A look inside gates and passages, inspired by the playfulness of rural European stiles
I’ve always thought it would be fun to design an outdoor classroom that includes a stile—a set of steps, a ladder or a small gap that allows people to cut through a fence or wall. They are most commonly found in along the public footpaths, fences, walls and hedgerows that crisscross the UK and other parts of Europe. Stiles prevent livestock from wandering between the fields of neighboring farms, but still allow pedestrians to cross the fields.
Although they are certainly practical, I’ve always found these little passageways to be rather whimsical and playful. There’s something magical about a set of stone steps cut into a rock wall, or a little wooden ladder built into a split rail fence. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who can picture children chasing one another over the hedgerows, squealing with laughter as they slay imaginary dragons, play hide-and-go-seek or stage imaginary battles between the forces of good and evil.
There is also something deeply powerful in passing between spaces. Doors, archways, thresholds, bridges, gates, entries: each make it possible to experience someplace new. Each highlight change—a change in story we will live through, change in spatial quality, activity and challenge.
A passage can also indicate place and offer a boundary of ownership, which is important for outdoor learning environments. Children can engage in caring for them, thus learning empathy and stewardship for the living environment and the world around them. (In my opinion, so many aspects of developing a young, discovering mind begin with stewardship of the natural world!)
Not unlike boundaries themselves, gates and passages must be intentionally introduced to an outdoor classroom, must serve a purpose beyond just the practical, and should play a role in curriculum. But when designed in the right way, stiles can provide limitless opportunities for engagement and play. Can’t you just see an imaginative elementary schooler walking the plank or balancing on the high wire of this stile?! And wouldn’t it be fun to join in?!