This month saw the presentation of the Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds All Hands in the Dirt: A Forum on the Design of Children’s Outdoor Spaces. It was the first year that Evergreen opened the event to the public and I was privileged to be able to volunteer and participate. Clearly the timing is right to create a national network of professionals, bringing together knowledge of landscape design, child development and nature. I left inspired that school yard naturalization, outdoor classrooms and food gardens are more than just viable options to consider, they exist and are successful because of the dedicated work of people across Canada, who recognize the benefits to learning, play, health promotion, the local environment and community building.
My sense is that there is a strong foundation of work related to connecting children with nature and the outdoors but that this work remains more tentative with older children and youth, despite well established exemplary sites. This Evergreen event coincided with the Government of Ontario launch of the Roots of Youth Violence report. The report draws critical attention to systemic issues of racism, inequality and poverty. A lot of recent media time has been focused on the recommendation supporting the collecting of race-based statistics. Coming from the forum on outdoor spaces, I was looking to see if community design is considered. Right in the Executive Summary, under Understanding the Roots, comes this strong statement:
“Regrettably, right across Ontario, there are many examples of poor planning and poor design of the built and the developed natural environment, creating places that make some youth feel powerless and isolated, leading them to believe that their options are as limited as their horizons. These negative factors include physical and psychological isolation from the broader community; bleak landscapes with no inviting places to gather or play and little usable green space; a lack of adequate and accessible social and physical infrastructure; limited or non-existent transportation services; and unsafe streets, common areas and passageways (9).” [Emphasis my own]
The link between urban design and physical inactivity and obesity is also established by the report (13). Surprisingly, when you come to the recommendations there is nothing specific about the potential design of outdoor spaces for youth to gather, play and create. It’s as if we can identify the problem but still lack mainstream thinking about the potential to re-design space. There is more comfort in establishing new programs versus changing the environment in which these programs are offered. Metaphorically the report discusses grounds: “We must convert the grounds that now nurture the immediate risk factors into new grounds that produce hope and opportunity” (18). We need to be talking about physical grounds as part of this discussion. What do we know about the possible resiliency inducing effects of the physical environment?
The report includes a number of recommendations where I believe environmental education could be used as an effective response to addressing violence in our society. Opportunities to implement include, making the school curriculum more relevant, encouraging healthy activities and developing schools as community hubs of activity (which should involve consideration of the use of outdoor spaces).
There is a rich dialogue before us about the opportunity to expand the reach of environmental education. There is no question that issues of poverty and representation need to be further considered. Where does this work happen? Who gets to participate and benefit? How do we effectively bring together social justice, environmental education and community development?