An Emphasis on Place: The International School Grounds Alliance

Key Points

  • We don’t put enough design thought into our school grounds.

  • Wellness and belonging are key elements of connecting students to place.

  • The International School Grounds Alliance provides research, policy, and design examples of ecological school grounds fulfilling the need for learning and play.

Kearney Middle School
Tom Vander Ark with students at Kearney Middle School

We continue to observe that the challenges of the present will take all of us to confront. In education, this looks like instilling purpose, encouraging play, measuring what matters or ensuring true equity. To others this can look like combating global issues, like those identified by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. We’ve seen a number of school networks rise to these challenges as they embed SDG outcomes in their core learning missions and frameworks.

Another of these networks is the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA), “a global network of organizations working to enrich children’s learning and play through improving the way school grounds are designed and used.” This network is free to join and is doing important work in connecting learners to place and new ideas of sustainability through affiliation with its members which consist of educators, landscape architects, policy makers, and change agents.

Children around the world, growing up in very different environments and cultural settings, all need engaging childhood learning and play experiences for healthy development and enjoyment.

Sharon Danks

From the ISGA website, “The international school grounds movement is growing rapidly and flourishing in many places.  Schools near and far are reimagining their grounds, replacing extensive paved surfaces with a vibrant mosaic of outdoor learning and play opportunities. Schools in dozens of countries are leading the way, finding innovative approaches that weave learning into their landscapes, diversify their recreational offerings, enhance their local ecology, and reflect their unique location and cultural context.”

Some of the work that ISGA does:

  • focusing on the way school grounds are used, designed and managed
  • facilitating a dialogue about innovative research, design, education and policy
  • fostering partnerships between professionals and organizations across the globe
  • organizing international conferences, gatherings and other programs
  • advocating for student and school community participation in the design, construction and stewardship of school grounds

“Children around the world, growing up in very different environments and cultural settings, all need engaging childhood learning and play experiences for healthy development and enjoyment,” says ISGA co-founder Sharon Danks of Green Schoolyards America, in California. “The ISGA is not only a resource, but is also a call to action for teachers, parents, and students to go outside, improve their school grounds and explore the world first-hand.”

We love the way that wellness and culturally responsive practices are embedded in these goals. Time and time again we have seen the power of place affect not only relationship to ecology, but also community.

One school exemplifying these positive aspects of school grounds designed for learning and play is Lam Son School in Thanh Hoa Province, Vietnam. This elementary school’s grounds are not large, but teachers utilize them from the ground up. From planting vegetable gardens to doing activities with trees that test their powers of observation, students are learning about plants and animals as well as carrying on traditions such as dance and art. They even held a fashion show wearing their newly-crafted outfits made from recycled materials!

At School Parostok in Poltava, Ukraine, students use their school grounds as inspiration for carrying on cultural traditions and doing good in the community. Cooking garden produce as part of local holidays and taking the food to their grandparents is one activity, as is cleaning parks and planting trees.

Where to Learn More

Learning Through Landscapes and Mindstretchers Ltd. are hosting the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) conference online from Monday February 7 – Friday February 11 2022, in partnership with ISGA and Living Classrooms.

Postponed from 2020, this year’s long-awaited ISGA conference will bring together the best in outdoor learning and play in school grounds and beyond. It’s ideal for educators, teachers and design professionals eager to expand their understanding of outdoor learning.

Join online with individual day tickets or book for the whole week.

This post is a part of Green Schools campaign. The climate crisis is the most complex challenge mankind has ever faced. It will require collaboration, shared truth and innovation at a scale that has yet to be realized. Through blogs, conversations and events we will focus on what to teach, how to teach it and how to create a climate positive school community so that our upcoming generations know what they are up against and have a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead. You can engage with this ongoing campaign using #GreenSchools.

Mason Pashia

Mason is the Creative Director at Getting Smart. He is an advocate for arts education, strategy, design thinking and poetry.

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