Did you know that in 2017, there were more than 3.8 million students enrolled in 9,444 (Public, Catholic and Independant) primary and high schools across Australia?
Kids spend a lot of time in schools. Children who attend school from kindergarten to Year 12 spend 13 years inside classrooms and schoolyards. Then there’s the possibility of further study (and time) at university, college, TAFE and so on.
Our school years also coincide with a significant period of mental, emotional and physical development. Kids learn, make friends, make mistakes, develop skills and reach milestones. They go in as little children, become teenagers then surface again as adults. That’s a lot packed into 13 years. So how can we optimise the school environment so kids can get the most out of their time there?
I believe living infrastructure (sometimes called green infrastructure) can help. Living infrastructure – pot plants, green roofs, green walls and facades, gardens and trees – can be implemented in every school and education facility to the benefit of all students, teachers and staff. It can improve classroom air quality, provide biophilic relief to students and teachers, and stimulate learning and development. (It can also bring down the cost of HVAC and utilities).
I want to show you that living infrastructure isn’t just a luxury for wealthy schools in ‘well to do areas’ – it is an essential investment in our children, in their education and future. Living infrastructure is for every school and every child. It’s my hope that this blog will inspire you to push for plant integration in your kids’ schools because the benefits are significant and the costs – like project size – are scalable. No millionaires required.
Population growth and urban density – the challenges facing schools today
Urban populations are growing and we are building density into our cities to cope with population growth. Families and children are a natural part of this equation so of course inner city schools have to grow up (rather than out) in order to accommodate students. Even suburban schools have demountable, temporary classrooms on areas previously used for sport and recreation.
Space is at a premium these days and kids spend a long time learning, so it is critical that education facilities are optimised for academic achievement as well as mental, social and physical development. Living infrastructure can deliver this optimised environment.
I know money and space are hard to come by, especially for schools. The good news is living infrastructure is scalable and the benefits can be realised even with a tight budget and a small space.
A scalable solution
Living infrastructure is scalable for the smallest school to the largest university campus. It can be retrofitted in an existing school or integrated into initial blueprints. It can be a few potted plants in the classroom, or a multistorey exterior façade.
Importantly in an increasingly urbanised environment, living infrastructure can be applied both indoors and outdoors, horizontal and vertical. Think inner city schools with green roofs used as outdoor classrooms or play areas. Think lush green facades attracting biodiversity, teaching science students and breaking up the monotony of grey buildings. Think veggie patches to demonstrate biology, climate science and healthy eating principles. Think potted plants cleaning the air and inspiring wild student artworks.
Because living infrastructure doesn’t need to grow outwards, it is a solution that can be adapted to any school or education environment, and however it is designed, the benefits remain.
Enhanced learning and increased engagement
Research has shown that living infrastructure can enhance learning and promote academic achievement in school kids. More than a place to play at recess and lunch, green spaces, gardens and outdoor classrooms can be used for hands-on, experiential learning.
Integrating nature into school lessons can increase student engagement and their enthusiasm for learning. Research indicates that outdoor learning experiences can develop positive environmental attitudes, increase engagement and improve maths and science achievement in students.
Improved behaviour and focus
A number of studies have found that young children show improved behaviour when in natural play spaces (with trees, dirt, grass and shrubs). Kids demonstrated more cooperative play, civil behaviour and positive social relationships. They were even seen to have more impulse control and less disruptive behaviour.
A space for essential childhood development
Living infrastructure and green spaces with trees and shrubs, rocks and logs, can support different types of play – from dramatic and exploratory play, to solitary, constructive and locomotor play. It gives young kids the opportunity to run, jump, build, climb and crawl, while outdoor child-directed free play helps improve coordination, physical strength and social skills.
Promote social-emotional skill development
Living infrastructure can help kids develop and strengthen the cognitive and emotional processes that are important for learning. Interaction with and in nature can also help children develop essential social-emotional skills, improve self-esteem and confidence, setting them up to be happy, confident and resilient adults.
Observing student responses to three different green environments in Maryland and Colorado in the United States, one study found that ‘natural areas enabled students to escape stress, focus, build competence and form supportive social groups.
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