Making a Green Schoolyard Out of Natural Building Materials

These California schools utilize natural building materials, such as milled lumber and bamboo, to give students a green schoolyard.

| October 2014

In Asphalt to Ecosystems (New Village Press, 2014), author Sharon Gamson Danks shares some of her knowledge about increasing the use of renewable energy in schools around the United States and around the world. Her methods are not only energy efficient, but they serve to educate the children within the schools as well. This excerpt, which explains how using natural resources can create an environmentally friendly school yard, is from Chapter 8, “Ecologically Sensitive Materials for Schoolyard Landscapes.”

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Wood as a Natural Building Material

Wood is one of the most versatile, natural building materials for schoolyards. It can be incorporated in its roughest forms—as stumps, logs, branches, twigs, and mulch, and in its more refined form—as milled lumber. Some green schoolyards include entire trees, downed in a storm or felled by disease, as ornamental play elements. Others use portions of tree trunks, large branches, and sturdy twigs, obtained from local arborists or cut onsite, in their outdoor seating areas, stairways, and pathways.

Standard milled lumber and unprocessed logs can be purchased from many places. Look for local, sustainably harvested lumber, if possible. In my area, for example, reasonably priced, sustainably harvested dimensional lumber can be purchased from an urban mill that specializes in creating lumber from trees that local arborists remove from our region. Local arborists are also good sources for logs, branches, mulch or other wood products; often they would rather donate these materials to schools than pay a fee to dump them at a landfill.

Selecting Naturally Rot-Resistant Woods

When purchasing lumber from hardware stores and other conventional sources, do not buy pressure treated wood for use in a schoolyard—particularly for areas in or near edible gardens. Some types of treated wood contain highly poisonous substances that are intended to kill fungi and insects and resist rot—but they are also very hazardous for children. Some of the chemicals used to treat wood leach out over time and permanently contaminate the surrounding soil. Children may come into contact with these poisons by touching the wood or by inadvertently consuming the contaminated soil when they get it on their hands. Some types of pressure treated wood commonly sold in home improvement stores are banned from playground uses, but are not clearly marked as such in the store. Similarly, it is important to avoid the use of railroad ties, which usually contain poisonous creosote, treated telephone poles, “marine grade wood,” and other chemically treated wood products. Many types of plywood are also poor choices for the schoolyard – and edible garden beds in particular—since they often contain formaldehyde and other chemical binders. Because it is often difficult to tell exactly which chemicals the wood has been treated with, and how poisonous they are, I recommend avoiding treated wood entirely in a schoolyard context. Some school districts, such as the San Francisco Unified School District, adopt a similar approach district-wide and request that their schools avoid using treated wood in their schoolyards, if possible.

Naturally rot-resistant woods such as redwood or cedar are good choices for schoolyards, if they come from sustainably harvested local sources. If these are not available, choose other hardwoods or softwoods that have shorter lifespans in the outdoor environment, and protect them with a natural finish or nontoxic stain or paint. Another good source of untreated wood is reclaimed lumber from material reuse centers or from buildings that have been carefully deconstructed. Timber from these older sources may be of a higher grade than what is currently available; old growth timber frequently has tighter grain than younger wood. Be sure to avoid wood painted with lead-based paints, however.

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