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Outdoor Interactive Spaces
The G.R.E.A.T. (Gathering. Reconciliation. Ecological. Agora. Theatre. Space) Design Project

By Donna M. Rodman, BCSLA, CSLA - Registered Landscape Architect
Collaborators: Lisa Upton (Principal), Victor Elderton (Vice Principal), Fran Bourassa (Community Education Facilitator)


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In a 2014 study by Donna Rodman, BCSLA, students at Norgate Community Elementary School in British Columbia were asked to draw and make dioramas to express ideas for a new play space. Sixty-five percent of the students who presented their ideas for the play space through their drawings and dioramas were from the First Nations community.


Norgate Community Elementary School in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, is a public school with a diverse, underserved community. Sixty-five percent of the student population is First Nations and 35% of the student population comes from middle income, mixed ethnic backgrounds. The school needed an interactive space that not only engaged the students in nature using ecological and culturally significant principles, but also served to engage the greater community offering reconciliation, gathering of families and elders, and opportunities for music, theatre, and storytelling. With this big idea came the G.R.E.A.T. Space design project. But how do we design for the experiential expectations and learning outcomes for such a Gathering. Reconciliation. Ecological. Agora. Theatre. Space?

Between 1979 and 1999, it was determined that children's free time activity outside (United States stats) had diminished by 38% due to longer school days. Adults organized after-school activities, and the urbanization of spaces, parental fears for their children's safety, and the impact of plugged-in play contributed to the diminished outside time. In 1997, Dr. Robin C. Moore and Herb H. Wong published "Natural Learning: The Life History of an Environmental Schoolyard." In 1999, the author conducted child and parent surveys and interviews in the lower mainland of Vancouver and north and west Vancouver, British Columbia. The thesis resulted in a matrix on 93 children's preferences to playing in nature and compared the frequencies of the ranked importance of play elements for children to early child behavior theorists Bernaldez, Ellis, Hart, Lyons, Moore, Morris, Piaget and Scarfe.

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The children made dioramas to express their ideas for an open courtyard space. Grasses, rocks and an open space in the center of a wooded circle of trees appealed to the children, indicative of their desires to play in natural environments. The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association and the Voice of Play just surveyed 1,000 parents about children's play. Eighty percent of parents said their children enjoy playing outdoors significantly more than playing indoors. The parents said their children on average spend 2.03 hours playing outdoors each day.


The 1999 research results indicated that children had an intense interest in the natural world. Their responses in the survey expressed eagerness to explore, investigate, manipulate and engage at a very active level. It was the author's opinion at that time that the younger children were increasingly acquiring preferences and behaviors that formerly belonged to older children. Their selections and preferences demonstrated a higher level of awareness of their environment aesthetically, as they indicated how they felt good or bad about spaces, and practically, as they determined whether a space was safe or not.

In contrast to the 1999 case studies, the Norgate children (2014) were given free rein to express themselves through drawings and dioramas. The children appeared to restrain their enthusiasm for playing in the natural world. The work illustrated a shift from the desire to play in natural environments to the desire to play in spaces with strong safety boundaries and structured elements like fish and frog ponds, or illustrative lazy rivers, water slides and plunge pools, or a cluster of a few trees or berry bushes and one tall tree to climb up to see all around. The space provided was an open courtyard area, but the author doesn't feel the size restricted the children's imagination.

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In the dioramas the children created boundaries and added fish, frog ponds, lazy rivers, water slides, plunge pools and some trees, including ones to climb. There were also passive elements like sofas, hammocks, bookshelves, computer station, fireplace, TVs, etc.


In this brief writing, we can't express all the facets of the research at Norgate in terms of cultural significance to the First Nations children. However, the use of colour, the selection of the materials for their imagining in the dioramas, the metaphors for fire, air, water, sky meeting earth, and the blending or expression of habitat creation for fish and birds are clearly intended. Shelter spaces are sought high and low, as well as pathways for journeys between spaces, over bodies of water, all indicative of stories the children were conveying. The author witnessed a change from active to passive engagement and the prevalence of TVs, computer imagery, many forms of benches, tables, and seating areas makes one wonder what cultural expressions of lifestyle have flowed from the suburban community.

What do you notice when you pass a playground today? Many playgrounds are vacant most of the day, and certainly manufacturers have identified the benefit of social media play by designing play structures that incorporate technology to program play on structures. But this isn't enough if children no longer seek to play on their playground equipment and would much rather play in a small microcosm of a replication of their home environments. In 1999, there was no internet and virtual reality play stations were just coming out. The trend showing in the results of the Norgate research is a shift in how children do not engage with nature, even though the culture of the predominantly adult society wishes it were so. Using metaphors of the heart, body, mind and human spirit for programming both space and activities, the Norgate Community Elementary School is striving to recreate an outdoor learning classroom that is cross-cultural, integrative and interactive with natural learning play, supporting the children's experiential learning and environmental education.



As seen in LASN magazine, September 2017.






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