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Greening Canada’s schools 

Topics: Participation and Learning | Comments

On the front page of its website Evergreen exhorts you to imagine your city with nature – and for the past two decades, this Canadian charity has been working to make that possible. Evergreen helps to make Canadian cities more liveable by funding and facilitating sustainable greening projects in schools, parks and communities. One of the organisation’s most successful programs is Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds, which helps schools create greener grounds. The program’s director, Cam Collyer, spoke with us about the benefits of bringing nature into the classroom.

Ask any average Canadian what their local school ground is like, and Cam Collyer says you will get the same answer: a flat, barren expanse surrounded by chain link fence, with some combination of grass or turf and a hard surface. In an elementary setting you might have a play structure in some state of disrepair, and in high school you might have some combination of soccer and football uprights.

Evergreen has long felt this is not good enough, and started the award-winning Learning Grounds program to create school yards that reconnect children with nature. ‘What we’ve been trying to do with the program is to build not only a series of health benefits for children - including how kids socialise, and their wellbeing - but also encourage the learning aspect: we try to take advantage of the outdoor classroom and create hands-on, multi-sensory learning environments right outside the classroom door that teachers can use on a regular basis,’ Collyer explains. ‘We’re not just creating an exciting environment for the natural sciences, we are tapping into students’ motivation to learn, and that’s a very powerful thing.’

What Learning Grounds does

Through Learning Grounds, Evergreen offers schools a wide range of expertise and support to transform their grounds, including access to consultants; funding and grants; resources; landscape design training and gardening workshops; and teacher training and lesson plans. Evergreen also helps with the ongoing management and development of school sites, by facilitating regular contact with landscape designers and providing site manuals.

A unique aspect of Learning Grounds is the relationships it has built with school boards, which Collyer describes as ‘a major piece of the puzzle. We’ve built about a dozen of these partnerships in Canada in the last 10 years, and that’s resulted in a whole different body of work: in things like guidelines; tighter approvals process; communication protocols; integration with emerging and developed suites of environmental initiatives that we see in different forms at different school boards; as well as regular teacher training and a whole series of workshops for the parent community as well.’

The benefits for kids

When Learning Grounds began, Collyer expected to see the immediate effects on kids’ physical health. What has been more surprising is the effect on children’s social wellbeing. He recalls the first time he noticed this, on an early project at a Toronto school.’The school had been working on their grounds in quite an ambitious way over a number of years – they replaced a school that was effectively an island in a sea of asphalt surfacing; they holed up probably a third of it or more and created hills and gardens and seating with logs and a lot of planting and considerable shade.’

One day Collyer asked the school principal what she thought had been the project’s biggest impact. ‘The answer was the change in the social experience for the kids. And it was really about this dramatic drop in bullying,’ he says. While he was willing to chalk it up to the mysterious power of nature, the principal was far more pragmatic. ‘She said – “We’ve diversified the school ground, there are more things for kids to do, they’re spread out and they’re not bugging each other.” And there it was and that has come back again and again and again – it’s the change in the social environment.’

Community building

It’s not only children and teachers who benefit from greener school yards. In recent years Learning Grounds has raised money to work on schools in disadvantaged areas, which are often home to new immigrants. Collyer says the Learning Grounds projects have given many immigrant parents a way to make connections in their new communities. ‘The food gardens can be galvanising because they can display people’s heritage, they’re conversation starters, there’s a familiarity and a skill area where parents that may not have the language skills certainly can speak the language of gardening and can actually bring a lot to the table to support a project at the school. And so it’s created an avenue for access that’s been valuable in a number of circumstances.’

‘Creating a better world’

There are a few challenges that come with the program, and Collyer cites the difficulty of securing ongoing management of the sites from transitory school communities as one of the major ones. However, he says it all seems worthwhile when witnessing the program’s potential to change children’s world view. Collyer recalls an interview with a young girl involved in a Learning Grounds project, which really demonstrated this point:

‘The girl said: “Before we started work on the school ground, nobody really thought of doing anything. And then when the project started and we began to develop it, people started to think we could do more and make it better and better and better”. That was one of those profound moments, where what she was describing was the glass going from half empty to half full. That instead of just receiving whatever the world gave to her, it was about creating a better world, and how exciting and motivating that had become for the whole group.’

‘You can overstate what’s happening for a little girl, but we’ve seen this enough to know that the hands-on nature and the visible and tangible nature of the transformation really can have that kind of power over an individual and their community.’


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