The Future of Schooling: Designing the NOWSCHOOL Grounds

In which a permaculture designer creates an idyllic setting for a new school with a focus on nature and sustainability.

Working on an allotment
Nick David / Getty Images

You know, there are people out there who think we should be teaching our kids the things that really matter – that we should be fostering in them a love of nature and a true and deep understanding of the natural world. People who think that we should be educating our children in such a way that they want to – and more importantly are actually equipped to – create a sustainable and ethical future. Wild, huh?

And some people do more than just think these novel thoughts – they are actually going out there and making it happen.

Juliette Schraauwers, a sustainable entrepreneur, is one of those people. Inspired by the Green School movement, Schraauwers is setting up the NOWSCHOOL in Utrecht, Netherlands. After I designed her home garden, she approached me to create a permaculture design for the school grounds.

The NOWSCHOOL Concept

At NOWSCHOOL, children have full ownership of their learning journey and all the freedom to be curious. Their natural development will be guided by teachers who believe in them and guide them to reach their full potential. It is about creating a life-learning community of solution thinkers, creative entrepreneurial and sustainable “nowmakers” who create a thriving future for themselves, others, and the world.

Our current educational systems are broken. The child has to fit the mold and those who don't are often left behind. The NOWSCHOOL is part of a movement to center education around the child – to free children from the restraints of a traditional classroom. It is designed to make sure they develop the eco-literacy that is crucial to future society, alongside more traditional literacy and mathematical skills.

With a much greater component of outdoor learning, nature is acknowledged as a big part of the teaching team. Children learn the skills they really need to survive and thrive in the years to come through acting, through interacting, through doing, not just by means of book learning or learning by rote.

In these new learning environments, the education fits the child, rather than the other way around. Children are given the space, tools, skills, and ability to follow their passions, and guided to find the best path in life for them – not just to jump through hoops.

Designing a School for Now

For the new school grounds, the design process began with an observation and analysis of the site. But also with an analysis of the needs of the children who will attend the school and the wider community. The NOWSCHOOL must meet the needs of the children in Utrecht, and support and sustain the surrounding community.

The goal is also to create thriving and abundant systems that can flourish and grow, supporting wildlife and boosting biodiversity in the area.

School Buildings

At the heart of the design I created are seven key buildings:

  • Central Event Space: A large round hall for talks, music and concerts, dances, and other events.
  • Library/Reading Room: A book-lined space and quiet reading room area.
  • Large Kitchen/Dining Hall and Restaurant: Includes a shop for selling produce grown on-site, and an attached greenhouse to the south.
  • Makers Space/Craft Zone/Workshop: A space dedicated to craftsmanship and upcycling, equipped for hands-on projects.
  • Reception and Office/Co-Working Space: The reception for the school, and office, with flexible office space to allow community co-working.
  • Composting Toilet Block and Shed/Storage Area: Includes greywater harvesting/reed beds.
  • Bike Shed and Biofuel Plant: To produce fuel for a bus for school excursions.

In addition to these key buildings, four canvas yurts provide accommodation or quiet space around the gardens. And towards the southern end of the site, a treehouse nestled amid the trees provides a place for quiet retreat or play. Glades in the planting scheme also provide space for outdoor classrooms, and spaces where children can create their own dens and tranquil retreats.

All of the main buildings are to be constructed from sustainable building materials – such as straw bales or cob, and sustainable reclaimed timber. Energy needs are to be met by solar PV panels and a roof-mounted wind turbine. And rainwater will be harvested and used.

Design for the NOWSCHOOL grounds.
Design for the NOWSCHOOL grounds.

© Elizabeth Waddington

Food Production and Gardens

To the north, northeast of the central event space, a series of mandala style growing areas for polyculture annual planting radiate out around a central meeting/art space area. Paths around and through these growing areas will enable easy access and allow the plants to be tended using "no-dig" methodology without compacting or damaging the soil.

A large composting area to the west is easily accessed from the garden and will feed and sustain the plants grown there over time.

Native wildflower meadow surrounds this area. (In the future, it will also be possible to introduce beehives into these areas.)

Largely to the north of the site, a layered and biodiverse forest garden will be created. This will, of course, include a wide variety of fruit trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, roots, tubers and bulbs, and climbing plants. These areas are designed to blend in seamlessly with the areas of native woodland planting around and through the site.

Wildlife and Wild Spaces

A wildlife pond in a glade to the south of the site will serve as the focal point for one of the outdoor classroom areas. From here, and from the picnic area to the south of the restaurant/kitchen building, a raised boardwalk leads children and visitors on an adventure through dense, natural woodland planting to the treehouse, and back out to the north to a livestock area, where chickens, and potentially eventually other livestock will be kept.

This plan is a space equipped for children to learn, relax, and play. It is designed to make sure that they, and the community around them, are really ready for what the future may bring.