Investigating death and decay on the schoolyard

The story below is a beautiful example of how school grounds can serve as the teacher. In this scenario, the student is left to determine her own solution and formulate her own ideas and thoughts around death. Is reading this story I asked myself, why isn’t death something that is discussed in school? Maybe teachers are hesitant to bring it up? Maybe they assume that death, along with other complex social-emotional topics is more appropriate for outside of school? What works in this story is that it’s actually the soil (and presumably the micro and macro organisms that live in it) that does the teaching. This allows the teacher to guide the students as they struggle with finding the answer that they are looking for. Along the way, the students think like a scientist and moved through the process of discovery - from investigation to data collection to reflection.

Thank you to Sue Humphries for sharing this very moving story - you are an inspiration! Please reference the Social Emotional Well-Being section of the International School ground Month Activity Guide, which includes activities that center around empathy and collaboration. If you are interested in submitting a story like this about how you utilize your grounds for social-emotional or other types of learning, please submit your story here.

Sam Ullery
ISGA Leadership Council Member
School Garden Specialist, DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education's Division of Wellness and Nutrition

We often buried dead animals in the school garden. The children brought in cats, mice, hamsters and guinea pigs. The idea was to wrap them in a clean cloth, bury them in the soil and dig them up two seasons later, after soft tissue had decayed. The bones were cleaned in a solution of one part bleach, two parts water. After two hours, the bones were removed, and the system was repeated. The result of this killed off the bacteria. Then the children mounted or reassembled the bones. 

Emma, age 7, brought in a stoat which had been killed by her neighbor’s cat. She buried it with her friends and I helped her wrap in an old bedsheet, we placed a stick marker on it. Two terms later, she went out to dig it up, but could not find the marker, even though she remembered where we had buried it. She meticulously dug over the plot, but she refused to believe that the corpse had gone. After an hour of digging, she went back to where she started and re-dug the plot. I told her that the bones had probably been discovered by an animal. She was adamant that she had not seen the ground disturbed and dug across the whole area again. During this time, the children had gone into school and I tried to persuade her to join her friends in the classroom. I didn’t want to upset her and kept suggesting that another animal had benefited from the bones. Whilst I admired her persistence, I recognized she was missing lessons and was now covered in dirt. By 11 o’clock, I had to intervene, I could not let this child continue to dig. I said “look, I really admire your efforts, but we are not going to find the bones”.

The only choice I had was to visit the butcher and inquire after an animal which had just been shot. The next week I arrived in school with a pheasant and convinced Emma that it was road kill. However, she resolutely refused to bury the pheasant in the same ground that we had buried the stoat. Despite her initial reluctance, we found a suitable place to bury the pheasant and six months later, we dug it up.

The point of the story is this; children should not first meet death at the loss of a loved one, instead they should meet death heuristically at arms-length. Death is a natural process and a condition of being born. In learning from animals who have died, we respect the lifespan of these animals and help eliminate some of the fear of death.

The story and photos above were contributed by Sue Humphries, co-founder of the Coombes School and a pioneer in what has become known as the Coombes Approach to integrating experiential and outdoor education into schools.

Happy International School Grounds Month!

We just released a new video about International School Grounds Month! We invite you to share it with your local schools!

We just released a new video about International School Grounds Month! We invite you to share it with your local schools!

In May each year, the International School Grounds Alliance calls on schools around the globe to take their pupils outside to celebrate their grounds. It’s as simple as that. We believe school grounds are very important to children and youth, and shape their experience of the world around them. If you agree with us, we hope you will take some time during this month—an hour, a day, even a week—to go outside into your grounds with your students to engage in learning, play and other activities.

This short video, produced by on behalf of ISGA by our colleagues at Nadace Proměny Karla Komárka in the Czech Republic, includes scenes from vibrant school grounds around the world. The images and video footage were contributed by many of ISGA's Leadership Council members. We invite you to share this video and encourage schools in your own region to join us in celebrating International School Grounds Month!

Guest Blog: World-famous Schoolyard Leveled to the Ground

Coombeshenge in years past.

Coombeshenge in years past.

Coombeshenge after being leveled in 2018.

Coombeshenge after being leveled in 2018.

Note from ISGA: Recently the famous outdoor schoolyard created by ISGA Leadership Council Member, Susan Humpries, was leveled to the ground as a result of changes in school governance and policy. The authors of this guest blog followed the school closely and wrote a book about the space in 2002, called The Schoolyard as a Classroom: a Yearround at Coombes School. They share their thoughts on this news below. 

Coombes School outside London is world famous for its schoolyard and its outdoor-focused educational model. Visitors and researchers from around the globe have followed the school since 1971, when founder, Susan Humphries, and her staff first created a child-friendly landscape on the school grounds. It was a place that attracted children’s curiosity and desire to explore - a place where young people learned about life as well as school subjects. 

Since Susan Humphries retired in 2003, successive head teachers and staff had maintained and respected the outdoor environment and supported The Coombes philosophy; one based on using the living landscape in the grounds as the children’s biggest and most important classroom. Now that the school has been converted into an Academy with new management, the characteristics of the grounds have been dramatically changed and teaching concentrated in the indoor classrooms

Coombes School is well-known across the globe. researchers have valued its educational work for decades and numerous international visits to study the school have taken place. In 2011, Susan Humphries was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) because of her approach to creating outdoor environments rich potential for play and creative school work, which has positioned the school at the forefront of education, internationally. 

A treehouse at Coombes in years past.

A treehouse at Coombes in years past.

The same tree, after the treehouse was torn down in 2018.

The same tree, after the treehouse was torn down in 2018.

But it has not been easy to anchor the outdoor approach and to keep using the grounds for teaching and learning purposes, even though Susan Humphries continued to advise the school for many years after her retirement. During its prime, everything in the grounds was created, managed, and maintained to meet children at their own levels in every way. Fruit trees were planted and pruned so that the fruits could be picked by a very young child. Houses were built in the trees where you did not have to be afraid to spoil and waste. There was an amphitheater, huts, art installations, micro-biotopes, ponds, sheep, and hens.

Coombes even had its own Stonehenge — “Coombeshenge”. It was part of an ingenious system of rocks and blocks from all corners of Britain that formed a Geology Trail used for play and learning. This was just one piece of the world that school created—its own world made up of different places with different characters. 

In November, there was always a fire burning in the school grounds. The children would build a model of London using cardboard boxes painted in happy colours. A fire would be started in the baker's house on Pudding Lane and would spread until the whole box-town burned down, with the children bearing witness to the devastation. 

A phoenix is also created and burned, becoming a pile of ashes. "Everything has to come to an end", the teachers would say, as the children watched the fire. Everything goes under sooner or later, but this is not necessarily bad or dangerous. Death is a prerequisite for life. Something new will sprout from the ashes.

Do children understand this? "No, maybe not now—but later in life they will," the teachers reasoned at Coombes. We all carry memories that sooner or later are brought to life again, perhaps when we return to a place or a context that revives the experiences we have had before. The place brings the memories to life: the place is the memory. This idea was the basis of the philosophy and approach to outdoor education that the Coombes' staff and parents, with head teacher Susan Humphries at the forefront, developed and practised nearly every day. 

But now an era has gone to the grave. When we recently visited Coombes School the new head teacher explained that over the last five years, the school has gone through some very turbulent times. Due to governmental pressures on the expected quality of teaching and learning, the school environment, which was once a top priority, has had to take a back seat. In the autumn of 2017, the school was turned into an Academy, with new management and many new staff. The school had to break a downward spiral and the new head apparently wants to reboot from a clean slate. The grounds are no longer used as much as in the past and the holistic approach to learning in and from a living outdoor environment has nearly disappeared. 

The local authority was also asked to make a safety check and found that some of the school’s well-known stone sculptures were a hazard. At the beginning of 2018, these stone arrangements were leveled to the ground. The head teacher told us that the school could not manage the costs of securing the blocks in a safe way. We don’t know how big the risk was in reality, but it was difficult for even the machines to roll over the stones. The artists that created the sculptures were not informed what was to happen to their work, nor was Mrs. Humphries. The amphitheater is also closed and the tree-houses have been torn down. Trees and shrubbery have been cut to allow staff to monitor and control the children. "Now they can play safely", says the new head teacher.

While we clearly understand that something must be done when an outdoor environment lacks sufficient care and maintenance for years, we are devastated that the Coombes School will no longer serve as an international model. 

Hand-crafted stone sculpture at Coombes School, in 2010.

Hand-crafted stone sculpture at Coombes School, in 2010.

The same stone sculpture, after being leveled in 2018.

The same stone sculpture, after being leveled in 2018.

Leveling almost 50 years of development in a few days is a clear indication of what can happen today, in a social climate where fear and short-term thinking are spreading. What happened at Coombes is a sad example of how historic values can be erased because of a lack of understanding, or even no respect at all, for why the outdoor environment is necessary for children. Democratic values, the belief in the power of collective action, and the basic conditions for children's development (that were so common in the past) seem to be wiped away like annoying insects.

The Roman Empire fell, but a new world sprouted from the ash. This parallel to what has happened at Coombes might be far-fetched, but seeds are sprouting from the ash here too: the memory of the achievements created by Susan Humphries and her colleagues live on and are rooted in many places around the world. Coombes's guiding moto, "sharing and caring", has to live on.

But now with the root of this holistic view on children’s learning and development gone, there is no longer a natural source for this thinking. Great values will be lost if forces and cultures created over decades can be erased in just a few days. It is time for an international gathering to defend and strengthen the impact and importance of the outdoor environment as a teaching resource.

A single enthusiast can achieve a lot, but enthusiasts alone are not enough. We need stable and supportive systems to guarantee that the outdoor environment in schools and pre-schools are designed and used as resources of great importance to children´s schooling and over-all development. Local community work is as important as national and international agreements and guidelines. The International School Grounds Alliance, for example, now has a golden opportunity to act on both national and international levels. But remember we can all contribute. Let’s make sure the Phoenix rises from the ashes and flies again! 

Do not miss Susan Humphries sharing her philosophy in the movie Green Grounds for Health and Learning

For more information about the inspiring curriculum and innovative approach used successfully at Coombes for decades, see: The Coombes Approach: Learning through an Experiential and Outdoor Curriculum by Susan Rowe and Susan Humphries (Continuum, 2012).

About the Authors

Titti Olsson is a Science Journalist at Movium Think tank at SLU, Alnarp, Sweden. She is a specialist in outdoor environments for children and young people and is the author of several books on the theme since the early 1990’s. She is also the Chief Editor for the Magazine STAD.

Petter Åkerblom is is a Landcape Architect specialized in urban outdoor environments that promote contact with nature, play, and active living for children and young people. He is Senior Lecturer in Landscape Architecture at the Department of Urban and Rural Planning, SLU, Uppsala. His PhD is focused on school gardening ("Learning by gardening"). During the years 2006-2017 he was the National Coordinator for outdoor urban space for young people at Movium Think tank, SLU. He is also an ISGA Leadership Council Member.

This blog was adapted from an article first published on Movium's website in Swedish,

Announcing ISGA's New Expanded Activity Guide for Schools


We are very excited to present the 2018 International School Grounds Month Activity Guide. This new publication is an expanded version of the school ground Activity Guide we have been producing over the last few years. It is designed to help schools use their grounds to the fullest during the month of May for International School Grounds Month and year round!

The guides are appropriate for ages 3-18 and are full of cross-curricular activities that enhance and promote play, learning, health, outdoor connections, and community. They also contain great background information on the school grounds movement, the benefits of taking children outside, and how we are working to shift the norm of how school grounds are designed and used. 

We would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to all of our authors who contributed this year and in the past. The Activity Guides would not have been possible without their fantastic written contributions and the generosity of their organizations in sharing their work. We are grateful for the time and energy they put into their submissions and for their efforts to support this movement.

With our colleagues at Green Schoolyards America, we also produced a 2018 edition of the companion book, the Living Schoolyard Activity Guide. Together, the two Guides now include a total of 235 activities written by 187 organizations in 27 countries. (Did you know you had that many like-minded colleagues? It’s amazing!) All of the activities in both Guides are intended for use anywhere in the world, so we encourage you and your community to share the links for both of these free books!

The map above shows the fantastic geographic diversity of the author-organizations that contributed ideas to this publication series. Organizations that contributed to the  International School Grounds Month Activity Guide  are shown with red markers. Organizations that participated in the  Living Schoolyard Activity Guide  are shown with yellow markers.

The map above shows the fantastic geographic diversity of the author-organizations that contributed ideas to this publication series. Organizations that contributed to the International School Grounds Month Activity Guide are shown with red markers. Organizations that participated in the Living Schoolyard Activity Guide are shown with yellow markers.

2017 ISGA Conference A Success!

On September 4-6, 2017, 130 landscape architects, designers, educators, school principals, local representatives, and scientists from around the world gathered in Berlin. Representing 21 countries from around the world and numerous educational systems, all were united by one goal: transforming standard schoolyards into a diverse array of landscapes for playing, moving and learning!

Conference participants were immersed in a wide variety of learning experiences. On Day One, lectures provided international perspectives on the importance of well-designed open spaces in educational institutions. Specific topics included schoolyard plans created by undergraduate students in Denver, USA and Japan; the very first attempts of designing outdoor playgrounds in China; alternative educational concepts of natural and environmental schools in Sweden; and innovative educational concepts in Germany. Presenters discussed the need to rethink and design learning spaces in a completely different way, not only indoors but especially outside.

Excursions across Berlin gave the participants first­‐hand experience in Berlin’s innovative schoolyards. They were able to witness directly and concretely how only outdoor areas are capable of providing children and youth with direct contact to the natural environment. Natural phenomena, weather and climate, animals and plants, and natural elements such as water, earth, and air were experienced together with the children, and understood as part of an "Education for Sustainable Development".

On the last day of the conference, participants joined together with pupils of the Otto-Wels Primary School to transform the schoolyard with 12 artistic workshops, including creating mosaics, wicker igloos, stone and tree carvings, painting, and building balancing structures. These crafts brought to life a design developed with intensive participation of the school community and and provided a wonderful sense of achievement, and connection on which to end the conference.  It made evident how creativity, teamwork, pleasure, fun and mutual support enabled people of different cultures to reach a common goal that everyone could be proud of: changing together the "Schoolyard Living Space" positively, child-­‐friendly, ecological and sustainable.

Overall the conference was a great success. The new ideas and connections made through the lectures, workshops, excursions, and other events provided an impetus for further learning and action to all participants and their home institutions and organizations. We hope that the excitement it generated will encourage imitation across Berlin, Germany, and around the world!

For a detailed list of speakers, topics, schools visited, and workshop activities, download  the full conference report (right).


It is urgent to implement the planning and design of open spaces for children, whether in schools, kindergartens, living areas in cities and countryside. This must be done according to child‐appropriate design criteria and with a serious participation of the users, or by schoolyard designers who are specialized in user-­oriented open space design. In-­depth teaching, research, practice-­oriented study projects, in-service training and, of course, continuous interdisciplinary exchange are urgently needed on this topic.
— Manfred Dietzen, conference leader

Join us for the next ISGA conference in Berlin - Sept. 2017!

Join us for the next ISGA conference in Berlin - Sept. 2017!

This September, our colleagues at Grün Macht Schule will host the 6th global conference on school grounds for the International School Grounds Alliance. Entitled, "Schoolyard Diversity," this exciting event will be held in Berlin, Germany from September 4-6, 2017. We hope you will join us for three days of vibrant ideas and discussions with visionary leaders of the green school ground movement from Germany and around the world. The conference will include inspirational speakers, tours of Berlin's green schoolyards, and hands-on schoolyard greening activities. 

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Green Grounds for Health and Learning - Lund, Sweden - Sept. 2016

Green Grounds for Health and Learning - Lund, Sweden - Sept. 2016

The Green Grounds for Health and Learning conference was a great success! The 220 participants from 16 different countries around the world took part in a wide variety of lectures, seminars and practical sessions, both indoors and outdoors.

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