A chance to benefit from international education expertise

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson, Learning through Landscapes’ Head of Education and Communities, explains why this year’s International School Grounds Alliance conference is especially important.

On 23 and 24 September this year, the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) is coming to Scotland as Learning through Landscapes (LtL) hosts the 2021 conference. The theme of this year’s conference, which has been postponed from 2020, is ‘Challenges and Solutions’. Little did we know when we set up the theme what huge challenges would lie ahead for schools as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold!

As the UK and countries across the world move further towards a new ‘normal’, it’s important for outdoor learning experts around the world to share ideas with each other about how school grounds can provide solutions to ongoing problems. Providing this platform has been what the ISGA conference has been doing best for over 10 years.

In 2010, LtL hosted a school grounds conference in England, with the aim of sharing the latest expertise in outdoor learning provision. One day was spent taking part in outdoor lesson activities at Coombes Primary School – which was famous worldwide for its outstanding outdoor learning at the time – and the next day was spent visiting other schools who were also doing great things in their grounds. For the final day, we widened the scope, bringing in international speakers to share what was happening around the globe.

The event was a success and was quickly followed by a second international conference in San Francisco, after which the ISGA was officially established. Since then, there have been conferences in Canada, Indonesia, Germany, Sweden and Japan. The ISGA has spread across six continents, bringing together designers, researchers, play specialists and educators in a voluntary network of leaders in the field of school grounds.

It’s this international aspect that makes the conferences so special and so enlightening.

I personally love seeing the different ways schools across the globe address the same issues and challenges, and how everyone has a slightly different approach to the use, design and management of school grounds. In some countries the focus is on gardening, in others outdoor learning, in others natural and active play. For some, like in the UK, it spreads across all of these topics and many more. There is always something to learn, and there are always ways to explore how we might apply these lessons in the schools we work with.

When I asked Shari Wilson, a previous delegate and sustainability educator based in Kansas, USA, about her favourite part of ISGA conferences, she told me: “Two amazing things immediately come to mind: the dedication with which school grounds professionals in ISGA have come together to plan and execute the conferences – they are responsive to local needs, yet provide compelling stories and information for an international audience. And also, what happens AFTER the conferences: ideas shared have led to jump-starting local school grounds efforts.”

This was seen following the most recent ISGA conference in Japan, where a new network of those working in the sector was set up so that more schools and kindergartens could be helped to make the most of their grounds.

Kathrin Schmiele, a previous delegate and landscape architect based in Singapore, also told me what she gets out of the conferences: “Participation of dedicated, like-minded, and established experts (like pedagogues, designers, scientists, and policy makers) from around the world make this conference an exceptional platform. Exchange of in-depth knowledge and latest developments in the field of greening school grounds and the promotion of outdoor learning and play in an open and welcoming conference atmosphere reveals the vibrant spirit of an internationally established organization: International School Grounds Alliance.”

As the conference returns to the UK – this time to Scotland – schools around the world are seeing that their grounds are somewhere safe for their pupils to work and play in as they recover from the impact of the pandemic. Many are also understanding that outdoor learning and play can support the physical and mental health of both pupils and staff, as well as providing a multitude of educational opportunities.

So at this year’s conference, while we’ll learn how COVID-19 has been tackled in different parts of the world, we will also look at other topics schools and early years settings are facing and see inspirational responses and practice that will help us move forward in the long term.

From climate change to pupil mental health, from conflict resolution to the right to play, speakers will push thinking and expand participants’ views about what is possible in school grounds today and in the future.

You can join us in person or online for both days, as well as at evening discussion groups where we will be linking up with participants from around the globe.

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