Where the Grass is Greener

In many parts of the world, ’tis the season for children to be heading back to school. Many of these kids will spend their days in buildings made of concrete, brick and glass; with harsh fluorescent lights, indoor gyms and windowless cafeterias hidden away in basements; some are subjected to hand-scans or metal detectors as they enter and leave the premises; others monitored by closed-circuit cameras and vigilant security guards.

But far from the concrete school jungles in many parts of North America, Europe and elsewhere, on the edge of a jungle…deep in the heart of Bali… is one school where the grass really is greener.

The Green School is almost entirely constructed out of elephant grass and bamboo – the sturdiest, most versatile form of grass around. Not just the school itself either, but furniture; desks, chairs, doors and more. In fact, bamboo is so plentiful and grows so effortlessly in Bali that seedlings are offered to local farmers within a 50k radius of the school to help support their livelihood. An interesting piece of bamboo trivia: Depending on the species, within 5-10 years you get very tall and strong poles that can be used for structural materials or furniture design.

Awhile ago, I spent an afternoon at this much talked-about natural wonder and innovative educational experiment. A school without walls. Made out of grass. I simply had to see for myself what the fuss was all about.

Like the Taj Mahal, it’s an architectural marvel set amongst an abundance of nature; and like Mount Everest, it’s a thing of startling beauty. Take the Heart of School, a pivot point on campus, quite possibly the largest building in the world constructed entirely from bamboo: Imagine a super-sized salad spinner or apple-corer with a furry cover to protect it from the elements. It is a breathtaking – and, not surprisingly, award-winning – triumph of design.

Heading into the fourth year since their opening, the Green School now boasts an impressive student body of 270 students – hailing from over forty countries around the world. This year, the grades range from Kindergarten to Grade 11 with plans for further expansion next year.

Each classroom is a uniquely designed structure, set apart and separated from others by gardens, where flowers and vegetables bloom like wildflowers. The blackboards are made from recycled glass, and at least one was fabricated from abandoned car windows. Indeed, you hardly see walls anywhere, or glass for that matter. The air and wind flow freely. Butterflies and dragonflies share space with ten-year olds reading at their desks or swinging from low-hanging ropes. Talk about open concept.

Four classrooms feature an innovative design called the Bubble – an inflatable space for extreme conditions, conducive to being air conditioned. The Bubbles are rarely used in situations of extreme heat; instead, they are used for group learning in the round; discussions, performances, presentations and small-group instruction.

The school isn’t just green because of the bamboo; it’s eco-friendly too. The administration’s goal is to get all the school’s electricity from environmentally friendly sources of energy: hydraulic turbine generators and installed solar panels.

Imagine going to school with its very own bird aviary! The large enclosed structure (and smaller breeding habitats) house three endangered bird species; two pairs of Javan peacocks from Java; one pair of Wreathed Hornbills from Papua and Sulawesi; and 55 Bali starlings – the native darlings of Bali!. The various species live in peace and harmony. This year, students in Grades 2 and 8 will be responsible for the birds; studying and drawing the feathered creatures, then helping to release them back into the wild.

Not far from the aviary is a healing circle, which might be hard to miss if not for the super-sized smoky quartz crystal that the founders imported from Brazil and laid into the ground. A number of intersecting energy channels apparently lie underneath the circle, forming a ‘vortex’ similar to the one in Sedona, Arizona. At the school, it is regularly used as an outdoor venue for teaching and sketching. Classes in Green Studies are often briefed on environmental projects in the circle as well, before heading off to get their hands dirty.

Art is an important component of education as well; drawing, drama and more. In that context, the Green School is the locus of a growing hybrid event: Mepantigan. Mepantigan is a martial arts form founded and developed by Putu Witsen Widjaya a number of years ago. It combines art and sport; tae kwon do, silat, capoeira, kickboxing, judo as well as elements of Balinese culture such as music, dance and costumes. Pak Widjaya has been bringing his unique performances to the Green School, where there is a dedicated mud pit close to the entrance which doubles as an amphitheater for his theatrical events.

With all that it offers, education doesn’t come cheap. The majority of students are non-Balinese, with parents who can afford the pricey tuition. But the school still subsists partly on donations and it’s a critical enough issue that they’ve managed to attract the attention and funds of some top-flight celebrities: Richard Branson’s name is etched into the bamboo structure, visible to all for perpetuity; while Donna Karan (who recently spent time at a spa on the island) agreed to fork over enough money subsidize the education of three Balinese children at the school, to the tune of USD$36,000 a year.

Integrating more Balinese kids into the school, in order to create a more balanced student population, is only one of the crinks that needs to be ironed out. The curriculum, currently an amalgamation of different programs of study, requires tweaking; in fact, the administration’s goal is to work towards the development of an innovative ‘green curriculum.’  International staff rotates on a regular basis, for personal or professional reasons. Parents occasionally withdraw their kids, placing them in other international schools instead. So, like all visionary projects still in their infancy, there are inevitable growing pains.

Still, the Green School left me with the feeling that this is the optimal environment for children to learn in – with bright spaces, surrounded by nature, birdsong, flowing rivers, muddy pits in the ground, gargantuan playing fields and a healing circle.

Anyone keen to exchange bricks for bamboo?

Check out founder John Hardy’s TED talk for more on the school.


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