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Natural Awakenings NYC & Long Island

Green Schoolyards: Concrete Jungles Become Natural Playgrounds

Sep 30, 2022 ● By Sheila Julson
Child outdoors watering row of potted plants

Sukjai Photo/AdobeStock.com

Skipping rope, playing hopscotch or shooting hoops have traditionally been enjoyed on asphalt-paved schoolyards enclosed by chain-link fencing. But over the last few decades, city leaders, school districts and other stakeholders have been transforming such areas into verdant play-learn spaces, designed for and by students and the community, which also offer green space for surrounding neighborhoods to enjoy during non-school hours.

While there is no official definition of a green schoolyard, these projects often share such elements as shade trees and native plantings. Asphalt urban heat islands are being replaced with permeable pavers, rain gardens and vegetative ditches called bioswales to help retain rainwater.

Incorporating climate-appropriate materials and arboriculture that provides ornamental shading using trees and shrubs is important, says Alejandra Chiesa, California state director of Green Schoolyards America, a nine-year-old nonprofit. Even poured rubber surfacing or artificial turf can become too hot and contribute to unhealthy environments for children if not shaded, she says. Planting shade trees and selecting cooler materials such as wood, mulch or engineered wood fiber is critical, especially in hotter climates.

“Playground equipment made from recycled materials can still get very hot and should be kept under the shade of trees,” she cautions. Green schoolyards can incorporate logs, stumps and play equipment made from real wood which provide great play value and stay cooler.

Brenda Kessler, the green schoolyards program coordinator for the Children & Nature Network (C&NN), works with teams made up of city and school district leaders, along with local partners, to implement schoolyard makeovers. The organization is in the process of publishing district design guidelines that detail different features. “We’re not prescriptive, but it can include elements like outdoor classrooms, stormwater retention infrastructure, pollinator gardens, edible gardens, shade structures and boulders,” Kessler says.

The Trust for Public Land, which works to create parks and preserve public lands, began transforming schoolyards 25 years ago in response to the shortage of space available for new parks. “Every schoolyard we do across the country looks different. We’re responding to the local requirements,” says Danielle Denk, the Trust’s Community Schoolyards initiative director. The organization has partnered with New York City’s Department of Education for its Schoolyard to Playground Initiative. The program has remade more than 260 schoolyards in all five boroughs, opening up the grounds to extended after-school and weekend hours. Parks that may include such new features as shaded seating and exercise tracks are now within a 10-minute walk for 4 million New Yorkers. 

In urban areas, large-caliper trees provide shade and bring down the overall temperature of the school, creating a more comfortable indoor learning environment. Trees also improve air quality and noise pollution in schools located in industrial neighborhoods. Dearborn, Michigan, is one such industrial city that seeks to reduce air and noise pollution through green schoolyards.

Priya Cook, director of the C&NN green schoolyards program, says its projects support local teams in systems change and initiative. Removing asphalt and replacing it with permeable pavers, bioswales and rain gardens also mitigates flooding. In Milwaukee, C&NN supported scaling work of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to install rainwater retention features on school playgrounds. 

Rural communities, which may already have good soil and tree canopies, are also candidates for green schoolyards. “We found in rural communities that the schools serve an important civic role. Some of these areas do not have a physical park or gathering place for social events. Green schoolyards provide [a] venue for the social infrastructure that is crucial in rural America,” Denk says.

Outdoor Learning Spaces

Green schoolyards can offer hands-on learning spaces where children help with planting, mulching and soil health. Wildlife habitats, native gardens and natural ecosystems offer opportunities to learn about migrating birds and insects. Raised bed vegetable gardens provide nutrition and gardening education.

Cook says academic benefits go beyond learning about nature: “One feature that comes up a lot is creating space for outdoor learning in general. Many subjects can be taught outside, whether or not they’re physically focused on that natural environment.”

Green schoolyards are going international. C&NN is spearheading a multi-organizational effort to create a Global Lesson on Greening School Grounds and Outdoor Learning project; the plan will be drafted at a meeting this November in Salzburg, Austria. “We’re all coming together to advance green schoolyards worldwide,” Kessler says.


Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings.

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