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Thinking of transforming your school grounds? Having trouble knowing where to start? Feeling intimidated by the site plan? Then why not try making a large walk-in floor model that you can easily pack up and store in a box?


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Why make a model of your school grounds?

Most people are visual learners and have trouble translating a two-dimensional site plan into a three-dimensional space and vise versa. Making a walk-in model of your school grounds can help everyone understand everything from general planning principles to specific site constraints.

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A model will help you visualize your school grounds project and develop a plan for the entire site. You can make to-scale models of the projects you have in mind and place them in different locations on the grounds of the model to discover the most appropriate placement. The size and shape of the projects can be determined during the model-making process. A model will help you avoid pitfalls such as placing conflicting activities side by side and locating projects across "desire lines" (non-designated pathways that people choose to use to get from one place to another). It will also help you maintain important supervision standards and create shade where it is needed.

Involving all the students in surveying the site is a good way of starting to integrate school grounds transformation into the curriculum. For example, students can record and compare data, observe seasonal changes, identify plants and animals, measure buildings and fences, estimate the height of trees, calculate the area of the grounds covered by buildings, paving, grass and natural spaces, and even measure the area of shade cast by buildings and trees at different times of the day throughout the year. The greater the students' involvement during this initial planning stage, the greater their sense of ownership as the project evolves.


Planning the model

The model need not be as precise as the site plan; however, it helps to make the measurements of the various components of the grounds as accurate as possible to simplify the transfer of data between the model and the site plan.

Use a scale for the model that can be readily transferred to the site plan. For example, if your plan measures 2' X 2' 6" and your model exactly five times larger (10' X 12' 6"), measurements taken from the site plan will be multiplied by five and those from the model will be divided by five. Once the model has been completed, details on the 3D model can be transferred to the 2D school site plan for presentation to the school board for approval.


Gathering data

Site and site use surveys, a biodiversity inventory and a shade audit will provide you with the information you require for building the "as is" model.

A site survey is conducted to identify all existing features and site conditions and record the uses of the grounds by the school and community.

A year-round biodiversity inventory determines what wildlife already exists on the site. Students can make a biodiversity map to record when and where the species identified were found. Every subsequent year, the flora and fauna that is deliberately or coincidentally attracted to the site can be monitored.

A shade audit measures how much shade you currently have and where additional shade is needed. The shade should be measured early in the morning, at noon and at the end of the day at intervals throughout the year. Repeating the audit annually will help you make comparisons over time as the amount of shade increases through planting trees, growing vines on fences and constructing shelters such as gazebos.

To help you plan, the results of the site surveys can be transferred to the model. You may decide to mark on the model, buildings, site conditions and site uses such as human and vehicle traffic routes, sight lines, shaded areas, various uses of the grounds by the school and community, problems such as poor drainage, places where litter collects, and undesirable use of the grounds after hours. Write short notes and comments on paper and attach them directly to the model or mark important spots with numbers or letters and make an annotated key. Take photographs of unsightly views of the surrounding areas that you wish to improve upon as well as the more attractive views you would like to preserve. Place them at points within the model or around the property boundaries to serve as a reminder.


Marking the grounds of the model

To help you identify the spaces where your projects can be implemented, it is useful to mark the following information on the model:

  • utilities infrastructure and the area around each installation that must remain accessible for repair and maintenance work

  • areas where snow is piled in Winter

  • routes used by people to enter and exit the grounds and buildings, and between doorways of the building and gateways and other access points, play structures, sports fields, bike racks, dumpsters, storage sheds, portable classrooms, seating, parking spaces, school bus stops, etc.

  • routes and turning spaces for emergency, maintenance and delivery vehicles

  • problem areas such as poor drainage, steep slopes, graffiti, diseased trees, places where litter collects, windy spots, undesirable site uses, and damaged fences and signs, clogged drains, etc.

  • spaces used for curriculum activities

  • comments about different parts of the grounds

  • wildlife found on the site both seasonally and year-round

  • shaded spaces that children use

  • off-limits areas


Checking the scale

Before starting to assemble the materials for the model, make sure that you use a scale that allows measurements to be easily calculated and transferred back and forth between the model and the site plan.


Assembling materials for making the model

Once you have measured the components of the site, the model can be easily and cheaply made. Use unwanted materials for making the existing features and surfaces of the grounds and for building to-scale maquettes (small models, mock-ups or 3D 'sketches') of proposed projects. For example:

  • cut cardboard boxes to size to form the buildings. On the sides of the boxes, draw doorways and windows and mark spaces where murals can be added;

  • use grey fabric or carpeting to represent the paved areas such as the playground, pathways, parking lots, fire lanes, etc.;

  • paint existing pavement games directly onto the grey fabric. If plans involve removing or relocating existing games or adding new ones, paint them onto separate scraps of fabric to try out in different locations;

  • use green fabric or carpeting for sports fields and other grassed spaces. Indicate bare patches with earth-coloured material;

  • make fences by drilling holes in lengths of 2" X 1" wood, and glueing short sections of dowel into the holes. Attach wire mesh cut into strips to the 'fence posts' to represent chain-linked fences. The distance between the posts and the height of the fencing can be determined during the site measuring activities;

  • model-builders can have fun using their imagination to make miniature play structures, basketball poles, bike racks, storage sheds, dumpsters and seating out of unwanted materials and found objects.


Marking the routes

Learning about how people and vehicles traverse the site helps to avoid problems related to locating planting spaces on the desire lines or near where trees and other plants may suffer mechanical damage from vehicles. Lay coloured string on the grounds of the model to mark the routes used by pedestrians and cyclists to enter and exit the grounds. String can also be used to show the main routes used by the school community between the doorways of the building and all destinations on the grounds. Use string of a contrasting colour to mark the major access routes and turning space allowances for grounds maintenance, emergency, delivery and waste collection vehicles.


Pathways between projects

If placing a planting project across a well-used route is unavoidable, make a clearly-marked pathway to guide people through the space. People tend to walk across a new planting following a former "desire line" rather than round it. Create pathways that are interesting to follow; for example, stepping stones, concrete shapes with animal paw prints, or boards with carvings of words or symbols.


Making greening projects

Once the model of the existing site has been constructed, add to-scale maquettes of proposed projects. Determine the best location for new projects by placing them within the grounds of the model.

Check to make sure that:

  • projects are not placed across "desire lines"

  • shade from trees will fall where it is needed

  • sight lines from the street and from important vantage points across the yard and from the building are not obstructed

  • incompatible activities and uses are not placed side by side (children playing on a paved basket ball court can slip and hurt themselves on pea gravel kicked from under an adjacent swing set)



Calculate the height of existing trees and shrubs on the grounds and construct to-scale models. Make models of proposed trees to show the height and spread at the time of planting as well as of the size they are expected to attain at maturity. Positioning these trees in different locations on the model will help you decide where to plant them and allot sufficient space in your design for the trees to grow. Move spotlights across the model from east to west to simulate the sun's path throughout the day to ensure that the shade from the trees will fall where it is needed.

Make models of trees and other plants using dead or unwanted branches pruned from trees and shrubs and setting them in a base of plaster, concrete or plasticine. Children can discover creative ways of adding foliage.



Place maquettes of various types of seating in different configurations on the model to help you choose the most appropriate locations. Remember that children are much more interested in having pleasant places to sit IN than simply nice things to sit ON. Design seating arrangements according to the play activities that children wish to engage in during recess and lunch times and consider creating enough seating for children during outdoor classroom studies.


Sight lines

Building a model can help you redesign the grounds without reducing supervision requirements. Sight lines can be checked easily on a to-scale model. Lie down on the ground to get a worm's eye view from different points on the model to make sure that important sight lines are not obstructed by new projects. Safety is one of the main concerns of school boards, parents and neighbours. Use the model to show how you have considered this important aspect of site design.



Once you have positioned the maquettes of trees, gazebos and other projects on the grounds of your model, use spotlights to ensure that the shade will fall where you intend it to at different times of the day.


Displaying the model

It is useful to find a space in the school where the model can remain set up while it is being built. It can be used for class discussions and for information sessions with parent and community groups. Seeing the model helps to generate and maintain a sense of excitement about greening the grounds which helps to keep work on the project moving ahead. Where space is limited, photographs of the model can be displayed instead.


Storing your model

Although the walk-in model takes up a lot of floor space, you can easily store your school grounds model in a box. The fabric or carpeting can be rolled up or folded. This makes it easy to transport should you need to display your model off-site when seeking approval or funding for your project.



Having the whole school contribute to measuring the site and building the model helps generate a sense of ownership. As the potential for greening the grounds becomes more visible through building the model, people begin to realize that it is do-able.

Integrating making the model into the curriculum intimately connects children with every part of the grounds as they are at the outset of the project. It helps children become part of the process of transforming their grounds and to take ownership of the individual projects both while they are attending the school and following their graduation.



In November 1999, during the Canadian Biodiversity Institute's School Grounds Transformation training course, several school greening teams learned about the value of building a "School Grounds in a BoxTM". Course participants were very enthusiastic about this hands-on approach to planning and have since built large floor or tabletop models with the help of teachers, students and parents. People love building the various components of the grounds and "playing" with locating projects in different places. It is through this engaging creative play that people are able to share their ideas and visually consider all factors related to site conditions and uses. The models have proven invaluable in generating excitement among the school community about transforming their grounds, gaining the support of school board planning staff and raising funds for the project.

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