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Could Urban Farms Be the Preschools of the Future?

A group of architects proposed a new design to help raise environmentally responsible kids.

The vision for Nursery Fields Forever. (Courtesy of aut- -aut)

Under the distant gaze of a city skyline, cows and chickens wander through rows of sprouting vegetables; clear glass greenhouses dot the periphery. It sounds like an ordinary urban farm, but on this particular site, the wardens are toddlers.

The farm, Nursery Fields Forever, is the vision of aut- -aut, a group of four architects hailing from Italy and the Netherlands. Their proposal for a preschool on an urban farm took first prize at this year’s AWR International Ideas Competition; the challenge centered around designing a nursery school model for London.

“The dominant preschool system keeps children in classrooms, where plants barely peek out from the window,” and animals are only visible in places like zoos, Jonathan Lazar, one of the architects, tells CityLab, adding:

The absence of direct experience has completely misled children’s perception of the world and of its most basic processes. It’s not rare to find children who ignore that the milk they drink comes from cows or that beans don’t sprout in cans.

Urban settings especially, Lazar says, obscure natural processes that are fundamental to our understanding of the world we inhabit. Nursery Fields Forever aims to dissolve the gap between education and environment, offering instead “a real hybrid between a farm and a school where children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development would be encouraged by interaction with plants and animals,” he says.

This is not just a glorified enrichment program attached to a standard educational model. Nursery Fields Forever would do away with classrooms entirely in favor of learning outdoors and in greenhouses throughout the property; the curriculum would rotate seasonally to “unfold along a trajectory based on natural cycles,” aut- -aut’s website describes.

A diagram of the project. (Courtesy of aut- -aut)

The preschool farm is a relatively novel concept, though the Agricultural University of Norway successfully piloted a similar venture, the Living School, in 1996; the program is still ongoing today under the name Living Learning. Introducing environmental awareness to early childhood education has long been supported by research. A 2012 article in Environmental Research Letters cites studies dating back to the 1970s that suggest:

Children are a frequent target audience as attitudes towards the environment start developing at an early age and—once formed—do not change easily. They are less likely to have well-established environmentally harmful behaviours to “unlearn”; have a longer period to influence environmental quality, and are possible effective agents promoting environmentally responsible behaviour in others.

Establishing a venture like Nursery Fields Forever would suggest a sense of obligation on the part of the designers to undo the damages of earlier generations’ environmental disregard. Intervening at an early age could preclude obliviousness to the negative impacts of prepackaged, processed foods and outsourced labor, says Lazar, and engineer a degree of self-conscious environmentalism back into the fabric of the city.

It’s a mentality seen also in the urban farms and gardens that have lately ramped up their efforts to educate the next generation. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden debuted its revamped Discovery Garden in 2015 as part of its Campaign for the Next Century—developed party in response to a growing interest in sustainable urban practices.  The New York Times reported that the new iteration is “geared toward immersing children in nature” without any of the “unfortunate dumbing-down-of-nature quality” seen often in children’s gardens.

At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Discovery Garden. (Barbara Nemcova/Flickr)

And in Atlanta, Patchwork City Farms hosts afterschool programs for local schoolchildren with the aim of instilling in them a sense of self-sufficiently and responsibility. Echoing Lazar’s sentiment, Patchwork’s founder Jamila Norman insists that farming is a great way to teach the next generation about how people and the environment interact. “Kids are sometimes grossed out by the things that come out of the ground,” she told Modern Farmer. “We have to teach them that it’s better like this.”

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