Butler Laboratory School Unveils Green Schoolyard Plan

Draft plan courtesy Bay Tree Design

by Jen Hammons

The action-based philosophy at the Butler Lab School runs throughout the school, involving all members of the community. One display that hangs on the wall near the office shows the “participatory design process” of a Green Schoolyards Project that is in the works. From inception, the children, parents, community members, and school staff have all had a say. Images show meetings that include inspirational images of playgrounds and gardens from all over the world, sketches and wish lists made by everyone involved, data compilations of the results, and the current concept plan. As Smith explains, “Once we have a vision, a good plan created from a great process that involves everyone will make it more likely to be realized.” It has paid off: Duke Energy and the Efroymson Family Fund have generously donated to get the project off the ground. Sharon Danks, author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, and her design firm partner Lisa Howard with Bay Tree Design have facilitated the process.

The outdoor area started its transformation three years ago when a teacher undertook a long-term project that involved worm composting. It inspired (there’s that word again) some of the Butler students to write a grant that resulted in a twelve thousand dollar gift from Dow. With input from the children, parents, and community members, the yard now boasts fruit trees, berries, composting, an outdoor learning area, and a chicken coop with a living roof soon to be installed.

Draft plan courtesy Bay Tree Design

Designer Lisa Howard, of Bay Tree Design, the Berkeley, California–based firm hired to craft Butler Lab School’s Green Schoolyard Plan, has been working with students, faculty, and parents for months. “When we work with a school to create a concept plan, it’s a living document,” she said. “It’s meant to capture ideas that were generated during the community process that can be built out over 10 years.” This process included brainstorming, walking the site, creating an opportunities map, and design workshops with students and the community.

Principal Ronald Smith said the school had already introduced an edible schoolyard but wanted to take a more comprehensive approach. “Our main reason for engaging in this planning process was that we were concerned that if we continued to add a little piece here and a little piece there, we might be making decisions now that we might regret in five years.” He said having a solid plan not only helps the school make good long-term decisions about the things that put into the schoolyard but also helps with fund-raising.

Smith said the school’s landscape committee worked on a mission statement that sought to generate enduring understanding—a core principle of the school’s Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. “We prefaced our mission statement with a quote from a book about Reggio Emilia that is adapted from the writings of psychologist James Hillman: ‘Every place has a soul, an identity, and seeking to discover it and relate to it means learning to recognize your own soul as well.’” Smith added, “I really felt that quote summarizes what we hope to do to our outdoor space. The mission statement is: ‘The Butler Lab school green schoolyard will be a living example of how children can transform the world around them.’ We want a space for kids where they can be happy,” he said.

“The Butler Lab School is a good example of the type of client we work for,” Howard said. “They want a space that allows children to have many choices and opportunities for outdoor learning and child-directed play.” To that end, the plan creates different zones for different levels of activity—from quiet contemplation to active sports. A variety of ecosystems are proposed for the site, including prairie and forest. A pond could also offer an opportunity to interact with aquatic plants and wildlife. She said the draft plan will continue to incorporate additional feedback from faculty, staff, children, and parents. Once finalized, a budget will be created so fund-raising for implementation can begin.

Jen Hammons writes about education for the magazine from her SoBro home.

Additional reporting by Thomas P. Healy