The idea to “soften” Sint-Paulus’ concrete playground came from pupils and teachers at the primary school in Kortrijk (Belgium). With parents, contractors, designers, and support from the city, provincial government and Erasmus+, they created a completely different environment. Now the playground has trees, shrubs and a vegetable garden, chickens, bees and a system to collect and reuse rainwater. As well as improving air quality and biodiversity, this connection to nature has made school a lot more fun.
City of Kortrijk, Flanders
It refers to a physical transformation of the built environment (hard investment)
Thanks to funding from the Erasmus+ programme, the school team was able to visit fascinating examples across Europe to get the inspiration they needed to redesign the playground. Thus, the team went to Finland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Germany to investigate school playgrounds. This is still happening since 2018.
European Innovative Teaching Award (EITA)
As a representative of an organisation
Name of the organisation(s): VBS Sint-Paulus Type of organisation: Primary School First name of representative: Cedric Last name of representative: Ryckaert Gender: Male Nationality: Belgium Function: Teacher Address (country of permanent residence for individuals or address of the organisation)<br/>Street and number: Burg. Felix de Bethunelaan 1A Town: Kortrijk Postal code: 8500 Country: Belgium Direct Tel:+32 494 48 05 14 E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org Website:https://www.klimaatspeelplaats.com
Welcome at the climate adaptive school ground in Sint-Paulusschool Kortrijk. It was one of the 23 projects selected for the Flemish Environment Department's Proeftuin Ontharding. Through this campaign, the Flemish government is committed to both climate adaptation and mitigation. Softening combats heat island effects, provides more space for water and ensures better air quality, greater biodiversity and more CO₂ storage, among other things. The school made a commitment to connect 90% of the roofs to a new rainwater system where reuse and infiltration into the soil are paramount. In addition, the entire playground+ car park (4000 m²) was demolished and reconstructed. The distribution of new tiling -green areas is 50/50. Of the total 4000 m², 2000 m² is reconstructed as green zones. Some paving is still needed for various school activities. The rainwater that falls on that paving is collected and goes into the ground via an infiltration system. In this way, the entire school site, including buildings, covering 4800 m² has become a zone where rainwater is reused or infiltrated. For the redevelopment of its playground, St Paul's worked on a comprehensive participatory process involving children, teachers, parents, contractors, play and landscape designers. The project realised ample softening with great attention to ecological design and increasing the collection capacity and reuse of rainwater. The children see this process happening and consequently learn about it. We have also set up a water play area in the playground, where children get to work with water. It was also important for our school to think about the heat stress caused by excessive sunshine on a barren concrete plain. Planting trees, regional greenery and reducing concrete surface will provide shade and cooling in the long run.The air quality at and around our school is also important. Here too, more trees play an important role. They help capture our CO2 emissions, retain them and help filter the air.
Green school grounds
A climate adaptive playground provides an answer to various challenges that come with climate change. For our school, it was important to consider the heat stress caused by abundant sunshine on a bare concrete surface. Planting trees, native greenery and limiting concrete surface will provide shade and coolness over time.
In addition, air quality in and around our school is also important. Here too, more trees play an important role. They help to capture our CO2 emissions, retain it and thus help to filter the air. The series of lessons and projects brought this story into the classroom. Water is essential to our story. The softening of our playground ensures that rainwater is collected, recovered and infiltrated. During storms we avoid the sewage system in the city to flood and we re-use our captured water. We help raising groundwater levels by helping the water to infiltrate in the soil. To teach our children the importance of biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem, they help take care of our playground. Through outdoor lessons and contact with greenery, they are given co-responsibility for their playground. The bee project ‘Bie Paulus’ at our school, which is run by a few parents, also brings the children straight to the essence of what a healthy ecosystem stands for.
Daring to make sustainable choices, daring to invest in the long term is what our story is about. The high involvement of children, parents and teachers ensures a solid foundation. As a school, we have invested in a sustainable design with materials with a long lifespan. Our playground is never finished and will continue to grow and flourish into a green play oasis where numerous children will have a wonderful school time in the years to come. Being a playground for the neighborhood was key because we realised a play and meeting place for and by the neighbourhood that can be used after hours.
The playground is now a brilliant practical example of how, as a school, you can put the children's interests first and reconnect them with their natural environment. More and more research shows that, as adults, we have a responsibility to restore this connection. If we want our future generations to care for nature, we will have to connect them to it from an early age. There are no better places to do this than the playgrounds of our schools where they learn and play every day. If these places are smartly designed, with space for play, learning, exploration and nature then you immediately make a difference. Our design chose monkey-proof materials such as robinia wood and other robust materials. More than 40 trees and over 150 shrubs were planted in a varied landscape where natural materials such as sand and gravel play an important role. Sports fields were also laid out throughout the nature-rich areas so that both large and fine motor skills are stimulated. Clear walking lines, well thought-out layout and bold choices regarding planting, adventurous and risky play now provide a fantastic playground for children. As teachers, we notice that bullying has all but disappeared from our playground. Our children are less bored. We see a wonderful variety of play forms and we have countless opportunities for outdoor learning. Our children learn to care for animals and plants and learn about healthy eating and recycling. For example, there is a vegetable garden with greenhouse, we keep chickens and bees and we have our own recycling park. We track the growth of our trees through qr codes where each tree has its own online passport and life in our nest boxes is tracked through wildlife cameras. The school also has its own weather station allowing pupils to publish their own local weather report. This variety of learning opportunities are seldom seen and make this project unique and exemplary.
In our school, children come from 2.5 years old. They stay there until they are 12 years old. Our school has about 500 children attending classes there every school year. We see more and more that our children come from varied family compositions. The gap between rich and poor is playing out before our eyes. Children who casually talk about their wonderful international holidays after the holidays contrast sharply with those whose parents have to repeatedly look for resources to pay for meals, school materials, toys. Every year, we also take in more and more children who have fled their countries. Their foreign language skills pose great challenges. Finally, we see more and more children struggling with stimuli, behaviour or physical limitations. As a school team, these are particularly big challenges that we can only solve as a strong community. For all these children, there is only 1 common space at the school where they all learn and play together: the playground. That place makes them forget their worries and opens up opportunities to interact and break gaps. By offering them a rich and stimulating play landscape, they naturally come to interact, play and communicate. On the playground, we see language and care barriers fall away and children can be 100% themselves. Because of the nature-rich design, we also know that it has an impact on their creativity, well-being and concentration in the classroom. It is therefore imperative that schools take these places more seriously and consciously think about the design. At the same time, these places are quick-wins to implement climate adaptation and mitigation. If we can show our youth how committed we are to their future, they, the keepers of the future, will carry this story forward.
The playground is now regularly opened to local youth work and local residents. A registration system with badges was developed for this purpose, among other things. In this way we want to be a green oasis for the people in the neighbourhood. This is being done in consultation with the city of Kortrijk. During the vacations, some parents organize a shared childcare there under the heading ‘Paulus plays’. Scouts group Willem van Saeftinghe also comes every Saturday with a group to play on our playground. In addition, parents of the school can also use the playground for birthday parties, among other things. This is by reservation.
Some parents have started a bee project on the school site with the help of the school. This is called “Bie Paulus”. In an old, modified sea container there are six hives. This provides a lot of honey and fun learning projects with the children! An entrance gate was also automated and equipped with remote control. Via an app we can operate it. We are experimenting with how best to organize our opening. Among other things, we drew up a set of rules and regulations. We see that our pioneering role and bold choices are inspiring in Flanders, where schools and their playgrounds are still too often closed bastions that are not used after school hours. At the same time, the playground with its abundance of nature is now part of the ecosystem and is a place where animals and biodiversity finally play their part.
The transformation of the playground started from the children and the teachers but soon overtook the school. The city of Kortrijk became involved and was the first to come up with, limited, financial resources. The province of West Flanders became involved through the educational organisation MOS and through this government we also obtained funds. With the school's parents, we set up a non-profit organisation to do fundraising and work out a solid communication plan. The school board soon saw the impact of all this and decided to actively get involved in the design process as well. This brought 2 landscape agencies to the table to elaborate and shape everything qualitatively. With their designs, we were able to convince the Flemish government and its Department of the Environment to release the necessary funds within the project Proeftuin Ontharding and the blue deal. At the same time, we continued to inspire and shape the team through the Erasmus+ trajectories we set up. 2 teachers followed the accreditation course at Learning through landscapes UK and other colleagues went to outdoor initiatives in Italy, Austria, Finland, England, ... Because we always made the link between the design and construction on the one hand and the school's content project on the other, this project could be realised. Now, the school not only serves as a practical example, but has also led to an organisation (BLES) that inspires schools in Flanders and Europe to transform their playgrounds into climate-adaptive, nature-rich playgrounds where outdoor learning and greening are central. BLES is a member of the international school ground alliance (ISGA) and is instrumental in the realisation of the Salzburg statement on greening school grounds and outdoor learning.
The realisation of the project is the result of an exciting interaction between children, teachers, parents, designers, engineers, education experts and authorities. By putting together a multi-disciplinary team, we managed to develop a powerful project. There was a great willingness to listen and drive for change among each of the stakeholders. Very regular consultation moments took place in which each step of the design process was taken extremely carefully. After all, it is not obvious to put the children's interests first when contractors and engineers are consulting with each other. Yet it was nice to see each party striving for perfection. The playground is also the result of a strong content trail. Helen Tovey's book on the importance of free play and Richard Louv's book 'last child in the woods' provided the direction of the vision. In addition, organisations such as Springzaad were actively involved with content on natural play. Flemish organisations such as MOS, Natuurpunt, Greenpeace, BOS+ gave their teaching programmes to prepare children and teachers for the changes. International organisations such as Learning through landscapes and the International School Ground Alliance were essential to share vision around loose parts play and stimulating examples. At the same time, our partnerships with Catholic Education Flanders, Arteveldehogeschool Ghent and the University of Antwerp were fascinating to help shape the curriculum as well. Now, as a school, we are recognised as an Eco-school through the Foundation for Environmental Education and are proud owners of the European Innovative Teaching Award which recognises our work. The importance of the Erasmus+ programme is undeniable in this and we are very grateful for it. Next to that we also had the luck to be guided by the experts of the government on water and biodiversity.
It always feels strange to label this project as "innovative" when it is a confirmation of what everyone already knows. We urgently need to commit to nature-rich cities and towns. For Flanders, which is a particularly densely populated region, with complex spatial planning, this is even more true. We struggle with a dramatic loss of biodiversity, we struggle with drought and flooding and sinking groundwater levels, and we cannot get air pollution under control in our cities. We see no way out of our clogged mobility bottlenecks and keep putting band-aids on the wound. Nor are we showing our youth the forceful solutions needed to bring about change. This project, then, is a pearl in the ocean. We have managed to do a total makeover of a space that is pretty much always seen at school as the residual space where a new playground equipment is occasionally put. So we think the innovative thing is in the fact that we realised this and turned so many noses in the right direction while also finding the necessary funds to pay for it. An ingenious water management system was installed under the playground, cleverly answering to water drainage, collection and reuse. Above ground, large areas were softened and biodiversified. Above ground, a stimulating play and learning landscape was then also built, offering daily fun for 500 children. The great thing is that this story is not a top-down story but definitely a bottom-up one, in which the children were put centre stage time and tim again and in which we succeeded in linking infrastructure to curriculum so that the teaching team is also committed to working in this space. The contrast with other similar projects is the scale of the project. There were no small interventions in small areas. Work was done across the board on content, form, communication and education. To this day, this is our challenge and we succeed wonderfully in inspiring our children, teachers, other organisations and international teams.
Since the reconstruction of our playground, we have been actively training our teachers in outdoor learning. These teaching techniques are now widespread and we link this to STEAM and 21s century skills. In this way we offer a complete educational program to our children so that we know we are preparing them for their future. They will blossom into global citizens with a heart for the environment because we as a school work so hard on this. The fascinating thing to see is that this story has since transcended our school. As mentioned earlier, the organization BLES (www.blesland.be) that has now guided more than 20 schools in Flanders to a climate-adaptive playground and has continued to find the means to bring change to all levels of Flemish education. With BLES we work together with European and International organizations such as Instituut voor Natuureducatie (NL), Learning through landscapes (UK), Children & Nature network (USA), the Flemish government and the Arteveldehogeschool in order to put our lessons learned into practice and thus create further change. We are forming international teams to guide schools to climate-adaptive playgrounds and train school teams in the principles of outdoor learning. We deliberately also made an English translation of our Climate Playground website so that we can inspire and inspire globally as well. This is a story to be emulated and is the epitome of the greening movement that is already being emulated here and there. Cedric Ryckaert, teacher at the school now travels Europe to bring the story to other schoolteams, organisations and governments.
The project started in 2016 with an intensive participatory process that quickly involved pupils, teachers, school leaders, the neighbourhood and authorities. The title 'a dream of a playground' became the slogan to unite the many parties. The blog site climate playground was created to communicate progress and through social media, people were warmed up to participate in the changes. To give the project sufficient substance, teachers travelled home and abroad to visit schools and initiatives. They came back inspired and enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by creating a natural playground for the school. In addition, the team of teachers got to work on sustainable development projects that were sent by the University of Antwerp and Ghent, among others. However, the many inputs we received from parents and pupils made it difficult to create a solid design. At that point it was decided to work with landscape designers who could capture the dreams in images and designs. The intensive design process took four years. Thorough thought was given to how the school's outdoor space could be made climate-adaptive and at the same time play- and learning-friendly. Many information sessions and design meetings followed. A team set to work intensively to find the necessary resources and, as authorities and partners jumped on board the project, the snowball became unstoppable. Construction of the playground started in 2019 and was completed in March 2020. Now we are training the staff to work with the grounds. A collaboration with Artevelde University of applied scienses delivers co-created lessons where teachers and students are collaborating in creating outdoor lessons on the spot. This is a rich cooperation that is helping teachers in gaining self confidence in their outdoor lessons.
If we want our children and their children to take care of our planet and restore fragile ecosystems and biodiversity, we will have to teach them about this. They will have to develop their knowledge and skills about this in the daily reality of school. Children know the different Pokémons better than the birds that fly in their garden every day. This is a dramatic effect of the screen culture infiltrating our families. The knowledge about plants, animals and habitat will be lost if we do not quickly address those places where children can interact with these topics on a daily basis. Schools and their playgrounds are the most important environments for this. If you approach them from a whole school approach you will see that there are so many gains to be made. They provide space for trees, plants, animals. They are ideal locations for softening and improving air quality. They serve as spaces for meeting and communication and are safe places for so many children who struggle at home with numerous problems and challenges. in addition, they are the canvas for innovative educational practices that eliminate school dropout and fatigue. Green and natural playgrounds encourage creativity and well-being. They are the perfect prevention for later health problems and also add value visually. In addition, they are those spaces where teachers spend their careers of 30 to 40 years. Teachers are also entitled to a beautiful and quality working environment where they can spend breaks and lessons with their children in a pleasant way. To conclude scientific evidence shows that transforming school grounds into nature-rich environments is a powerful tool that improves physical and mental health, social and cognitive skills, creativity, and academic performance. The ability to play, learn and grow on school grounds allows children and young people to be connected to nature and, in turn, protect it and its inhabitants, which is essential for actions to mitigate climate change.
Our playground was completed in 2020 and is the result of 4 years of intensive design and a robust participatory process. The project has since won both regional and international awards and was picked up as a best practice by the Global Center on Adaptation, among others. Media teams come regularly to make educational films about our playground, and teachers and education specialists from around the world visit our school. Representatives of the school have been allowed to speak at international conferences such as The International School Ground Conference, The World Environmental Education Congress, and the playground's story has already been featured in several press publications and specialized journals. Winning the European Innovative Teaching Award was the icing on the cake and shows the school made the right choices. We therefore continue to run the blog site klimaatspeelplaats.com and now also feature stories from our visits to other projects and schools there. Thus, this site can grow into an international source of inspiration for other schools and projects. We are actively involved in the realization of similar projects through BLES and stand shoulder to shoulder with numerous other organizations that want to help make these changes happen. This both in Flanders and internationally. Thus, the playground project became a stepping stone to so much more. But in the end, only 1 thing counts. The smiles of our children while playing, the confidence that grows during their playtime and the care and knowledge they develop about the fragility of the ecosystem they live in. Every playtime we see that it works. That they are growing up in a world where together we made the right choices for their future!
Outside of a chalk graffiti on the yard within the plastic education class, temperature recording linked to natural science and team sports during physical education class, you rarely find curriculum-based learning activities on the playground. Worldwide, organizations such as Learning through landscapes and The Children & Nature network (USA) are convinced advocates of nature-based & place-based learning, using every aspect of the environment to achieve powerful learning. When a student builds ingenious structures in the sand play area, uses pebbles as a base for building materials, uses branches to build a bridge to help animals cross the pond, outdoor learning provides opportunities to involve and combine math, language, science and creativity. Thus, you can easily make links with e.g. an integrated STEM approach and work on 21st century skills such as cooperation, creative thinking and entrepreneurship. There is global momentum to soften and green playgrounds. Teacher teams, parent committees, design teams and governments see that something has to change. However, investing in the playground is still too often seen as, "we'll do that when the rest is done. Transforming the playground into a green learning environment, in addition to gathering budgets, requires first and foremost a thoughtful approach in which it is best to involve all partners.
The places most used by our young people must also be designed, conceived and managed by them. A smart design in which the children and youth are involved parties and in which they can develop their love for the place are therefore important. In those places they develop and manage themselves, opportunities arise to create high involvement and love with and for their environment. Because simply offering more nature does not necessarily lead to more knowledge about and contact with that nature. We believe that combining all these things, helps creating a sustainable world with people who are competent in their action