YARN - From the (shorter) Oxford English Dictionary:

Spun fibre of cotton, silk, wool, or flax.... fibre prepared for use in weaving, knitting...a fisherman's net...any of the strands of which a rope is composed...a (usually long or rambling) story or tale, especially an implausible, fanciful, or incredible one.

Friday, March 19, 2010

greening the grounds -2

 So, how to approach the opportunities presented by the outdoor space of our school?
Christopher Alexander and his colleagues tell us that what matters most is what happens in a space:
"Every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep happening there"(p. 58)

What happens in our yard?
What do we want to happen there?
How does it connect with what happens in the building?

The character of a space comes from what happens there - play, life, exuberance, connecting (with each other and nature) meeting of families and teachers, transfer of children. This is so basic and common that it is a pattern - structure follows social spaces (205). If we understand the social roles, implications and possibilities of our space then we will know what the structure and design of the space must be. Can we use this to guide us in shaping our space to support what we do well and to encourage what we want to develop? How can we use the outdoor space to show what our curriculum is about, who we are, and to create the sense of transitioning to a magical world of learning?

We need to look at the individual components and the projects that we want to complete, but must not neglect the wholeness of the place, how the elements fit together and how the outdoors space works with the indoor space - we must let it speak to us and build on what is there.

Other schools have yards which speak to Waldorf principles and appear to also speak with a pattern language some examples can be seen here: Australia, Nelson British Columbia.
People who walk by our school see who we are by what is outside the school so our outdoor space will to some extent define who we are to those who do not know us well. We should not create our space as advertisement, but maybe we can bear in mind this opportunity to allow our outside space to speak about the curriculum.

In order to involve many people in such a multi-faceted project we would to well to have agreed upon approach to assess our needs, and to make a plan, we need a language for our ideas to bridge the verbal and graphic divide.  A Pattern Language may give us the language and the following link provides an approach to projects such as ours.

Alexander and his colleagues created the pattern language as a living approach to design, an approach where all elements are interconnected and depend on one another.  This is not just an approach to design it is a way of understanding the world,  one that is consistent with a Waldorf approach to education.

When I was thinking about patterns and the things that happen in the yard I was able to group them into three broad categories - big things, little things and transitions. I will present my take on interpreting the Pattern Language with our school in mind.  The words in italics (and numbered links in brackets) refer to specific elements in Alexander's Pattern Language for those who want to look more deeply into his work.

The transitions that occur outside any school are human and geographic. People arrive and leave by a variety of means - bus, car, bike, stroller, skateboard and scooter.  We need to provide space for all of these, and perhaps we can encourage some modes of transportation by ensuring that the sapce is secure and appealing.

We all pass from the street and the very public life outside the school into the yard which signifies the school community.  Parents and care givers bring children and relinquish them to the care of the teachers, teachers greet families and assume care of the children. Faculty also go through a change as they leave their lives and enter into the role of teacher and define participant in the school community. The children will then transition from the boisterous play and weather of the yard to the more structured, controlled and restrained environment inside.  The drop off and pickup provides a social function in the life of the school with parents meeting, chatting, planning and sharing.  There are also times that parents and teachers need to to connect briefly over practical and important matters, sometimes private in nature.  All of this happens in reverse at the end of the day.

The outdoor to indoor transition may include a change in light from bright to dark, from cold to warm or from wet to dry.  How can we meet the needs of the transitions, the wet and muddy clothes, the multiple layers of winter and the need for sun hats and protection in the hot days of summer?  Can we work space for these activities into our plan for transitions at the doors of the school?  These are inside issues, but cannot be considered in isolation. We cannot consider the transition from outside to inside without including what happens after the children pass through the doorway.

Transitions occur also over the day and over the year. Where does the morning sun fall?  the afternoon?  Where do we need shade in the summer and to maximize the sun in the winter?  Where do we plow the snow to in the winter?  Where does the rain flow? the ice buildup and the wind blow?  We need to design with these things in mind - make a place to pile the snow for play in the winter, allow the water to flow to keep the yard from getting too muddy and to use the water and flow practically and to shape our design.

How do we signify, honour and support these transitions with our space?

How to make significant the entry points or transitions to the school? The first transition is onto school property. This marks the transition of leaving home and public roads to enter into a special place, it's own world. We are encouraged to think of these space as a main gateway (53) and "mark every boundary,,, which has important human meaning....by great gateways where the major entering paths cross the boundary". Can we have gates of some sort that mark the entry for pedestrians and vehicles onto school property?

There is also a pattern called family of entrances (102) that states the need for broadly similar entrances to create a coherence and pattern within the building. At present we have three entrances which are similarly utilitarian. Can we further unify and make these appealing, welcoming spaces of transition by providing each with a covering that welcomes and protects from the elements as we transition from the outdoors and public space to the space of learning and community? Of course each door (main entrance, grade school, morning garden) will have specific needs but can we can make them similar enough to echo each other provide cohesion and a common welcome?

The building edge (160) is also a transitional space. Warm welcoming buildings have - benches, galleries, balconies, flowers, corners to sit, places to stop, "the building edge is alive" Alexander tells us. he encourages us to "make sure you teat the edge of the building as a place" a place that invites people to stop, sit, lean, walk... it needs to look onto interesting outdoor life (arcade, gallery, porch, terrace, seats, windows).

The entrance transition (112) is a a path with a change of light, change of sound, change of direction, change of surface, change of level and a gate. Steps in the transitional spaces should be big and slow, gentle and welcoming, inviting one to pause. Can these elements be part of our family of entrances? Wooden porches, covered and with pillars to provide enough cover from the elements, a midway point between indoors and out, between light and dark. There might also be hooks or space for children to leave their lunch bags and cast off clothing, off the wet and muddy ground, while they play at the end of the day? Perhaps there could also be a bench or two between the pillars to create a space for a private chat, that while still visible, for supervision of the children, discourages interruption for the moment of the conversation.

Shielded parking (97) Could the space for parking cars be surrounded by hedges or a berm and perhaps a bit lower than the yard so that they are not so visible as to dominate the space?   Small parking lots (103) with room for 5-7 cars, with trees and shrubs as a natural buffer and to mark the transition form the road. Is there room for 2 spaces for cars, one from each street linked by a path to the front door of the school. Could the parking be made like green streets (51) which limit the amount of paving (see also depaving.org) to the area actually under the car tires, or have paving with cracks between the stones (247) thus allowing things to grow in the area shared with cars?

Bike racks (56)  lots of them, a space that is secure and allows groups of people to access at the same time. Perhaps also a space inside the gate for scooters, skateboards, wagons and strollers that are not so easy to lock up, but are vulnerable to theft.

The yard is already the place for vigorous play with a mixing of classes and generations of kids before and after school.  This play is child directed and involves running, group games, building things of logs boards and tires, climbing trees, loud noise, constructing with sand, water, ice and snow. We want the space to remain permissive, safe to run and play with exuberance. We must ensure that we do not disrupt the open and undefined space for running. We can foster outdoor activity by providing appropriate natural protection from elements - sun in summer, wind and rain in fall, by providing shade where needed and building with an awareness of where the wind blows and how the rain flows through our yard. we want the yard to be beautiful in all season and can include unique features that will be highlighted when the snow falls in winter.

It is also the place for organized games and outdoor time for classes, the more structured physical education programme that is structured and directed by adults.  Classes may also use the yard for other academic time especially in nice weather or when energy is running too high for indoors. Could we include space for games courts to benefit the children in the older grades especially?

The yard is also the place for social gatherings that include families and community - festivals like Mayfair and traditional gatherings that mark the beginning and end of the school year like class potlucks. Could we suport these activities with an outdoor sink, fire pit, or outdoor oven?

The space could also be used for music, drama or dance presentations if configured to support these more artistic and spectator activities.

If our actions in a space define that space - what else do we do in the space? want to do with the space? what more could the space be? what else does it call us to do there?

We do not have acres of room, so we need to plan carefully and be efficient with the space we have, to multipurpose and flexible in whatever we choose, to allow the school and ideas to continue to grow and reflect the values, interests and needs of future classes.

When we begin we can think of the existing space we have been using , the space we can  now because we own the building - the space with obvious potential and the space that needs to be repaired. there is a pattern called  site repair (104) which encourages us to put new structures in the areas in most need of repair, leave the beautiful spots to be. Have we maximized our use of the sunny side of the school?  Are things where we want them to be or where they happened to be placed over time?

The climbing tree in our yard satisfies the desire we all have for  high places (62) that are exciting and a little bit secret or hidden from view. What possibility exists with our building to create a roof garden/greenhouse, a sky watch place, or lookout?

One of the basic human elements that crosscuts time and culture is the positive, joyful act of dancing in the streets (63). Can we ensure that we have space for an outdoor dance? At present the Maypole for Mayfair defines our open dancing space. But what about other types of dancing?  Could we host dances outside and invite the community? Invite people to morning Tai Chi in the yard? How can we use our outdoor space to build community? Can we celbrate other things with flags and banners?

Outdoor space is social space and should represent the cycle of life (26) how do we involve all generations in our school community? Could we develop our space to include a place to invite elders? We need also to make sure that our space honours the needs of boys and girls, men and women (27). Does our space do this at present?  How can be best address the needs of girls and boys? How can we both masculinize and feminize the environment for all children?

Could music and performance be combined with the possibility of a public outdoor room (69), one with a back wall of trellis and vines to make it partially enclose, make it big enough to have a table to eat or meet outdoors? What kind of interesting columns could we use to support it? Could this partially enclosed space be used for stage, open to view but protection from elements be used for performance, but as an outdoor room for a class or group to work, meet or eat? Would a canvas roof provide protection from the elements but not block the light?

How else can we foster music in our outdoor space? Could a new big thing be a musical sculpture?  Drums, hollow tubes and chimes made of different materials, washboards or corrugated metal for percussion,  placed and hanging in a corner of the yard like a musical forest?

Alexander tells us that courtyards which live (115) have covered places, places in the sun, places spotted with filtered light, places to lie on the ground, places where a person can sleep, view to larger open space," at one edge, beside a door, make a roofed veranda or porch which is continuous with both the inside and courtyard" Our present outdoor space is defined enough that it may actually function as a courtyard in some ways. A courtyard is a social space, when it is a healthy one, even empty one can feel presence of others.

Healthy courtyards also have something roughly in the middle (126) "a public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty". It is unlikely that our public space will be empty, but still we should think about what it is that make courtyard live and how to make the courtyard aspect of our outdoor space feel inviting.  We have the tree and gravel circle roughly at the centre of our existing yard, which we can build on and develop. Another element of an inviting courtyard is a sitting wall (243) which can provide subtle division between spaces and invite people to stay, to participate, to watch to make the space alive. Could we put something safely around the central tree or around the sandboxes? Alexander even tells us the dimensions that are most pleasing to people and ensure use - 16 inches tall, 12 inches wide.

Why all this thinking bout outdoor space? Is it not okay just to be outside?  Alexander tells us that it is important to define the space, to make it positive outdoor space (106). While it is important to have the freedom of open space and the permission to fill it with running and laughter and noise, there is also the need to give a degree of enclosure to the space. Alexander tells us that we should not "allow it to spill out indefinitely around the corners" Presently our space is a bit chopped up and we may actually find that it feels bigger when we define the corners and start to use the boundary definitions to shape the space within our boundaries.

The yard as it stands now has a number of spaces that are small enough for one or two children to retreat to for conversation, magical worlds or hiding. Where are the established private and hiding places in the yard? How can we protect them and create more? Can we support thinking and reading in our yard as well as connection with nature and vigourous play?

We want to support imaginative the imaginative play of  large groups of children and and of diads or triads. And also the quieter games of smaller groups of children.  Could we have small tables with board games painted or burnt onto them to play checkers with stones and acorn caps?  What about a large chess board with toddler sized chess pieces like in the parks of Europe? Might a classes work to make the large pieces out of wood as a project?

The outdoor space should also be a place where children can read, draw or find personal quiet time in a natural setting.

The yard is also the place where children watch things grow, follow bugs and crack rocks.  These activities do not need to be ore organized than they are, we need only to make the space for them to happen.

We can create the opportunities for group and individual connections with nature by developing more gardens - cultivated and wild, increasing our rain water collection and further developing our composting.

Many of these 'little things' are delicate and vulnerable to disruption so they need some protection without anyplace becoming forbidden.  Likewise the quite play of children can be altered by interruption, might we then need a way to watch children play without interrupting it? So the places feel cozy, protected and secret but might not be completely isolated.


In the parts of A Pattern Language that deal with homes Alexander et al. talk about  a privacy gradient and the movement from public to private spaces. This might also be true for our school and outdoor space.

There is also pattern that identifies the appeal of alcoves around open spaces, places with seats for 2 people to face each other.  This is true of indoor and outdoor rooms. Specifically for outdoor space  there can be a hierarchy of open spaces (114) where small spaces looking into bigger spaces.

Already we have identified the need, desire and means to create raised flower beds (245). Gardens growing wild (172) and climbing plants (246) and vegetable gardens are also elements of spaces that live. Can we have an arbour to grow gourd to make things out of? How can we provide a meaningful level of ornamentation (249) to our space?

How can we include water in our garden and yard design? Can we collect rain water/greywater and use it for gardens? can we have a filtration garden for the greywater?  How could we extend the curriculum by having this? How could we use the curriculum to create this

 A half hidden garden (111) is a garden that can be partially seen from outside the school, but requires that one enters to see it fully - an inviting garden, a secret garden, a magical garden.

Withing the gardens can we provide a garden seat (176) a private place for quiet, with and intense experience of natural and solitude.  Walking through gardens and being a part of them is an immersive experience, as is walking through a trellised walk (174). Might this be part of our entrance on the south side of the school?

Gardens make us think of sunny places (161) and our sunniest side is on the south, is there a way to maximize this space for easy access by all children?

The calming and meditative effect of gardens can also be paired with the effect of a sacred site (24) can make a place more alive as well.  Could we create a walking maze? secret gardens? a fairy circle? or other sacred places?

In our climate gardens are lush for only part of the year and need to be planned with the fall and winter in  mind, so that the bones of the garden make interesting sculpture when the leaves are gone and the snow falls. Can we advance our growing season with a greenhouse (175) on the south side of the school?  Is a roof  garden a possibility?

At living neighbourhoods.org there is a list of the building blocks of wholeness:
  • scale
  • strong centres
  • thick boundaries
  • alternating repetition
  • positive space
  • good shape
  • local symmetries
  • deep interlock and ambiguity
  • contrast
  • gradients
  • roughness
  • echoes
  • the void
  • simplicity and inner calm
  • not separateness
Some of these are self-explanatory, some deserve further exploration, but that is for another post.  But as we proceed might we keep these in mind and if we run into trouble perhaps we can look to these building blocks for explanations as to why things might or might not work.

Another aspect of wholeness is that our space and our pedagogy be one. This is very clearly consistent with our Waldorf classrooms and now we have the opportunity to make it so for our outdoor space.

Are there ways to echo and showcase the curriculum or provide big examples of curriculum content in the yard? Can we include work by children and faculty outside to showcase art, pillars and columns, sculpture and other creations?

Wholeness also demands that we not exist in isolation from our neighbourhood and surrounding community. How can we be better neighbours? give back to our local community? We have come to need to lock our yard to protect the safety for the children and to relieve the teachers of a morning cleanup/safety check. Are there other ways that we can share our space and build community? Can we provide benches outside our gates to invite people to sit? Can we invite other community groups to use the indoor and outdoor space to create community connection and intergenerational and more diverse social connections?
We have not yet talked of out buildings and the endless architectural possibilities...What other possibilities have we not yet even considered?

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