with Balmori Associates

The idea of ‘experiential learning’ means that the basis of knowledge is immediate interaction between the body and the landscape- not as a pretty picture, to be gazed at through the school window, but as the sense of active participation in natural and cultural production. ‘Experiential learning’ marks a shift from education as consumption of knowledge to education as interaction with the community and the landscape. It is accompanied by design and programmatic strategies that assist students in learning about the environment while they simultaneously change it and take care of it.

A 13 acre public park and elementary school in East Clayton, British Columbia, was designed integrating concepts of local ecologies, sustainable development, and experiential learning within the school curriculum. Strategies for a combined Public Park and Elementary Schoolyard site as a place for site knowledge, exploration, community and learning for children, teachers, and the surrounding community are highlighted in the design.

In this age of ecological awareness and land art, schoolyards rarely exhibit sensitivity to the site's natural conditions, the school's cultural setting, or the children and neighbors who use it on a daily basis. Currently, schoolyards are typified by expanses of pavement, pre-fabricated play structures, and chain-link fence. The rising concern among parents, children, teachers and designers is significant. It is a concern that these environments contribute to the kind of education that reflects the apprehension of any kind of labor as abstract ‘time-producing’ office drab, and contribute to a culture in which the prevailing kind of landscape – is the interior “playground” of the shopping mall.

In the 13 acres proposal, ecology and simultaneity within the landscape, early education and building systems are integrated, providing inspiration for creative propositions, key learning experiences and community activities for children and adults. Wetland areas, classroom use, play space, parkland, and community programs are layered interactively within the site.

The central motive of the project is the concept of ‘growth’ as SUCCESSION – the continuous sequence of overlapping generations, ideas and natural cycles. The planting system is not envisioned as a homogeneous object – ‘a forest’, for example - but as a changing system to which each new generation of students gives its contribution.

Starting from one end of the site, each year new students plant ‘their own trees’, which continue to grow as the new students arrive in subsequent years. Designing the site is an active process, rather than an event. The playgrounds are a park that is not exclusive, but serves both children’s learning and various communal activities – a meeting place for people from different age and social groups.

Architecture and site infrastructures are scattered around the site as seeding-tools to facilitate eventful and creative interaction with the site. The classrooms are articulated as a combination of interior, partially enclosed and exterior spaces, separated with movable panels.

The mechanics of the exchange between ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ are stressed in the formal structural solutions of the school buildings. All infrastructural systems – water pipes, electrical systems, toilets, sinks and telephones are overtly exposed as learning tools. A juxtaposition between the artificial and the natural is also stressed. A palette of bright and fluorescent yellows, oranges, reds and greens is used for site furniture and buildings, exaggerating local misty gray overcast and foggy light.