By Kat Sawyer and Juliana Gonzalez
Last year, The Watershed Project partnered with the Oakland Unified School District and the Trust For Public Land on a school greening project at Melrose Elementary in Oakland. Asphalt was removed from the school’s barren playground, and TWP led volunteers from the school community to plant the new spaces after heavy construction was complete. A year later, we led a follow-up effort to replant an area where some of the plants had become overwhelmed by foot traffic. It’s not surprising that new plants would need some extra protection given their proximity to an active playground, and we believe that the best approach is to design these spaces with kids in mind, allowing for their natural exuberance and inviting them in to play.
Our team came up with a solution for a natural looking fence enclosure to house a section of new plants and keep them safe while they get established. We built the willow fence in sections at the shade house structure near our office at the Richmond Field Station with help from our high school interns, weaving willow poles into hog fence panels that we modified to serve as a sturdy natural barrier that gives the baby plants time to grow without being separated from the playground. The result of our efforts is a stunning piece of artwork that can be removed when it is no longer needed and reused at the next school that The Watershed Project is greening!
After completing this project we have learned that designing green schoolyards requires that the children be the main client for the project. School gardens and trees on school campuses need to be planned with educational objectives in mind and should anticipate the natural play and movement of school aged children. Well defined paths, short fences, and interactive zones allow students to navigate the garden without trampling the plants and add interesting elements and intentionality to the design. Adding learning elements that highlight observational skills such as plant/wildlife connections or seasonal growth are some of the possible ideas. The designer could also incorporate other learning outcomes such as balance and gross motor skills development using logs and stepping stones, or multi sensory exploration using aromatic plants, water features, balancing logs, stepping stones and different textures and colors in plants and ground cover options. Gardens can also be inspirational and thematic, inviting students to think about a particular areas of study such as native americans and ethnobotany or “Victory Gardens” and World War II studies. The possibilities are endless for ways of making your school garden unique.
As we embark on a new year of Green School Yards we look forward to working closely with students and teachers to choose the learning objective they would like to see in their school gardens and hope to bring their ideas to lights with smart design solutions that celebrate natural play and foster a love for nature and the connections we make with it every day.