Changing lifestyles and working environments make it that children spend increasingly more time at school. Accordingly, the school building and the relevant open space are not only learning but also important living spaces...
Steyrdorf school – a school garden created with labour, love and learning
By Markus Kumpfmüller (DI Kumpfmüller KG, landscaping agency)
Among the many school gardens that we have designed in the 30 years that we have been active this garden stands out in many aspects. In first place is the pedagogical concept. The Steyrdorf school is proud to be considered an institution that provides integrated education, bringing together in the same classes 'normal' children and those with special needs. Many of the teachers have, in addition to their conventional training, supplementary qualifications ‒ among them are teachers holding Montessori diplomas, MOVE practitioners, and speech, art and creative therapists. It is thus no surprise that at the Steyrdorf school, the garden has always played a central role.
Steyr ‒ a city on two rivers
Steyrdorf school is located in Steyr, a small-scale city with just under 40,000 inhabitants in the heart of Austria that lies on the confluence of the rivers Enns and Steyr. Many consider it to be among Austria's most attractive cities.
In any case, Steyr is certainly home to two of Austria's most outstanding school gardens. This, at least, is the view of the Austrian Institute for School and Sports Facility Construction (ÖISS), which has included these school gardens in its list of 14 best practice examples on its website ‒ https://www.oeiss.org/schulfreiraum-best-practice/de/informationen/prinzipien/. Steyrdorf itself was one of the three historic districts that eventually came together to form the city of Steyr in the Middle Ages.
A very special place
Two unusual features of the garden are its siting and its form. It is what one might describe as a 'scarf-shaped garden' ‒ a narrow, elongated piece of land that has a length of 120 m and a width of only 18 m. It is bordered to the south by the wall of Steyr municipal cemetery and to the north by the façade of the single-storey school building. These two enclosing elevations together with a short wing at the eastern end of the long building tract generate an atmosphere of seclusion and intimacy that provides a range of benefits that enhance the school's routine. Both elevations are structured and non-homogeneous in form so that there is no obtrusively strict geometry.
The design process
When an afternoon supervised group was introduced in the school in 2014, a budget of €50,000 was made available to upgrade the garden and make it into an exercise-promoting feature. This sum was to cover outgoings for all measures necessary, including the design process and consultation with the teachers. From the very beginning it was clear that only with proficient use of existing resources, efficient planning and limitation to what was really necessary would it be possible to generate the maximum in terms of the pedagogical requirements.
Our approach was to develop ideas and define the main aspects in consultation with the teachers. Groups of ten in which we participated considered the options in two sessions lasting two hours ‒ the effort had us all quite literally building up a head of steam!
After the draft plan was prepared and approved, it was necessary to determine how the design was to be implemented and issue an invitation to tender. During the school summer holidays, three specialist organisations carried out the required work under our supervision.
Site access and infrastructure
The site has now been opened up by a broad pathway with water-repellent surfacing that is robust enough to withstand the impact of many children's feet and can be used immediately after rain ‒ either on foot or with various play vehicles. Positioned along this like the pearls of a necklace are a range of elements that invite users to explore or exercise ‒ there is a beach volleyball basket mounted on a tool shed, a climbing frame that can double as a tent, jumping stumps, balancing beams together with the thick trunk of a now deceased sycamore. Part of the tree trunk that had to be removed for safety reasons has been incorporated in a horizontal position in the terrain where it will eventually provide a home for fungi, insects and other creatures. Several generations of children will have their school careers behind them before this 100-year-old tree finally decays and disappears.
Local regulations in Steyr mean that it is not permitted to use drinking water in school gardens. The newly created water play area is thus supplied by rainwater from the building gutters. An area of some 25 m² was first covered with film on which were positioned two existing concrete rings and several boulders and the whole depression was then filled with gravel. The rainwater travels by pipe first to a wooden trough placed in an elevated position and can then be released through three wooden chutes, each with cut-off, into the sealed gravel pit. In the interests of safety, water is allowed to collect to a maximum level of 10 cm only in the two concrete rings. Otherwise, the children have to dig among the gravel to get to the water.
The soil that was removed to create the water feature has been used to construct a gently sloping play hill with a handicapped-friendly broad slide. A mixture of seeds of flowering plants that grow locally have been sown on the hill. On the side facing the water feature, the hill is covered by granite blocks that form a staircase that also provides seating.
Climbing and balancing
In order to better distribute usage on this elongated site, there is now an additional doorway to the garden at the western end of the long school building that provides access to an exercise space with horizontal bars, climbing wall and balancing beam.
A space for creativity
Positioned in a recess of the old cemetery wall is a wooden panel painting wall that is protected from the weather by an overhang. The steps in front of this can be used to sit on while taking a well-earned break or to watch the activity on the grassed area opposite, where all sorts of exercise, ball and running games are possible.
Perhaps the jewel in the crown is the creativity corner to the south-west where a handicraft teacher has lovingly put on display the results of years of artistic endeavour. Under the shade of the trees here can be admired what many generations of children have managed to produce. And this is an ever-changing exhibition ‒ the only thing that is always constant here is variation.
What the teachers and pupils have to say
The school headmistress, Martina Hochleitner:
"I can hardly believe it that the redesign was completed six years ago. The garden has actually become more attractive in the meantime, plants are starting to overrun the garden pond and the hill has become a delightful flower meadow that has to be mown with a scythe every year. The children absolutely love the garden. There many hiding places for them to find and they thoroughly enjoy using the natural materials, such as old reeds, wood and grasses to build refuges and hideouts. The garden ‒ particularly at the present time ‒ is being extensively used; we now have an open-air classroom in the creativity corner with its own blackboard while salad, tomatoes and squash are growing in the raised bed. The rainwater play feature is particularly popular with the more severely handicapped children, where they can dig, delve and experiment with water. The many different zones mean that a large number of different classes and groups can use the garden simultaneously without disturbing each other."
A girl attending the school:
"My favourite bit of the school garden is the slide that is wide enough so that I can slide down next to my friend. The school garden is so big that I can hide myself so that nobody can find me. The special thing about our school garden is that it is right next to the cemetery."