My Passion: The Value of Outdoor Learning

Ed Melvin

To be honest, I didn’t even know landscape architecture existed before I went to college. My favorite place has always been the forest and my pastime drawing, so when I discovered I’d be able to spend my career combining the two and contribute to the built environment in a positive way, I knew I must follow this. And now, more than 20 years later, I’m still doing just that: playing in and being inspired by nature and – hopefully – moving others to do the same.

My title might be “landscape architect,” but really what I do is dream and draw. I think in worlds. I get to go to work and imagine moments for the people who will eventually use our projects. Since much of my work revolves around educational environments, I try to create a story for how students experience the building from arrival to how outdoor spaces can contribute to their learning once they are there. I use those imaginary moments and stories to design spaces where people are free to discover, explore, ask questions and be inquisitive… which is what learning is all about. A secure freedom to be wholly themselves.

Special Outdoor Spaces

My dream outdoor learning spaces are those that allow play, learning and social roles to happen organically and simultaneously. Too often, adults separate work from recreation. Kids have a natural inclination to learn through inquisitive play. They have a natural sense of adventure. That’s why I love designing for educational spaces, particularly early childhood and K-12 schools.

For example, in an outdoor learning garden, students can learn about, either through planned lessons and their own observation, birds, butterflies and plants that live in the garden: what do they eat, how and where do they make their home and how can we attract more of them? It’s the perfect marriage of education and nature.

And learning outdoors doesn’t have to happen as the result of an elaborate design. Kids who have “screen time” outdoors are engaged beyond just sight and hearing. They are feeling, smelling and touching. They are experiencing nature. By simply taking the screen outside, we have removed the limits to the senses and opened the door – literally – to new experiences. This experiential learning allows for the boundlessly inquisitive nature of childhood to be a driving force in educational design. What if we design with inquisitive minds?

Begin with a Tree

Every design is different: needs and wants of the school community, the site and budget are among the many factors that impact a landscape and environment. I have only one rule: start with a tree. Trees change the environment, even though that change is gradual. It may take 15 to 30 years for a tree to fully impact the architectural space it accompanies, but the impact is always realized. Unlike a building, the landscape is alive and dynamic, making it a great educational tool.

Regardless of who owns the space, I always encourage them to let it behave naturally. We have this cultural tendency to over manage things; Americans like tidy, perfect lawns and hedgerows. Of course, a site needs to be functional for teachers and students, but if designed properly, schools can let the natural space evolve into an even more valuable teaching tool.

What You Might Be Surprised to Learn

My yard looks nothing like the spaces I design. I might scatter wildflower seeds across beds or let wild grasses and trees grow as they may. There is no real design or story to it… although letting nature take its course to create its own beautiful space is arguably a story in itself!

I also rarely take vacation. I love to come in, where work is to dream and draw, imagining worlds and helping them become real. What more could I ask for?

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