“So, to you all the kids all across the land,
Take it from me: Parents just don’t understand”

Released in 1988, the song “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince summed up what surely every teenager on earth has thought at one point or another. There is something about being a teenager that no one can understand; for a decade or longer, we struggle with finding our place in the world, with understanding who we are and who we want to become, with our relationship to one another and ourselves.

It’s not for lack of trying, however. Teenagers compartmentalize their lives into highly scheduled and organized operations—team sports in some cases, drama club in others, the high school band or a virtual band of video game virtuosos—which can isolate them from direct connection with the earth and its millions of other inhabitants.

There are volumes of research that tell us regular, unstructured time outdoors allows children—even teenagers—to develop better mentally, physically, emotionally and socially. (Some research suggests that children who play outdoors are better stewards of the environment later in life.) As a result, there is movement toward taking children outside more often within the vast educational machine, but this movement is mostly focused on younger children.

But what about high school children?

This is where the learning landscape takes on a role. There are two parts to creating a learning landscape for high school-aged children: the social landscape and the project landscape.

Social Landscape

Every part of our existence as teenagers is, in part, social experimentation. Social development is a core component to collaborative learning and working, and providing outdoor space in a way that supports social development is an important part of high school campus design. Not special “socialization” spaces, but learning spaces that embrace small and large group collaboration.

For example, the spatial scale varies from an intimate reading court to an amphitheater for performing arts or small group break-outs.  This collaboration is much different from the “teamwork” definition often used in athletics; it is inclusive across the board or all students. When inclusion is a basic part of the physical design and community, discrimination becomes the uncommon.  Person meet persons.

Project Landscape

I often hear the question, “What can a high school class do outside?” The answer is: Most everything they can inside, but better. High school is a busy place and requires a well-orchestrated schedule and environment. But that doesn’t mean high school students can’t be effectively taught outdoors.

This is where the project landscape comes in. In the project learning landscape, high school students can be encouraged to:

  • Zen stone balance rock arrangement relaxation calmDocument the current physical and experiential characteristics of the campus environment, in the moment, as well as over time. (“Mapping” the environment provides an awesome living laboratory for today’s student, and an even greater one for future students!)
  • Study an environment’s history, its stories before people arrived to manipulate it, and their relationship with the local land. They can help answer the question, “Why did humans slow down and settle here?”
  • Fine-tune their powers of observation, whether that means gathering inspiration for writing a story, field notes for a biology lab report or materials for collaborative outdoor art installation.

By engaging with a learning landscape, high school students can build a conscious connection and understanding of the natural world, themselves and one another. They learn personal, social and environmental responsibilities as caretakers for one another, the community and the world. This kind of connection simply cannot be had within an isolated inside environment.