Seferian Design Group designed and are building all 22 playgrounds...

Exploiting Generation K’s natural love for nature … and learning

August 22, 2015, The Mississauga News

Learning is a natural thing, especially for young children.

And it will be getting a lot more natural for hundreds of full-day kindergarten students at the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board this fall.

When they start school next month, students at 22 Mississauga schools are going to find themselves in playgrounds that look nothing like the ones we grew up with.

Instead of money bars and swing sets, there will be tree trunk chairs, a sand area enclosed by tree branches from ash trees that have fallen victim to the Emerald Ash borer, an outdoor classroom area equipped with a blackboard, a wooden gazebo with flower boxes, and  an asphalted area with bike paths and trees to provide shade wherever possible.

There will also be public art in each playground by Orangeville wood carver Jim Menken, who will provide more of those charming carvings of birds of prey, bears, owls, raccoons, etc. that already dot our city landscape. Each school chose the animal it preferred to be its play-area symbol.

It may look like it’s being done for aesthetic reasons, but that’s not entirely the case.

The new era of “enhanced outdoor learning environments,” which has seen 44 schoolyards overhauled in the past two years, is an educational advance marching hand-in-hand with an environmental one, says Dufferin-Peel Superintendent Marianne Mazzorato, who heads the project.

The local Catholic board instituted its plan, which will eventually be instituted at every elementary school, after a thorough look at what other boards are doing and at the pedagogical research on how young children learn best.

Seferian Design Group designed and are building all 22 playgrounds...
Everyone’s seen this research in action if they’ve ever been to a seaside beach, says Mazzorato. “The kids will play for hours, making channels and creating little pools of water.”

The naturalized playgrounds, which will be visited by students for 40 minutes in the morning and 40 in the afternoon, are now classrooms that just happen to be outdoors.

“We want to create a seamless link between what’s going on inside the school and outside,” says the board’s superintendent of early years, community relations and partnerships.

A child’s innate joy in being outside, running around and having fun can be used by the astute teacher to create critical building blocks to learning.

“You dump a bucket of sand on an asphalt surface and they trace letters in the sand. They are learning fine motor skills, literacy and numeracy.” The fences will be of a large gauge wire so you can hang a blackboard there. Children can create and hang their art, enhancing their social and emotional development.

Many children have a fascination with castles that a savvy teacher can use to make those doors that lead to fulfillment of curriculum requirements open a lot wider, a lot quicker.

The new approach signifies not only a change in venue for learning, but a change in attitude for the teaching team, which includes early childhood educators.

“This is a recognition of the natural (there’s that word again) ways that children learn,” says Mazzorato. Teaching subjects in blocks of time is out. “We’re designing programs and encouraging educators to do this from a child’s-eye view.

We need to take our cues from the learners themselves. If we work with what engages the learner, we are building their skills. It’s no longer one size fits all, it’s about what they’re interested in.

“If you know the learner first, that’s half the battle.”

After a visit Wednesday to one of the schools that will unveil its animal sculpture on the opening day of school, St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Churchill Meadows, you could clearly see the attraction - especially to the kids from a day camp at the school who were fascinated by the layout as they disembarked from their bus.

One jarring note - artificial turf has been installed in the playgrounds - which doesn’t exactly fit with the mantra of the board’s strategic plan “to encourage respectful and sustainable environmental practices.” That was done to reduce maintenance costs.

Mazzorato already has one object lesson in the empowerment of the Generation K. from the new program.

Last year, a group of kindergarten children at Our Lady of Lourdes in Brampton decided that their cubbies were too small. They wrote a “very persuasive” letter to the superintendent outlining their concerns and including their proposal for bigger classroom storage spaces.

They learned numeracy skills through measuring their cubbies and literacy skills through writing their letter.

This year their classroom will have larger cubbies.

Apparently, there are also such things as natural political skills.


• Nancy Tallevi says the project, about $65,000 apiece for the 44 sites done to date, was not an additional cost to the board. Staff managed to find “efficiencies” within the three pots of money that the Ontario Education Ministry gave them for capital costs for implementation of full-day kindergarten to cover the expense. For instance, some schools ended up requiring renovations rather than the full classroom rebuiltd originally expected.

• Taking advantage of students’ natural interests as a trampoline for learning isn’t a concept that’s confined to young children, says Mazzorato. The same thing is happening in elementary grades, in secondary schools and even in post-secondary education. It’s also critical to follow up with the new outdoor environments to ensure they’re working as effectively as possible. “Our most important critics on this project are our early learners,” says the superintendent.

• Mazzorato takes the last two portions of her tripartite job title - Superintendent of Early Years, Community Relations and Partnerships - very seriously. Dufferin-Peel has forged a “great relationship” with the Riverwood Conservancy that “sees all our students from elementary and secondary schools experience the wonder of nature.” The board also works closely with the City, which provided the wood for the log borders of the sand enclosures, which came from trees cut down because of Emerald Ash Borer. The squiggly patterns (to use the technical term) that the bugs leave on the wood just underneath the ash bark as they kill the tree can be a jumping-off point for science lessons. The board is involved in the municipality’s One Million Trees initiative as well.

Dufferin-Peel also works with Ecosource and Credit Valley Conservation. “One hundred per cent of our schools are now eco-certified,” the superintendent says.

• Jim Menken, whose carvings of familiar animals in Canadian woods will become emblems in each of the schoolyards, isn’t finished his work just yet. He’ll be returning to many school yards next year to carve “salmon runs” into the logs in the outdoor kindergarten classrooms.

Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board