School Spotlight: Landscape for Learning – Buffalo School 90 Courtyard Transformed

November 29th, 2010 by Barbara

The Buffalo Public School 90's new courtyard and outdoor classroom area. Photo courtesy of KC Kratt Photography

Buffalo Public School 90 is a shining example of how the outdoors can be used to make a lasting impression in children’s lives. The school’s courtyard used to be an underwhelming space with straggly trees and a flagpole. Numerous windows looked out on it, but providing daylight was their only function. Now, it’s an entirely different story.

The seeds were planted, so to speak, by teacher Barbara Shaughnessy and Buffalo Advocates for Schoolyard Enhancement (BASE). The initial thought was to use the courtyard space for something like a butterfly garden, but evolved into an outdoor learning environment. As part of a $6 million reconstruction project, the schoolyard would have interconnected learning areas to complement and supplement all the areas of the school’s curriculum. When the project budget tightened, the team worked hard to keep the fundamental design, requiring “a lot of creativity and thinking outside the box.

Photo courtesy of KC Kratt Photography

Because School 90 is located in an inner-city environment, it was important to the faculty that the students be able to experience a true variety of landscapes and outdoor activities they might not otherwise be regularly exposed to. The courtyard provides a clean and safe environment where “children can explore, roll around and run without the fear of injury.”

With ever increasing curriculum mandates, children are losing valuable time in the natural world. The objective for this courtyard was to meet established curriculum requirements for students in pre-K through second grade in an outdoor environment, while encouraging them to love nature.

Water, varying topography, naturalized and constructed gardens, open areas, and gathering spaces are dispersed throughout the courtyard. These different elements of nature work among various curriculum areas, including science, math, music, art, language arts, physical education and geography/geology. Every outdoor space is connected by the accessible “circuit walk” that weaves between class spaces and provides accessible opportunities for learning.

Each of the “classroom” spaces has elements unique to its function that help students develop a connection to the outside world. Read on below for more information about each of these spaces.

Photo courtesy of KC Kratt Photography

Physical Education

  • The entire courtyard has elements for play, mobility, dexterity, and eye-hand coordination
  • The overall circuit path can be fit with markers to allow students to track the distance they have walked during gym class
  • The logs provide natural balance beams
  • Mounds are wonderful for running up and rolling down
  • Boulders are placed close enough for students to step from one to the other
  • The concrete areas are great for jumping rope and riding tricycles

Music Classroom

  • Plants here make sound in the wind, attract “singing” insects and birds, and can be used to make instruments
  • A small concrete area allows students to set up chairs and music stands to play outside

Math Classroom

  • Paving of various materials and sizes shows ratios and proportions
  • Raised planters provide area for growing vegetables, leading to counting seeds and measuring growth of plants

Science Classroom

  • Large earth mounds aid in teaching about gravity, velocity, and measurements
  • Shade garden features native ferns, sedges, and rushes
  • The water channel widens and students are encouraged to get into the water

Geography/Geology Classroom

Photo courtesy of KC Kratt Photography

  • Boulders as part of the “council ring” are provided for small group gatherings, climbing, and jumping
  • Tree stumps provide for exploration
  • Local plants with various survival elements and ethno-botanical uses
  • Sunflowers are planted by kindergarteners and then harvested when students are in first grade

Art Classroom

  • Brightly colored perennials inspire young artists
  • All plants in courtyard are non-toxic so leaves, petals and berries can be used to make paint and ink
  • Small concrete area has interesting score patterns
  • Nearby “Dr. Seuss garden” has oversized, interesting smelling or unusual looking plants

Language Arts

  • Opportunities are included for increased language awareness
  • Boulder “council ring”, central gathering space, and log seating provide locations for story telling and group discussions
  • Chalk board allows students to “post their findings” for fellow classmates to read and provide responses
  • Central gathering space becomes a “stage” for drama activities with seating on the surrounding lawn
  • Each new fall class is encouraged to make and post signs for the courtyard, allowing every student to be active in the “naming” process

Our work resulted in a beautiful natural teaching environment which

provides connections to the New York State standards, and fosters the development of the next generation of environmental stewards.

Students can grow their own fruits and vegetables in raised planter beds to understand where their food comes from, learn how local native plants were used by Native Americans. According to one teacher, they can even “simply be inspired by a bright yellow daylily.”

The courtyard has been designated a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, and is currently an Eco-Schools-USA Grant recipient.

Barbara Shaughnessy is a kindergarten special education teacher and the Science Liaison for First Hand Learning at Buffalo N.Y. Public School 90.


  1. 11/29/10

    My wife………..
    I’m very proud of her.


    Comment by John M. Shaughnessy — November 29, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

  2. [...] whose organization helped provide 40,000 DC students with fresh, local berries, and greens. Or Barbara Shaughnessy, who sparked a $6 million renovation that transformed her school’s straggly courtyard into an [...]

    Pingback by Stories Told, Stories Untold » Bay Backpack Blog — January 27, 2011 @ 9:01 am

  3. Thanks for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your next write ups thank you once

    Comment by aang — February 10, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

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