Outdoor Classroom – Case Study
For many years the front gardens of the school have attracted a lot of interest from parents and visitors due to the lovely display of flowers we have and the school has won many prizes over the years in the Slough in Bloom contest, but the rear of the school still had some bare patches which needed developing.
A recent NFER study reported that teachers and pupils engaged in outdoor learning experiences develop their personal and social skills to a high level. They also found that knowledge and understanding increased in a number of curriculum related scenarios. The young people themselves also referred to improved social skills and a greater belief in personal efficacy and for some, to a (sometimes unexpected) understanding that learning can be fun!
Planning the Project
The area most in need of renovating was a grass area adjacent to the rear playground, which over the years had become barren through loss of 2 trees due to old age and an ugly container which housed the go-karts belonging to a club who had used the school playground for go-kart racing.
Having decided it was time to develop this area for the children to use as a garden learning environment and bring the back of the school up to the standard of the front, I met with Liz Herod our Deputy Head teacher and the School Council to share with them the outline vision I had for the garden. The children were adamant that they wanted a pond with a waterfall, so after discussing the safety issues I agreed we would incorporate this into the plan. The children also wanted to be able to use the area to sit in at lunch times, so the seating in the pergola was planned so that you could sit facing inwards for teaching and for pleasure of seeing the garden they could also sit facing outwards. The children agreed that the plants should create the shade over the pergola. We decided that the pergola must seat at least 35 children, to allow for a whole class with the teacher and teaching assistants and sufficient gap for a wheelchair if necessary. All the pathways needed to have access by wheelchair as well.
I arranged for the container and go-karts to be moved to the school field in a less obtrusive site.
I visited the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Hampton Court Flower show in May 2008 and I spent some time visiting the gardens which had been created by other schools and those who used sustainable products. I met the RHS staff and discussed the changed membership of schools and made arrangements for us to visit Wisley to meet their School Garden staff. I also met staff on the Marshall’s paving stand and was impressed by the stone geometric shapes which helped me to form a picture of what I wanted the pergola paving to be like. I visited a garden designed by Floral and Hardy Gardens Ltd which was almost entirely constructed using recycled materials which had won a bronze medal from the RHS. I was particularly struck by the recycled glass paths and this inspired my thoughts further for the design of our garden.
I had an occasion in school to discuss maths with Barbara Carr, the Maths Advisor and this helped me to decide that the shape of the pergola must be geometrical and have the geometrical shapes for the floor. The Marshall’s Saxon Octagon paving gave this shape and I decided that the raised beds should be angular so that the children could relate geometry to real objects and appreciate maths in a physical way.
Liz Herod, Jo Jones, our Every Child Matters (ECM) excellence and enjoyment co-ordinator, Roy Simmons, our Site Manager and I visited RHS Wisley during the autumn term of 2008 on a beautiful warm afternoon and picked up many ideas which we wanted to incorporate into the garden, including a waterfall with rocks above a pool. We saw a grass snake basking in the sun on a rock above the water; this gave us other ideas! Following this visit I also involved Mr Sandhu, our Science co-ordinator for further ideas. He put forward suggestions for a log pile and wild area which could be used for the teaching of Science.
Choosing the Garden Designer and Contractor
After our visit to Wisley, I began doodling on paper and my vague design began to take shape. I was now ready to obtain estimates for the cost of the “outdoor classroom” as we had begun to call this project. I also felt I needed some professional help with the designing process.
The plan had already developed beyond what had first been envisaged. I had been encouraged to make a lottery bid by Slough Borough Council but in the event this was refused on the grounds that I was going to incorporate this into the curriculum.
I approached 2 different companies and I was also put off by them wanting a substantial fee for the plans, whether I used the company or not to finally build the garden and as I already had a vision in my mind I did not want to pay for what was really my own plan. I had a few more set backs in the Autumn term; I found that the cost of the garden would be greater than first expected, this was due in part to the additions the children had asked for and our own ideas expanding! One company I was impressed with on their first visit unfortunately did not respond for a very long time and when they did, the plans were totally different to what was discussed and as a result I did not go with them.
Finally in November 2008 I contacted Floral and Hardy the garden design company I had met at the Hampton Court Flower Show. Jo Jones also visited the show and had likewise been impressed by their display which was built almost entirely with recycled items. They agreed to draw a design, based on my ideas and they listened to what we really wanted, also the cost of the design would be taken off the total cost if we ordered from them. All wood used for the pergola and raised beds was to be from sustainable sources and the paths were to be made from recycled glass chippings. They agreed to use the Marshall’s octagon patio flooring shape for the pergola floor.
The governors gave their approval for the additional cost of the project and the order was finally placed with Floral and Hardy Gardens Ltd.
Work commenced at the beginning of the Christmas holidays and apart from the bank holidays they worked right through the holiday period. Good progress was made but in January the hard frost caused the concrete base for the glass chippings to break up and this delayed the finishing time. There were further delays due to the snow in early February. It was still hoped that the whole job would be finished before the end of March. The planting of the bog garden had to be delayed until April due to the type of plants for this area. The log pile was constructed from logs cut from an old tree we had to cut down as it was hollow and the pond and waterfall were constructed.
Water butts were installed to collect rain water diverted from the roof of the terrapin hut. The compost bins were placed at the edge of the garden ready for the grass cuttings and vegetable matter along with paper from the shredding machine.
The planting of the peripheral garden was done by Floral and Hardy and they had carefully chosen plants for one area which were sensory, with textured leaves, perfumed flowers and grasses which blow in the wind. The square raised beds were planted with herbs and the fruit garden was planted with thornless blackberries and various fruit trees. Climbing plants were planted around the perimeter fencing with wires fixed for the plants to grow up. Eleven raised beds, radiating from the pergola, which were made from sustainable wooden sleepers, were filled with compost and top soil ready for the children to plant.
The last part of the construction was the re-cycled glass paths, we chose blue and aqua coloured glass chippings and these were laid by setting the chippings in resin to form a most attractively designed path around the raised beds.
Finally, in April the “Outdoor Classroom” was finished and Floral and Hardy handed over the completed garden to the school. The teachers had now become involved; all classes from years 3 to year 6 chose a raised bed each and the gardening club commenced at lunchtimes. This was the time when I could hand it over to the teaching staff as it was primarily for the children as an outdoor learning environment.
Each class designed the planting of their raised bed and planting took place. The children are now involved in keeping the whole garden tidy and bird boxes have been put up on the uprights of the pergola for the birds to get used to ready for nesting time next spring. The toadstool table and chairs complete the garden. A low wrought iron fence has been constructed as a demarcation to separate the garden from the playground but leaving the entrance to the pergola open.
The gardening club was established and Liz Herod and Jo Jones run this regularly with the children. The enthusiasm of these staff has passed onto the children and they have become very keen and interested in their project and are learning about growing vegetables and flowers. They have become very excited about their harvest and the produce, some of which they have successfully sold to the parents. They have nearly made sufficient funds to pay for next year’s seeds. They have had so much lettuce that some has been used at lunchtime in the salads served in the dining room.
The pergola is now used as an outside teaching area; teachers have already used it to have circle time and poetry reading.
Maths lessons have been taken outside and the children have seen the geometrical shapes and copied them onto their own small white boards. Science lessons have been taken outside and the sun shadows used in the lessons. The children have also enjoyed dancing in the pergola area and the area by the waterfall has been used for relaxation, away from other noise.
The children help with re-cycling by emptying the shredding machine and putting the paper shreddings in the compost along with waste from the vegetable garden. In time they will see the fruits of their labours when they can use the compost to enhance soil in their raised beds; this giving another lesson in science.
I have enjoyed working on this project during this past year and in such a short space of time I feel we have made great progress. I am so pleased that this area at the back of the school is now such an attractive and productive place for the children to enjoy. My thanks also goes to our site staff who have enthusiastically joined in the work of this project.
I hope that in time the children will all gain from the gardening experience and have a better knowledge about growing of food and the science of growing as well. They will be able to write about their experiences and maths can be used in calculating and measuring their plots and seed spacing etc. and whilst enjoying themselves, learn some lifelong skills.
I have enrolled the school as a member of the RHS and I hope that other members of staff will visit their website to gain further ideas to help the children.
James Elliman School
21st July 2009
See how Floral & Hardy garden designers can help your school create the perfect outdoor classroom.