Neglected green spaces are less likely to be used, so with spring nearly here, now is the ideal time to plan the maintenance or redesign of those spaces. Stephen Ensell, BALI’s education officer, explains what to bear in mind before embarking on a landscaping project
Seeing those daffodils raise their heads and the early blossom appear on the cherries is a sure sign that spring is just around the corner and that our dreary winter is coming to an end. Our gardens and green spaces have the amazing capability of improving not just our mood but our mental and physical wellbeing in many ways.
An incredible amount of research and study has gone into demonstrating the importance and value of green space to our society. The benefits can be numerous and include flood mitigation, air pollution reduction and climate change adaptation, to name but a few. Add to this the increase in biodiversity and we can feel we are giving back to nature and not just taking.
These principles can be applied to any green space but become even more pronounced when we consider the importance of having green spaces within schools, especially from the pollution perspective. As an example, let’s take the value of trees, shrubs and hedges.
They reduce noise and filter many pollutants out of the air. Carefully positioned trees around schools can help reduce energy consumption for heating and cooling buildings, and grassed areas are significantly cooler than tarmac and concrete. But is this value high on a school’s agenda?
Every school is facing performance pressures, from how their pupils do in exams and tests and where the school sits in the league tables, to how well it performed in its latest Ofsted inspection.
Research has been conducted on pupil performance, considering gender, ethnicity, social background, parents’ education and even their father’s profession. All in a bid to better understand how support can be put in place to improve pupil performance. But what if there was a simpler solution?
A study was carried out in Massachusetts in the United States to see if there were any links between ‘greenness’ and school-based performance. 905 schools were studied and the results showed that students with a higher exposure to greenness showed better academic performance in both English and Maths, especially in the spring when they sat their MCAS tests. This could prove useful if your school is involved with the first National Reference Test (NRT).
Spain carried out a similar study in Barcelona and found that not only did children’s working memory and behaviour improve but also that there was a drop in inattentiveness.
Outdoor spaces have also been linked to an improved Ofsted rating; A Natural Connections school Ofsted report in 2014 said: ‘Pupils also enjoy an increasing range of opportunities for outdoor education, which broadens their horizons and enhances their progress in classroom work. These activities contribute to pupils’ improving spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.’
Maintenance and redesign
With spring on its way, as you look out of your window, how are the green spaces around your school shaping up? The challenge can be the management and maintenance of these spaces. Neglected green spaces are less likely to be used, so now is the ideal time to plan the maintenance or redesign of those spaces.
Consideration first needs to be given to how they are used, which will determine the type, frequency and cost of the maintenance regime they require. It is crucial to consider this when redesigning outdoor spaces in the school environment.
Often spectacular spaces are created but there is a failure in understanding the level of maintenance involved and the fact that plants grow and the area could look very different in a few years’ time. Before you know it the area looks unloved and neglected and nobody uses it. A professional landscaper can make sure this is all taken into consideration when planning a new green space.
They will seek to understand how the space is to be utilised and create a design to suit the school’s needs, building in an affordable maintenance schedule that can be sustained. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a ‘no maintenance’ green space but there certainly can be a ‘low maintenance’ option.
The key here is to create more than just an area to look at but also to have an area that’s usable, an extension of the classroom if you like. For younger children these areas encourage exploration, creativity and a sense of wonder, as well as physical activity.
It seems easier to build in these activities within primary schools but often becomes more of a challenge to use these spaces in secondary schools, unless it’s a sports pitch – and even these are being replaced with all-weather and artificial surfaces.
Connecting with nature
Concerns have been expressed over a loss of connection with nature, referred to as Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). Many children are spending less and less time outdoors; this in turn leads to a reduced affinity with nature and, ultimately, disengagement from environmental issues and a lack of appreciation for biodiversity.
There must surely be an opportunity for every subject to include a relevant activity in green spaces, not just the creative and science subjects.
In the great outdoors, Maths and English move from abstract principles to realistic scenarios that can bring the subjects to life, whether writing descriptive passages and poems or working out areas and perimeters.
Green spaces also offer opportunities to teach extra‑curricular subjects, such as gardening skills and orienteering. They also present opportunities to involve industry employers, such as landscapers and grounds maintenance contractors, who could demonstrate their work. Members of the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) can always be approached to support in this way through the organisation’s ‘GoLandscape’ outreach initiative (www.golandscape.co.uk).
BALI GoLandscape ambassadors are happy to go into schools to talk to students, staff and parents about career opportunities and pathways within the landscape industry.
You may feel you have no room for a green space but this is no longer an excuse. Green walls and roofs take up little space, can be installed inside or out, and have many of the benefits of larger green spaces.
They can create a great talking point and have important environmental qualities because they act as living insulation, both thermal and acoustic.
The plants also absorb air pollutants and have the same ability as traditional ground‑level green space to improve wellbeing, lower stress levels and increase productivity. All of this goes to show how every area of the school can be used to motivate and encourage learning, with green spaces an integral part of this learning infrastructure.
Even if they are only used to grab a quiet lunch break and soak up the joy of being outdoors, they serve an invaluable purpose and are worthy of our attention.