Student Project | Study with Nature | Keren Zhang

Study with Nature was shortlisted in the 2021 WLA Awards – Student Research

Nowadays, lots of previous studies showed that Chinese children in urban areas have less connection to nature and long-term indoor study might be one of the reasons to lock children inside the buildings. This ‘nature deficit disorder’ phenomenon might lead to stronger negative influences on children`s physical and mental health. This research aimed to re-connect urban children to nature by developing design criteria and design principles of urban child-responsive and education-oriented landscapes. The target group of this research was Chinese school-aged (6-12 years old) children in a high-density urbanized Chinese mountain-city context (Shapingba centre, Chongqing).

To achieve the research objective, this research integrated several concepts under three nexus topics: human-nature relationship, outdoor education and child-responsive environments. The research methodology was a combination of self-study and participatory process throughout three research stages. To understand the requirements of local children and to find out the design priorities in educational landscapes, two online surveys were done in the study area at the first and second stages respectively.

The Study with Nature project research found that the educational landscape for improving children`s nature connectedness should ensure children have repeated visits to the landscape. Moreover, the surveys found three subjects (Fine arts, Science and P.E) were more appropriate to develop outdoor educational landscapes in Chinese urban areas. Through the literature and design exploration, it was found that several different principles could be combined to creating various educational landscapes: one oriented most towards nature experience and the other more towards educational function. Indeed, these two concepts both require different elements, sometimes in contradiction with each other. According to the design priority test, the Science and Fine arts outdoor classrooms were to be best designed as the nature-experience-oriented educational landscape with a large emphasis on safety. And the P.E outdoor classrooms were preferred to include 50% nature-experience-oriented and 50% education-function-oriented educational landscapes. The nature-experience-oriented educational landscape put the nature-based experience in the first place and included diverse natural elements and sensory exploration, while the education-function-oriented educational landscape put more emphasis on creating orderly and clear educational-function zones with more stable and safe artificial elements.

More importantly, this research elaborated 7 design criteria of a child-responsive education-oriented landscape for enhancing children`s nature connectedness. To reach the design criteria, the design principles consisted of four themes, which were nature connectedness, place attachment, outdoor education and child-responsive environment. Lastly, specific design guidelines were generated by all design principles and then presented the detailed design interventions about how to transform the existing urban green spaces into child-responsive educational landscapes based on the local context.

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Study with Nature is a project of Research through Designing which is a very innovative method of research with a lot of potentials. Especially, this method allows the translation of scientific evidence into design solutions. In general, the design criteria and design principles have application values for most highly urbanized Chinese areas while the specific design guidelines might not apply directly but could be a reference for the application. Moreover, the Chinese Central Committee recently finalized the blueprint for the 14th Five-Year plan (2021-2025) which aimed to transform 100 Chinese cities into child-responsive cities and to explore how to improve the existing urban public green spaces for child-responsive activities. Therefore, this research is valuable to be discussed by urban decision-makers and stakeholders and serves as a source of inspiration for urban designers. Further research could establish more complete design criteria, principles and guidelines for this research theme and explore more possibilities in more Chinese urban areas.

Study with Nature

Student: Keren Zhang, Wageningen University, NL
Supervisor: dr.ir. A (Agnès) Patuano, Assistant Professor Landscape Architecture, Wageningen University

Image Credits:Keren Zhang