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Cultivating the Next Generation

Three ways green schools are reconnecting children with their environment.

By Katharine Logan
September 2012
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Illustration by Christian Roux

Like many of us who were children more than 30 years ago, Judy Wherry, principal of an environmentally themed LEED Platinum public school in Ontario, spent much of her childhood roaming in nature. "We saw the seasons change, and what came along with that, the snakes and bugs and birds," she says. But over the years, as a teacher and then as a principal, Wherry has observed a shift in how and where children spend their time. "Children have lost the connection with nature," she says.

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Nature matters to children's development in every major way—intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically—according to a synthesis of contemporary research by Stephen Kellert, professor emeritus at Yale University,in Building for Life: Designing and Under-standing the Human-Nature Connection. Yet today the average American child spends just four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours a day in front of an electronic screen, according to studies collected by the National Wildlife Federation, with the result that the average eight-year-old is better able to identify cartoon characters than a beetle or an oak tree.

As awareness grows of what Richard Louv, author of the seminal book Last Child in the Woods, has termed "nature deficit disorder," and as awareness grows of the uncertain future of the natural world, leading schools—often in collaboration with advocacy and support initiatives such as the U.S. Green Building Council's Center for Green Schools and the U.S. Department of Education's Green Ribbon Schools program—are working to reintegrate nature into children's experience.

Schools that are built green often incorporate environmental lessons from the building into the curriculum, creating interactive learning opportunities. Prominent examples include Oregon's Hood River Middle School, a small-town school whose LEED Platinum Music and Science Building was selected as one of this year's AIA Top Ten Green Projects; Dr. David Suzuki Public School, a new 58,500-square-foot facility in suburban Windsor, Ontario, Canada's first to achieve LEED Platinum; and Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C., whose LEED Gold retrofit and 47,300-square-foot addition led it to be selected as one of this year's inaugural winners in the Green Ribbon Schools program. How can a building reconnect children and nature? We asked architects, engineers, landscape architects, and school principals involved in these exemplary projects. Here are some of their answers.

Start with the landscape

"If we're going to do buildings that connect with nature, we've got to start with the landscape," says Hood River Middle School architect Alec Holser, principal at Opsis Architecture. Even before the design team for the new building arrived on site, the students and their science teacher, Michael Becker, had been observing the site's natural systems for years. "They told us, this is where we want our garden," says Michelle Mathis of GreenWorks, landscape architects for the project, "and this is where we want our greenhouse, and you can design the rest of the project around that!" The permaculture principles of ecological design and sustainable human settlement that the children had been studying became the design lens for the project, sparking the intention to create a net-zero-energy building that would complement the children's studies of the balance of nature.

"Be careful of the trees," said the first speaker at the Stoddert Elementary design team's first community meeting, recalls architect Sean O'Donnell at Perkins Eastman. In Stoddert's dense urban setting, the monumental trees and green space that the school grounds offered the community were precious. This priority redirected the design team from its original intention to respect the school's 1932 master plan for the location of the addition, and instead to relocate the building to preserve the trees. The building's layered spaces were designed to create a continuous flow from daylit classrooms to informal areas to an outdoor porch to food gardens and parkland, including a dual-sided stage with access through sliding glass doors onto a hillside amphitheater. For O'Donnell, the school represents "one of the best examples we've done of blurring the boundaries between inside and out."

Make green technology a visible teaching tool

"We're utilizing nature to run the building," says Wherry, principal of the Dr. David Suzuki Public School. The school, named for Canada's preeminent environmentalist, holds the distinction of having earned all 10 LEED energy points. Complexity notwithstanding, building technologies rely on, and are in fact expressions of, nature; a primary objective for the Suzuki design team was "to create a school with expressionistic form, one that would inspire and speak about technology in a literal way," according to a project précis provided by McLean + Associates Architects. To that end, the school's main entrance canopy and a shading device along the front facade consist of photovoltaic arrays. Other highly visible technologies include wind turbines, display-control monitors, green roofs, SolarWall panels, bicycle generators, solar hot-water-heating panels, a two-story living wall, and a transparent geothermal system. "The building is a teaching tool," says Wherry.

At Hood River, students in the Music and Science Building not only learn from the building, they contribute to its performance. Student participation in energy-conservation practices, such as unplugging items not in use, is essential to the building's ability to achieve net zero energy, according to Andy Frichtl, principal at Interface Engineering. "You can buy a ton of PV and still get there," Frichtl says, "but to do it cost-effectively, you need the students."

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