By Rick Reynolds.

How could it be that school buildings can teach in ways teachers cannot? After all, how could an inanimate structure create an environment of creativity and learning that can enhance—even transcend—the dynamic human-to-human interaction between teacher and student?

It may seem implausible, but a movement is well underway to educate a new generation of kids within a new generation of school structures and playgrounds.

Architects today are pushing the limits of sustainable design based on biophillia—a love of living systems—designing academic buildings that are anything but academic. Far from the inanimate brick and mortar structures most of us attended, these new structures incorporate the ever-changing rhythms of nature by immersing students in the natural environment; a milieu in which Mother Nature quietly instructs by example.

Perhaps best of all, this new generation of green schools has shown remarkable success in reaching the full spectrum of students, from the so-called “gifted” to the so-called “learning challenged;” from the conformists to the non-conformists; from the socially compliant to the behaviorally challenged; and from the economically privileged to the underprivileged.

Indeed, research shows that natural learning environments can even blur the lines between what constitutes real intelligence and creativity from rote learning and conformity, while validating the unique perspectives of all socio-economic groups. And more than simply teaching sustainable living, this transformative approach to school design works to transcend traditional academic achievement, improving creativity, attendance, behavior, and health.

So how have these schools become the edifying moment? More and more, schools will incorporate:

  • Highly-efficient, low-impact building technologies
  • High-performance, net-positive energy buildings, using revolutionary heating and cooling systems that harness nature’s gifts, like solar and wind power
  • Durable, natural, healthy materials like carbon sequestering, sustainably harvested wood
  • Plenty of natural light, permitting plants, animals, living roofs, hanging gardens, green terraces, indoor vegetable plots, vertical farming, and playgrounds with learning stations.  
  • The functionality of dynamic living organisms, bringing the outside inside, and the inside-outside, while mirroring the fractals of nature, from the delicate veins of a leaf to immense mountain ranges, and from microscopic to cosmic scales.

With the immense environmental and related societal challenges facing the world, it’s becoming eminently clear that different kinds of intelligence and perspectives will need to be marshalled to forestall our rapidly deteriorating biosphere. But where will this sea change in thinking come from? Capitalism is often silent on the subject of sustainability, clinging to outdated notions of what constitutes the very definition of “growth” and “well-being” in a world of limited and diminishing resources.

If the new age of enlightenment does not spring from our schools, from where will it come? We’ll explore this subject in future posts. And if you’d like to learn more about Bensonwood’s important work in the green school movement, please go to www.bensonwood.com.