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A look at five schools that are taking learning back to nature

There's no time for nature when a child is driven to a school that has a typical yard – asphalt, sports field, play structure – then driven to ballet or soccer or piano or Kumon.

But an international movement is afoot to fix this nature deficit by designing so-called "green playgrounds" at schools. "If kids are not able to go out and explore the world as they did in past generations, then we have the responsibility to provide them in school gardens," says Sharon Danks, partner at the Berkeley-based landscape architecture firm, Bay Tree Design. "That's where they figure out how the world works."

In these new schoolyards, children can experience the elements and the seasons, as well as learn through hands-on play in ponds and gardens. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of outdoor play, including a study last year out of the University of Tennessee that found that kids who played on natural objects, such as logs, were more active and used their imagination more than those who played on a traditional jungle gym.

Children's lives are increasingly protected in this age of helicopter parenting and these green playgrounds offer kids the chance to take risks that build confidence and independence. "You learn to fall by falling," says Danks.

Recently, schoolyard innovations from around the world were discussed at a conference run by the Toronto environmental organization Evergreen and the International School Grounds Alliance, a global network that supports green playgrounds. Here's how some schoolchildren are getting a taste of nature in different countries.

Jenny Rid

Lund, Sweden: Vinden Preschool

The school grounds might appear to be wild and unplanned, but fallen logs and underbrush have their purpose. In the unstructured space, where a log replaces a pre-fab jungle gym, teachers find that kids use their imaginations to play with earth, sand, water and vegetation. Parents volunteer their time to maintain the space.
Environment Design Institute

Kasugai City, Aichi Prefecture, Japan: Kachigawa Kindergarten

This play net connects a second-storey balcony with a tree. Designed by Tokyo’s Environment Design Institute, it lets kids climb and scramble, developing their motor skills without fear of falling. In Japan, kindergartens with natural space often include other features not usually found in Canadian schools, such as wildlife ponds that are used in science class.
Sharon Danks

Berlin: Bambini Oase preschool

This tunnel is woven from the branches of living willow trees. Sports are not sacrificed but rather integrated into the naturalized landscape. In the willow tunnel, kids play house, gather for conversation or chase each other in games of tag. “An asphalt yard and a grass playing field provides very little of that natural experience that drives creativity,” says Danks.

Prince George, B.C.: Westwood Elementary

The water level in the playground’s dry creek bed rises and disappears along with the seasons and the precipitation. Teachers use this natural phenomenon and weave it into the curriculum – the creek bed does double duty by collecting and directing water that would have otherwise pooled.
Tahereh Sheerazie

Shigar Valley, Pakistan: Abruzzi School Garden

The design for this teaching garden is inspired by the surrounding Karakoram mountain range and the local farming traditions. Teachers and students grow vegetables, such as turnips and kale, and use the space as an edible classroom, though funds are scarce and they haven’t yet built a boundary wall to protect the food from wandering goats.

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