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Where the Wild Things Should Be

A California nonprofit seeks to turn urban public school grounds into a network of parks that benefit children’s health and education.

| April/May 2020


School districts love to brag about statistics that prove they’re giving your children a great education. You’ve probably heard more than once about student-teacher ratios, the number of computers per child, and exceedingly high test scores. But has anyone at your child’s school ever mentioned how much land they manage, or how they make use of it?

“Probably not, and that’s a shame,” says Sharon Danks, founder and executive director of Green Schoolyards America. This national nonprofit based in Berkeley, California, seeks to change how educators design, use, and manage public school grounds. Too many schoolyards are mostly treeless, open spaces in suburbs, or seas of asphalt in urban areas, making them ecological dead zones. As a result, this land remains an untapped ecological and educational resource.

An accomplished schoolyard designer, Danks established the nonprofit to inspire and enable communities to transform their public school grounds into ecologically rich parks. This means offering hands-on outdoor learning opportunities for every subject and grade. Danks believes turning schoolyards into parks where children have daily access to the natural world will improve their well-being, learning, and play, as well as boost the ecological health and resilience of cities. Green Schoolyards America is most active in its home state of California, where the organization has established working relationships with school districts in Alameda, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Mateo County. It’s also supported and advised green schoolyard initiatives in Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin, and the Washington, D.C., area.

Danks has dreamed of greening cities since she studied the concept in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. She chose schools as ground zero to fulfill her vision of green cities for three reasons: Public school districts are among the largest landowners in almost every city and town across the United States; children visit schools every day; and schools are typically the center of neighborhoods and communities. According to the Green Schoolyards America website, more than 98,000 public schools nationwide serve more than 50 million students on 2 million acres of land.

Statistics about the vast amount of land that educators manage are as important as those involving classroom use and performance, Danks believes, and show why school leaders should also think of themselves as land managers. An increasing number of researchers also argue that turning schoolyards into natural landscapes improves student achievement. “Natural areas not only offer resources to support science and other curricula, they also help improve kids’ physical and mental health, reduce trauma and stress, and increase children’s ability to pay attention, which makes test scores rise,” Danks says. “When school districts green up their school grounds, they can link these plans into the surrounding city and coordinate ecological restoration efforts. This can provide habitat patches and corridors for wildlife; help foster healthy urban watersheds that prevent neighborhood flooding; recharge aquifers under cities; and increase tree canopies to cool communities, thus improving climate and air quality.” Nearby neighborhoods also benefit because these school grounds become vibrant parks available to everyone during non-school hours.

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