris Gutteridge BA Hons, Dip LA, MSGD is a garden designer and landscape architect with Leicester-based Second Nature.



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