The green schoolyards movement

The green schoolyards movement

Friday, September 14, 2018
/ By:
Jaime Zaplatosch and Angela Loder

WELL Concepts
Children & Nature Network

What comes to mind when you think of a school playground? Most people would describe one in its typical form: A sea of asphalt, a monoculture of grass or astroturf punctuated by pieces of playground equipment, and surrounded by a fence or perhaps some trees.Yet public school campuses can be so much more. Green schoolyard programs have existed for 40 years in small pockets around the world, and their popularity continues to grow. One community in Chicago transformed an old schoolyard into a beautiful green schoolyard, and they recorded the entire project in double-time!

“Public school campuses can be so much more”

A schoolyard designed with a community’s unique needs and characteristics allows a neighborhood to thrive. During the school days they act as places of exploration, learning and play. During out of school hours, they become valuable local parks. Cities such as Houston, New York, Denver, San Francisco and Boston have long been leaders in transforming schoolyards into high quality green spaces. Other U.S. cities are starting to follow suit. Internationally, Toronto, Canada, Bali, Indonesia, and Berlin, Germany have made great progress in greening schoolyards. Although this movement is growing around the world, we have a long way to go in ensuring that all children, families and communities enjoy the benefits of nature from their own school grounds.

What are green schoolyards?

The Children & Nature Network describes green schoolyards as multi-functional school grounds, designed by and for the entire school community, that include places for students, teachers, parents and community members to play, learn, explore and grow. During out of school time, these schoolyards are ideally available for community use.

Green schoolyards can include:

  • outdoor classrooms
  • native and pollinator gardens
  • stormwater capture
  • traditional play equipment
  • nature play areas
  • edible gardens
  • trails
  • trees and shrubs

“A schoolyard designed with a community’s unique needs and characteristics allows a neighborhood to thrive”

The benefits of green schoolyards

The benefits of green schoolyards, fall within the broad categories of Learning, Health & Wellness, Community and Environment.

Research shows that spending regular time in safe, natural areas is associated with a variety of benefits, including:

  • Physical health—increased physical activity and cardiovascular vitality
  • Mental health—improved mood and decreased stress
  • Cognitive function—enhanced attention and executive function
  • Social emotional functioning—increased pro-social and cooperative behaviors
  • Additional personal benefits—spiritual, identity and conservation ethic development.

These benefits are grounded in many of WELL’s core principles. For example, the increased physical activity aligns with the Movement concept. Similarly, access to high quality, interactive greenspace supports both stress reduction and access to nature aspects of the Mind concept. Green schoolyards also complement the Material concept by supporting environmental and health synergies. The playground can be used as a teaching opportunity about sustainability and the natural world, while also reducing chemicals in our playgrounds.

“Green schoolyards align perfectly with IWBI’s goals of healthier buildings and communities”

Anecdotal evidence also highlights ecosystem improvements such as improved air quality, wildlife habitat, stormwater management, and reduced noise pollution. Economic benefits include reductions in crime, vandalism and urban infrastructure costs, as well as increases in surrounding property values and student enrollment.

While all communities experience these benefits, a growing body of research indicates that greening schoolyards has the greatest impact on children in low-income and economically-stressed communities, communities of color, and in places where access to green space is limited. This enhanced benefit for disadvantaged communities can support larger public health and municipal initiatives in the drive for greater health equity and inclusion. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Communities Initiative is one such example, which aligns with IWBI’s commitment to equity as well.

Progress in the U.S.

In 2016, the Children & Nature Network published a report titled, Building a National Movement for Green Schoolyards in Every Community. The report was based on a comprehensive scan of the green schoolyards field in the U.S., and included recommendations for advancing green schoolyards in every community. The publication of the report launched our national green schoolyards initiative.

Cross-sector partners have come together to support the initiative and its vision that “all U.S. communities offer access to green schoolyards by 2050 to enhance children’s healthy development, community wellbeing and positive environmental impacts.” This vision is the cornerstone of a new Green Schoolyards Action Agenda, recently developed and adopted by green schoolyards activists from across the nation. The agenda outlines five goals and supporting actions that will help realize the 2050 goal. Those that are interested in getting involved can join this work and to sign on to the Green Schoolyards Action Agenda, or contact jaime@childrenandnature.org.

“Green schoolyards have the power to make children happier, healthier and smarter”

Progress around the world

The International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) is a global network of organizations and professionals working to enrich children’s learning and play by improving the way school grounds are designed and used. The ISGA creates resources to promote the development of green school grounds around the world and hosts international conferences. The next ISGA conference takes place in November 2018 in Japan. Green schoolyards have the power to make children happier, healthier and smarter. They also align perfectly with IWBI’s goals of healthier buildings and communities. At IWBI we are excited to explore further synergies with green schoolyards and WELL buildings, and would love to hear from our community about this topic.

Jaime Zaplatosch is the Director of Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities at Children & Nature Network. She leads the organizations work to support district-wide, equity-based green schoolyard program development across the U.S. and provides green schoolyards technical assistance. Twitter: @JaimeZaplatosch @childrennature