Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why Natural Learning Landscapes? The Food Story

Natural learning landscapes get our bodies moving, they inspire creativity, instill a connection to nature, connect us to our food and foster mental, physical, and emotional development. Sometimes I take these concepts for granted and wanted to back up and expose some of the roots of the learning landscape tree.

The Seed: Joan Gussow
The food movement has gained steam in recent years with popular authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan. If you trace the this movement back further you find a dedicated nutritionist who is not afraid to ask hard questions. Now in her 80's, Joan Gussow started her studies as a nutritionist, and not a very popular one. She innately knew that nutrition was not just about nutrients. It was about agriculture, soil, and eating. This wide range thinking went against classic views of nutrition. One of my favorite quotes from a recent Edible Manhattan article on Gussow is below. "In many places we have begun serious dialogues about the corporate malnutrition of our children."  I think the term "corporate malnutrition" is strong and a shocking description of the problem.

The New Growth: A Creative Initiative for Agriculture Based Learning
How do you bring food and gardens to urban students? Children in urban environments can often be more disconnected from food than their urban counterparts, stuck in an asphalt jungle. Under the colorful umbrella of urban agriculture, public art, entertainment and education comes The Truck Farm Project. Their mobile truck garden, planted in the back of a 1986 Dodge Pickup, has been fascinating students in 8 states and counting. I love this creative, simple learning landscape on wheels.

photo from:
photo from:

Fertilize Your Project: Funding
I have worked with many educators that get stuck at the idea phase. They know they want to bring about change in the way their students think about food. But, they don't know how to make that first step. I often start this conversation with a discussion on resources. Every project has its own ecological resources, site resources, and human resources. Leveraging your resources will help you identify the most feasible projects. 

Getting somewhere without the all too powerful monetary resource can be a rough road. The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation is an international nonprofit dedicated to planting fruitful trees and plants to alleviate world hunger, combat global warming, strengthen communities, and improve the surrounding air, soil, and water. Their 2011 grant cycle just started. The first 125 qualified applicants will be in the running to win a free orchard, including free community workshops on planting, pruning, and caring for fruit trees. This is a great first step to a community based learning orchard!
Fruit Tree Planting Foundation has supported the Learning Gardens Laboratory in SE Portland. This collaborative project through Portland State University, The University of Oregon, Portland Parks and Recreation and Portland Public Schools reaches out to students in Southeast Portland with agriculture based education initiatives. photo from:
In 2005 Portland State University asked GreenWorks to create this master plan for the site.  I worked with professors and graduate students to develop this conceptual site plan.

I know I have only a few paragraphs worth of time before I lose your attention. (If you have made it this far, thanks for reading.) The topic of food is enormous. These are some of my favorite time tested and new ideas. I would be interested to hear yours!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Is There Growing Interest in Nature Play?

I think we all know where we have come from; the streams, forests, beaches and wild lots in our lives. But discerning where we are going is a little harder. From where I sit, at my desk on a Friday evening as coworkers are slowly giving in to the weekend, the road looks exciting but undefined.

The Oregon Climate
In and around Portland I have seen nature based playgrounds pop up as small bubbles of logs and rocks on many park and playground design plans. It seems like about every park and recreation or education group includes some form of support for nature based play in their annual conference. There was even a Nature Play Summit earlier this year in Vancouver WA. GreenWorks, The landscape architecture company I work for continues to get calls from communities and parks departments requesting natural play in their neighborhoods. Although I still have to explain nature play to most of the folks I talk to, many more nod and smile with understanding than ever before.

The Internet Climate
The World Wide Web has brought instant answers to our fingertips. I wondered what people were searching for on google. I was pointed to this interesting google search word feature. By entering popular (or not so popular) search words into google insights you can see how often each word is search relative to the others. In my search Children's Park and Children's Garden peak the charts. While Learning Landscape and Nature Based Play scrape the bottom of the barrel. When I add Playground to the list, the others virtually bottom out. Try it out the link, it is kind of fun!

What Does This Mean?
I appears that as a majority we still think of playgrounds as 'the' outdoor spaces for children. While our world view is widening to Children's Parks and Children's Gardens we still have not reached the tipping point for nature play and natural exploration area for young people. I have seen a few successful nature play initiatives. Small conglomerates of dedicated people making change. But, a large movement may be a while off. I wonder if a common lexicon would help us move forward, or pigeon hole us into a certain type of space. I start with the same concepts of getting young people out in nature to explore and learn and I end up with; learning gardens, rain gardens, nature play areas, playgrounds, animal adventure areas, school gardens, arboretums, and parks. Maybe learning landscapes is not the most popular google search term, but it helps me wrap my head around the scope and impacts of these ideas to bring into focus that picture of where we may be going.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How stinky is a skunk lodge? How high is a heron nest?

You may have always wondered what animal houses may be like from the inside. Kids and their families in the Chicago area may be able to answer some of your questions after visiting the Morton Arboretum's Animal Houses. The Morton Arboretum in Illinois is know widely for its 1,700 acre outdoor museum and arboretum that houses 4,117 kinds of trees, shrubs and plants from all over the world. Their children's garden is amazing and worthy of its own post. But, today I wanted to highlight one of the arboretum's award winning, outdoor exhibits, the Animal Houses.

The Raccoon Den
The Exhibit
The Morton Arboretum's exhibit was comprised of eleven whimsical, imaginative, human-scale animal dwellings. It won a well deserved Superior Achievement Award from the Illinois Association of Museums. Each exhibit provided a unique opportunity to see the world as an animal would, by exploring their houses and habitats! The exhibit was designed to help visitors learn the ways that trees provide habitat to animals, and to reinforce the importance of appreciating and protecting trees.

The Heron Nest
Animal Houses
I originally found this exhibit while doing some research on animal themed playgrounds. Animal themes seem to be very popular and have a wide variety of approaches and success rates. These exhibits were far from playgrounds. They were living laboratories for exploration. The craftsmanship looks detailed and solid, especially for a temporary exhibit. As a collection these spaces are one of a kind.
The Beaver Dam
The Hollow Log
The Spider Web
Coyote Den
Polywog Pond
Skunk Den
Which one is your favorite? Have you ever played at an animal themed play area?

Images are from the Chicago

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Kids Can't Wait to Go Down the Slide Into the Pond!

The children at the Clackamas Community College Early Head Start have already decided that the blue surfacing that their new embankment slide exits onto is the 'pond'. Lots of little eyes look onto the frozen playground waiting for the construction fencing to come down and play to begin!

The Clackamas Community Children's Commission (CCCC) serves children and families in Clackamas County. With a grant and a vision, they set upon the process of design and construction of this nature based play area. GreenWorks and CCCC had many similar views on how to engage these young students in play and how to inspire a connection to the natural world;
- include natural elements and planting
- add interest through topography
- provide for imaginative play
- get kids moving and
- do it all safely.

These common ideas helped the fast paced project move smoothly. The site is 2,414 sf and had a complicated existing framework in which to design. But the results are fantastic. This playground is the first one if its kind that these kids will probably see. They kept the contractor entertained from the other side of the construction fence by commenting on how neat things were and how good the crew was at painting. But the real fun will begin next week as the playground is opened for the first time. Happy 2011!

The embankment slide and 'pond'

The 'potting shed' play house with real planters for students to use

The sandbox and new plantings (the green sand box cover protects the sand when the kids are not playing)

Let me know if you have any head start playgrounds near you that are looking to upgrade their playgrounds are ones that already have upgraded with success.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Stormwater Features at Beverly Cleary School

As a Landscape Architect at GreenWorks, I get the chance to work on projects for many local public schools. I am often amazed at how much Portland area students know about rainwater. To some of them the terms rain garden, infiltration, and combined sewer are household words. A few years ago, in a 5th grade class, I lead a discussion on the effects of urban development on stormwater and how increased impervious surfaces speed up and pollute our water . I was barraged with questions about why we continue to let this happen and why someone is not doing more about it. It seems the work of local designers, environmentalists and agencies was not enough for them. It’s refreshing to see this type of concern and curiosity in young people. It inspires me to continue to work with schools.

The school community at Beverley Cleary School in NE Portland was inspired to develop a project that improved their schools effects on urban stormwater.  It took some determination.  They built and planted a swale at their school in the spring of 2006, but the downspouts were never disconnected to feed into the swale.

Recently, a dedicated parent with the support of the school community fostered the project through to completion. GreenWorks donated design and consulting services for the swale and most recently for design of the downspout disconnects. In addition to the downspout design, GreenWorks collaborated with students to measure the soil’s infiltration rate, and helped with contractor coordination during construction. The highlight of the project is the pouring downspout bucket. See it in action below. This living science lab is now open for exploration and learning by the school’s students!

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