Turning Education Inside Out

How Green Schoolyards Can Help Make Schools Safer This Fall—and Improve Kids’ Lives Permanently

By Jay Wallsjasper for Finding Nature News

In inner-city Chicago, an English class spends reading time under newly planted shade trees on the schoolyard, while younger kids tend a garden plot, exclaiming “we’re growing a salad.”

In Grand Rapids, 5th graders at a lower-income school scramble across bridges, scoot through tunnels and climb a lookout made from logs and stumps—which they helped design in art class. Middle-schoolers nearby study math at a new outdoor classroom built into a hillside.

In rural Plumas County, California, students at 18 schools now attend some classes in forests, meadows or banks of the Feather River within a ten-minute walk from their homerooms.

At almost 100 public schools in Austin, students of all ages engage in hands-on lessons by keeping chickens, taking nature walks, investigating pond life and other hands-on opportunities right outside their schoolhouse doors. “It helps kids find imagination in so many things, and invites their curiosity in ways that adults sometimes forget about,” reports the school district’s Sustainability Manager Darien Clary.

This is what Back-to-School 2020 could like all across America—with green schoolyards offering a safer, more equitable middle ground in the wrenching decisions over in-person vs. online instruction.

Photo courtesy of PEAS (Partners for Education, Agriculture & Sustainability)—Austin, TX

Making School Safe in the Midst of a Pandemic

It’s not too late for educators, parents and superintendents to take steps that allow kids to learn in fresh air settings at least part of the time, which can tip the scales toward in-person education for some school districts. This can be easily and economically done by opening up schoolgrounds, closing-off adjoining streets, walking to nearby parks or incorporating field trips into K-12 curriculum.

“Officials need to think outside the building,” editorialized the New York Times, noting “in Denmark, schools held spring classes on playgrounds, in public parks and even in the stands of the national soccer stadium.”

Letting millions of students head outdoors is one of the best ways to ensure that kids (and ultimately their families and communities) are not exposed to coronavirus all day long sitting inside school buildings. Nearly all epidemiological studies show that chances of COVID-19 infection are dramatically reduced out-of-doors. One of the few comprehensive studies tracing the spread of the COVID-19 so far—done in Wuhan, China, earlier this year— found only one case out of 7,000 was directly attributable to open-air transmission.

Embracing outdoor learning also helps avoid the pitfalls of online-only teaching which, based on the experience of last spring, fails students—particularly those in elementary school or with special needs. That’s why the blue-ribbon National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, which advises the nation on scientific issues, declared, “it should be a priority for districts to re-open for in-person learning.”

Dr. Gail Christopher—director of the Natural Collaborative for Health Equity and former Vice-president of the Kellogg Foundation—points out that exclusive or excessive virtual learning deters academic progress for students who are disadvantaged by systems of inequity, leaving them even farther behind their peers. She also highlights the negative mental health effects of screen time for all children, many of whom are already suffering increased stress due to the pandemic, confinement at home, the economic crisis, racism and unrest in their communities. “This moment offers an opportunity for us to move learning outside in natural settings, which are restorative and calming. This will reduce cortisol [fight-or-flight] hormones in children, which science shows improves students’ overall cognition and health.”

Photo courtesy of Green Schoolyards America, greenschoolyards.org | Photo by Thomas Kuoh Photography

How Do You Hold Classes Outside?

Moving education outside “can be as simple as doing routine activities such as check-ins, reading circles, story-telling, physical education, art and math activities in an outdoor setting,” explains Cheryl Charles, a co-founder of the Children and Nature Network (C&NN) along with Richard Louv, author of the bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

“It’s time to turn education inside out….” Louv recently wrote with C&NN Executive Director Sarah Milligan-Toffler. “School grounds and the natural infrastructure that exists in every community can be activated for effective learning.”

“Schools have a time and space problem—with so many hours in the school day and so many square feet inside school buildings. We are trying to help schools think about… increasing the amount of space that’s available,” says Berkeley science education professor Craig Strang in Education Week. He is involved with Green Schoolyards America, which like C&NN is promoting outdoor learning as an immediate, low-cost method of making schools safer during this and any future pandemics .

There is nothing new or untested about the idea of green schoolyards. Ancient Greek philosophers and African village elders held lessons beneath shade trees, and today a network of udeskole (“out schools”) for students 7 to 16 across Scandinavia emphasizes learning outside. Fourteen percent of schools in Denmark hold some core-subject classes beyond school walls.

Earlier epidemics in the US inspired creative outside-the-schoolhouse thinking. In 1909, 65 open-air schools were up and running in communities plagued by tuberculosis, including frigid New England where the first one was established in Providence, RI

The modern wave of green schoolyards in the US stretches back several decades, with 200 now operating in New York City, more than 100 in San Francisco, almost 100 in Denver and 200 in Harris County, Texas.

Even before the coronavirus hit, a diverse movement of students, parents, educators, public officials and entire communities were championing green schoolyards as a boost for children’s physical health, mental health and academic achievement. Their mission is that students at every single school across America will have access to nature-based learning opportunities on their school grounds by 2050, explains Jaime Zaplatosch, director of C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities initiative.

Louv and Milligan-Toffler weave a vision of what this will look like:

“Imagine schoolyards that are packed with trees, native plants and grasses -- and gardens where children can explore and learn about the birds, pollinators, and other critters in their neighborhoods."
“Imagine children learning in outdoor classrooms, growing food and other plants, playing in natural areas, and exploring trails."
“Imagine spaces that encourage creativity and problem-solving while serving as places of refuge and solitude for students and educators alike."
Nature play space for elementary school students by Bienenstock | Photo courtesy of Children & Nature Network

Surprising Benefits of Greening Our Schools

Even if a 100-percent effective vaccine for COVID-19 appeared tomorrow and was promptly administered to every person in the world, green schoolyards would remain a valuable innovation because of other health, academic and social benefits they provide, according to a wealth of recent scientific studies:

Development of Essential Life Skills: Advances in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, leadership and personal resilience were associated with students taking part in nature-based learning programs, according to a 2019 research review led by University of Illinois professor Ming Kuo and the Children & Nature Network’s consulting research director, Cathy Jordan. Other studies find improvement in attention span, motor skills, sense of independence, impulse control and environmental literacy for children with frequent contact with nature.

Improved Test Scores: A ten-year study of 500 Chicago-area schools found that students with access to green schoolyards performed better on standardized tests. (Kuo et al., 2018)

Even More Improvement for Disadvantaged Students: Green schoolyards generate even greater academic progress among children suffering the effects of economic inequity, systemic racism or trauma—a breakthrough for helping narrow the growing chasm in opportunity between privileged students and everyone else. (Kuo et al. 2019)

Happier Students: Adding more natural features to school playgrounds resulted in less bullying, children playing more with each other and a higher percentage of students who report “being happy” at school. (Farmer et al., 2017).

Fewer Discipline Problems: Schools with green schoolyards were found to experience fewer instances of aggression and other behavioral issues. (Bell & Dyment, 2008)

Reduced Stress and Heightened Well-Being: “In green schoolyards, students find peace away from stresses in the classroom and daily life,” reports University of Colorado professor Louise Chawla. This corroborates an earlier study led by Cornell professor Christina Kelz, which found that a “renovated schoolyard significantly diminished pupils’ physiological stress levels and enhanced their psychological well-being.”

Increased Physical Activity and Less Childhood Obesity: An avalanche of medical research links exercise with better health outcomes, which makes recent studies documenting Green Schoolyard’s role in heightening vigorous play, particularly for girls, significant. The quality of schoolyards also correlates to lower Body-Mass-Index among students.

Nathan Smith Davis Elementary School, Chicago | Photo courtesy of Space to Grow

Why do green schoolyards make such a difference in kids' lives?

“Because nature-based pedagogy treats the whole child — their physiological, physical, emotional and intellectual development as well as academic success,” explains Cathy Jordan, a pediatrics professor at the University of Minnesota and C&NN’s Consulting Director of Research.

“This is more important than ever right now in the midst of the pandemic and economic crash,” she says. “Children are coping with mild to severe stress, everything from being cooped up to losing a relative or witnessing domestic violence. Many of them will return to school in much different shape than they were in last March.”

The Advantages Reach Beyond Kids:

Better Working Conditions for Educators: Teachers who take their classes outside are found to suffer lower rates of burn-out (Paddle & Gilliland, 2016).

Higher Parental and Community Involvement at Schools: The secret ingredients to any successful green schoolyard are students, parents and neighbors who devote long hours to maintaining them—especially when school is out. An added bonus is that these volunteers frequently join in other activities at school that benefit the school.

Greener, More Pleasant Neighborhoods: Community members from the surrounding area greatly appreciate a new park-like setting for recreation and relaxation, especially when they are involved in the planning. This is particularly true in communities that lack green space due to redlining and historic inequities in the distribution of parks and natural spaces.

“Green schoolyards can help improve community health and potentially increase neighborhood home values,” states Rob Grunewald, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis who has studied these programs.

“Right now we think about natural spaces in our neighborhoods as something nice to have, an amenity,” adds C&NN director Sarah Milligan-Toffler. “We need to think of green space as health infrastructure for the whole community.”

Improved Environmental Quality and Climate Resilience: Even when natural play areas and vegetables gardens are empty of people, green schoolyards continue to provide valuable services like protecting biodiversity, preventing water pollution, reducing the “heat island” effect in cities and reducing storm run-off.

In New York City alone, 18.5 million gallons of rainfall is diverted from the sewer system every year in schoolyards, according to The Trust for Public Land. Government agencies in Chicago are now making big investments in green schoolyards to reduce the threat of climate change-induced flooding in the low-lying lakefront city.

Widespread Economic and Social Benefits: And the news gets even better the closer you look, according to Grunewald, the Federal Reserve economist. “To the extent that children benefit from green schoolyards and can do better in school, all society benefits. There are strong relationships between children’s education achievement and their future employment, income and contributions back to society.”

What Makes a Schoolyard Green?

Green schoolyards are more than just a patch of tomatoes next to the swing set. They are defined by C&NN as “school grounds where natural elements are present and abundant”—which can take many different forms based on the age of students, the needs of the community, climatic and geographic conditions as well as resources available. Many projects try to incorporate space for kids to run, jump and ramble as well as reflective spots for those who want to talk with friends or observe the workings of nature.

The size of the schoolyard is not critical. “We have some we refer to as postage stamps that have been very successful,” says Tamar Barlev, Green Schoolyard Manager for the San Francisco Schools. “These schools also utilize the whole city as a classroom, with field trips.”

The most frequently found elements of Green Schoolyards coast-to-coast are:

  • outdoor classrooms and learning labs

  • native-plant and pollinator gardens

  • vegetable gardens and fruit orchards

  • nature trails and walking paths

  • natural play areas

  • traditional playgrounds

  • stormwater management features

“Green schoolyards are part of creating the kind of cities we all deserve. They reinvigorate our public spaces, making them community hubs that support students, teachers, parents and community members to play, learn, explore and grow,” says Jaime Zaplatosch, who before leading C&NN’s green schoolyards work, was a teacher and director of a city-led school garden project in Chicago.

It Takes a Village to Make a Schoolyard

Green schoolyards often are launched by a wide mix of partners.

Chicago’s Space to Grow initiative is doing projects at 34 public schools with a particular focus on those serving disadvantaged students, thanks to $51 million in funding from the city, the school district, a metro-wide water management district, an open spaces advocacy organization and a non-profit focusing on children’s health.

Since 1983, the SPARK School Parks Program has worked with 17 school districts across the Houston region, thanks to substantial support from local foundations and Houston’s Mayor’s Office. In Plumas County, California, local teacher Rob Wade conceived the idea for outdoor learning hubs and carried it out with support from the school district and the Feather River Land Trust, a conservation organization.

In Grand Rapids, MI, a campaign to increase nature access at schools in lower-income neighborhoods—where park acreage per capita is one-third that of other parts of town— is being advanced by the municipal government, the parks department and the school district with substantial funding by a local foundation. This effort is part of the Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative of the National League of Cities and C&NN, with additional support from the Outdoor Foundation.

In a number of cities—including Grand Rapids and Austin— school districts sign Joint-Use Agreements with city hall or the parks department to remove legal and institutional barriers to sharing facilities for the benefit of children and communities.

A particularly generous partner can be local citizens, who see green schoolyards as a smart investment of their tax dollars. Lois Brink, a schoolyard design strategist who instigated green Schoolyards in Denver, points out that offering an amenity everyone can use helps sweeten the deal for voters to approve school bond referendums. “We passed a $300 million measure and schoolyards ranked high in the reasons people supported it.”

A Lesson from Denver: Focus on Funding

The origins of greener schoolyards in Denver go back to 1992 when Lois Brink took her daughter to kindergarten on the first day of school. “I looked around and thought, Oh my God! There was little grass or trees except right at the entrance. The rest was pea gravel, because it takes money to mow.”

Brink, a University of Colorado-Denver landscape architecture professor, organized a bunch of parents, teachers and her graduate students to help her draw up a plan for greening the school, which excited the principal so much he “brought in the top dogs in the school district to see it, and then we all reached out to some foundations and got the mayor involved.”

More than $9 million was raised and 22 “learning landscapes” (as green schoolyards are called in Denver) were created. More money approved by voters in 2003 and 2008 raised the total to 96 schools. “We noticed right away there was less vandalism at schools with learning landscapes,” Brink reports, “and teachers would tell me they gained more class time because kids come back inside ready to learn.”

The most important lesson from Denver, according to Brink, is: “You don’t need to sell people on the value of this—you need to find a way to pay for it. If you don’t give schools the financial means to do this, it won’t happen.”

A Lesson from Grand Rapids: Involve Everyone

Brookside Elementary School on the city’s southwest side, which serves largely Latinx and Black students, is integrating a stand of old trees along a creek into a natural play area and building a gazebo for outdoor classes as well as a new soccer field—a triumph for the students who helped draft the plan. “Kids are so excited to be involved and see what they suggested is really happening,” explains Lynn Heemstra, director of Our Community’s Children—a joint city hall/school district effort addressing issues facing children, youth and families.

“We also engage parents, grandparents and the whole community in our planning,” she adds. “This helps everyone see the school as their asset.”

Here’s Heemstra’s advice for ensuring wide participation in the planning process: "Work closely with school principals to engage parents, send postcards to every household in the neighborhood, hold meetings right after popular after-school programs and, most importantly, “serve very good food from a locally-sourced caterer”.

Photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Dept. of Parks & Recreation, Grand Rapids, MI

A Lesson from Austin: Train Teachers in Outdoor Education

Nearly 100 shade, flowering or fruit trees and a wildflower meadow have been recently planted on the grounds of Wooldridge Elementary School, along with the construction of an outdoor classroom near mature shade trees, a natural play area and a wooden footbridge worthy of a fairy tale crossing a stream on the property. “Students are using the natural play area more than the traditional playgrounds,” reports Melody Alcazar, who coordinates Austin’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature work with the National League of Cities and C&NN. She notes Wooldridge’s student body is 85-90 percent Latinx.

An essential part of Austin’s Green School Park Strategy is “professional development for teachers on how to make the most of these new natural elements for their subject areas, which is as equally important as the features themselves.” Alcazar explains.

Photos courtesy of PEAS (Partners for Education, Agriculture & Sustainability), Austin, TX

A Lesson from San Francisco: Be Ambitious Yet Practical

Asphalt is giving way to native plants, gardens and an outdoor classroom at Dr. Charles R. Drew elementary school in the predominantly Black district of Bayview in San Francisco. “We want schoolyards to be a place where students can learn and play, in addition to being a place to go when they are feeling stressed, when they need connection to nature,” says Tamar Barlev, Green Schoolyard Manager for the city’s public schools.

The notion to green San Francisco’s schoolgrounds took root in the 1990s, and the movement got a major boost in 2003 when San Francisco voters passed the first of four bond referendums that secured funding for the project. More than 90 percent of the city’s public schools now have green schoolyards, with more on the way.

Barlev stresses that access to outside resources is important to the success of green schoolyards rather than depending solely on the initiative, labor and donations from parents at a particular school. "While family involvement is invaluable to build community and conduct basic green schoolyard maintenance,” she explains, “without outside resources to fund garden educators or professional development for teachers, lower income schools are at a disadvantage." 

When asked what folks elsewhere can learn from San Francisco’s experience, she quotes Sharon Danks—an environmental city planner who founded Green Schoolyards America:

“Start small. Think big. Build as your capacity grows.”

Photos courtesy of San Francisco United School District

Jay Walljasper—author of The Great Neighborhood Book—writes, speaks and consults about how to make more sustainable, equitable, towns and cities.

The Children & Nature Network’s Jaime Zaplatosch and Dr. Cathy Jordan contributed source material and expertise for this article.


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