Where the Wild Things Should Be

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by Green Schoolyards America/Sharon Danks

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.

A Concept with Long Roots

While some parents may not be familiar with “green schoolyards,” the concept has been around for a long time. Greening school grounds is a worldwide movement that started over a century ago. The idea fell out of favor after World War I, lying dormant for decades before staging a comeback in the 1990s, when people realized that nature-poor environments were becoming the norm in cities. The revival has gained momentum internationally at the city scale in the past decade. Danks holds up Berlin as a model for the rest of the world because of its work in using school grounds to capture storm water.

Until recently, greening efforts at U.S. schools tended to occur on a small scale, mostly focusing on adding vegetable gardens and trees one school at a time through the volunteer efforts of parents, teachers, and kids. However, Danks thinks schools in this country have finally reached a turning point. “The green schoolyards movement has begun growing significantly in the U.S. as entire school districts develop city-scale plans connected to green infrastructure outcomes,” she says.

While studying green city planning at Berkeley, Danks concluded that America doesn’t have green cities simply because nature isn’t visible in many urban environments. “People don’t understand what they can’t see. We’ve buried creeks in pipes under pavement, rather than allowing them to run freely at the surface, so most people in cities have lost touch with how watersheds work.”

The answer to “How do we create green cities?” lies in scale and priorities. Danks concluded that there’s no better place to start than public school grounds. “Green schoolyards are microcosms of the ecologically healthy cities we’d like to create. If we can put ecological systems right outside the classroom door, children will better understand basic processes, such as where the rain goes when it falls, and what wildlife needs to survive. When they grow up, this understanding will help them make smart choices for the health of their cities. And, what children learn in school today, they’ll share with their parents, who also have the power to vote right now.”

Outdoor Learning

Sharon Danks of Green Schoolyards America offers ideas for several simple outdoor school projects, one of which involves igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks that elementary students might study in a geology class. “In an indoor lab, students might have small rock samples they could hold in their hands. However, with a green schoolyard, they’d have rocks the size of boulders. The children can see striations in the rocks, or even use a hammer to do their own hardness test. This is a more dramatic teaching lesson that resonates with kids on a deeper level than holding a tiny rock in a classroom.”

Planting trees in a natural landscape could allow younger children to do leaf rubbings to examine leaf shapes, or older students to study the trees from a local ecosystem perspective. In either case, everyone would benefit from the shade on a hot day.

“These activities aren’t a theoretical story in a book for these students,” Danks says. “They’re real things children can do. And we need more real-life experiences in children’s lives that they can touch, feel, and be a part of.”

Large-Scale Growth

When she founded and launched Green Schoolyards America in 2014, Danks decided the program would focus on urban schools, because cities have the greatest need for health, environmental, and open space improvements. The program would also work with school districts rather than individual schools to influence decisions at the district level. “I saw that working with schools one at a time wasn’t an efficient way to achieve the large-scale changes I was seeking,” she says.

Because funding sources come from districts and states, Green Schoolyards America also works on a state scale, where the goal is not just to seek funding, but  also to effect policy change. “Changing the land use at public schools across a city or a state is such a big project that no single organization can do it alone. We work collaboratively, bringing in a wide range of partners with different areas of expertise. For example, water agencies contribute their knowledge about storm water management, and educators teach their peers how to teach outside.”

While Green Schoolyards America primarily achieves change though its broad-based district-level approach, the group also generates buy-in by reaching out in various ways to some of the districts’ schools. To do so, Danks created the Principals’ Institute, a professional development program to help different school districts connect policy initiatives with what works at their schools. Danks enriches her U.S.-based projects with time-tested ideas from abroad. She’s the co-founder of a separate organization called the International School Grounds Alliance. Green Schoolyards America also runs separate conferences that provide professional development for teachers, and occasionally collaborates with The Trust for Public Land (TPL) on schoolyard design projects. Currently, Green Schoolyards America is partnering with TPL and the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to create a Living Schoolyard Initiative for OUSD.

Change on the Local Level

Even though Green Schoolyards America focuses its work on cities, the group’s approach offers a framework for parents everywhere to become advocates in transforming the grounds of their children’s schools. To become an advocate, Danks suggests that parents work with teachers and principals to develop new visions and plans for their schoolyards. The fundamental question, she says, is “How do we transform schoolyards that are planned for the convenience of maintenance staff into spaces that provide access to nature for all children at school?”

Being an advocate isn’t something parents can do alone. “You’ll need energetic advocates from within school districts, public agencies, and community neighborhoods to collaborate and envision a new future for school grounds — and then to make that vision a reality,” Danks says.

When parents begin this process, they’ll run into some of the same challenges Green Schoolyards America faces when it works with new school districts. One of the greatest hurdles is uniting departments within a school district that don’t typically communicate with each other, such as Facilities and Education. To bridge this gap, Danks recommends bringing department representatives together to discuss how the land can contribute to kids’ learning, their health, and the environment. The idea is to create a vision statement that a school board can adopt as a long-term policy goal, and then weave this vision into operations and facilities plans at the district and school levels.

Funding is another challenge. Danks recommends working at the city scale to turn school grounds into parks, so you can tap into city-scale funding that’s available through local water agencies or state-level climate adaptation grants. “It takes time, a lot of patience, collaboration, and thinking outside the box. But it’s possible to find funding from local and state environmental sources,” she says.

Creating green schoolyards in your neighborhood will take a strong team and a lot of work, but the results will be well worth it. Turning school grounds green can unite communities and offer benefits to our children, health, and environment. Kids will be able to immerse themselves in the natural world where they would’ve otherwise been stuck inside, only experiencing the outdoors through a window.

Tom Oder is an independent journalist who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and writes about business, sustainability, and the environment.