Caring for Country and Co-design

Why is co-design so central to the oval project?

When the idea of oval redesign was first investigated – over two years ago now – it was quickly discovered that NAPS would not be able to afford to build and maintain a sports field like the Dickson playing fields, or a large synthetic sports field. The cost of irrigating natural turf during a drought is prohibitively expensive, and a large expanse of synthetic turf is expensive both up front and over its lifetime. Is such a space really needed or wanted by the school community? What other options are there? What we know about how kids play suggests a different kind of space, one which supports a wide range of activities from chatting quietly with a friend right through to organized ball sports. The Education Directorate’s Landscape Architect suggested a collection of smaller fields, and a dramatic increase in the number of shade trees around the grassy spaces.

This third option requires careful consideration. A space that supports a broader range of needs must reflect the community using it. We have avoided ‘outsourcing’ the design of the space to make sure that we keep ownership of the process and the outcome, so it reflects our unique community. A co-design process means that – together with experienced designers, school staff, families and most importantly the students who use the oval every day – we work to build a space that will work for the whole of NAPS. It does take longer but the advantages far outweigh the time spent on consultation:

  • By actively engaging students and staff in designing the space we build a sense of pride and ownership, ensuring the space will survive and thrive;
  • This sense of a responsibility to care for the natural world, and the integral role we play in it is a fundamental part of the philosophy of an IB school (and we hope, will be a value that the students will carry with them long after this project has finished);
  • Incorporating the views, needs, and great ideas of a really diverse group of people (with a range of opinions on what should and shouldn’t be part of the space) will ensure that the design ends up being a space that really is for everyone: active team sports, fun PE classes, outdoor learning spaces, and social, dramatic, and other forms of play and learning.

What is the relationship with Ngunnawal culture?

As you would be aware, we have chosen to use the consultation process as an opportunity to bring the deep expertise from the traditional custodians of this land into the present. We live on Ngunnawal land. The Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of this land, are the experts in managing the land on which we live, learn and play, and have been observing and understanding this land for tens of thousands of years.

While the ACT government has a range of policies around sustainability and Indigenous engagement, we wanted to go further. We wanted to explore what “Caring for Country” means in our own backyard.

This is why we are working with Uncle Tyronne and Adam, who have delivered a series of workshops to start us on a journey of understanding what this means, and how we can incorporate this worldview into the work we do at the school. We have begun to learn about Ngunnawal seasons, local plants and their uses as food, medicine, fibre, and ornament, traditional tools, First Nations people as astronomers, farmers and scientists, and the ingrained wisdom of living sustainably on the land, taking for “need, not greed”. We have started to explore how some of this knowledge can be incorporated into our design for the senior oval, and ways we can continue to build our community’s knowledge and understanding in the future.

What we have come away with is a deep sense of responsibility for what we are creating. “Caring for country” is not putting down artificial turf and walking away. Instead, we acknowledge that we work with the custodians of this land to ensure that what we “build” is truly sustainable – it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, and even goes beyond this into being a deliberately regenerative space, benefiting the environment and people using it.

This is not a common approach to designing urban primary school landscapes, but it should be. We are aiming to set a new standard of best practice in this area, which is an exciting prospect and one of the reasons the Education Directorate have been so supportive of our process.

To implement a sustainable approach to the oval, the oval becomes more than just an oval and our response requires more than a simple fix. Our thinking here has been greatly influenced by the book,  “Sand Talk; How Indigenous thinking can save the world”, by Tyson Yunkaporta.

Tyson talks about seeing the underlying patterns in the world, and particularly the relationships between different elements, and using this to understand your role in a complex system;

                “Sustainability agents have a few simple operating guidelines… connect, diversify, interact and adapt. Diversity… compels you to maintain your individual difference…You must seek out and interact with a wide variety of agents who are completely dissimilar to you. Finally, you must interact with other systems beyond your own. Adaptation is the most important protocol… You must allow yourself to be transformed through your interactions with other agents and the knowledge that passes through you from them.”

Project update

Between now and week 9, our student leaders are consulting with all students from years 3-6 and the teachers are formulating their needs and ideas within their class teams.

During Week 9, we will bring the results of the consultations together for two co-design workshops. This will be when the needs and ideas are brought together, and important decisions are made about the spaces required for the master plan.

Our student leaders, supported by a small number of teachers and parents, will assess :

  • the ideas to be included in our designs,
  • how the designs can meet our diverse needs,
  • the influence of practical requirements such as safety and supervision requirements, and
  • the shape the final design might make.

They will be agents of sustainability in this process, and will be implementing the guidelines outlined in Sand Talk; connecting, diversifying, interacting and adapting. Once they have made the important decisions about the sorts of spaces needed, and the relationships between those spaces, our expert design team will refine the sketches into a few draft master plan designs, incorporating components like water harvesting, climate management (shade, wind shelter, etc), safety standards and educational elements. These draft master plans will be available to the whole community in Week 10 for your feedback. Tendering for construction will begin as soon as possible after the design is finalised.


Our initial master plan will be a concept design for the whole senior oval space. We have $150,000 for a significant stage one construction, and will be working closely with the Directorate to secure additional funding for future stages. We are also looking at ways to stretch our funds further, using creative approaches and planning ahead. This may include things like propagating our own plants, volunteer working bees, and sourcing materials like rocks and logs ahead of time, when they are available for free. The spaces included in Stage 1 construction will be decided once the master plan for the whole space has been finalised, taking the budget and other considerations into account.

If you would like to be involved in planning for the practical components of construction, including sourcing materials, identifying skills and resources, and building relationships with other organisations, please get in touch. This is a great way for you to contribute your unique skills to help out the school, without needing to take on a formal committee role for the year. If you have some time and would like to help, but aren’t sure how you can best contribute, tell us about yourself, and we’ll have a yarn about the opportunities. There are so many great ways you can get involved and make a difference.

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