Sharon Danks, a leader in the field of Ecological Schoolyards and an award-winning author, is coming to Portland Monday, Jan. 23, for a free public, lecture. Read on for more, and RSVP today!
I have some special memories of childhood: roaming through fields and forests, picking berries, building stick forts and collecting bouquets of wildflowers. For some kids, connections with the outdoors happened at school, where teachers took students outside. They may have studied shapes by comparing and contrasting different leaves or flowers, or engaged in “lessons” consisting of scavenger hunts: trying to find as many types of bugs as possible, and learning about their habitats. Kids love to learn through their own discoveries.
These are valuable outdoor experiences. Children who have access to “green” schoolyards interact with nature in a comfortable, familiar and safe setting. Many schools in our region boast gardens, trees, flowers, outdoor classrooms, natural playgrounds, and an assortment of areas to explore, including ponds and wetlands. These spaces spark imagination, foster a sense of wonder, and encourage curiosity, all while encouraging play and learning throughout the school day.
Over the last 30 years, a growing body of research strongly asserts that children experience myriad benefits from daily access to nature. Richard Louv of the Children and Nature Network states in an online article that “…including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity, and social cohesion. New longitudinal studies also suggest that nature-rich schools can help raise standardized test scores. And children in low-income communities appear to benefit proportionally more from access to green space than those in higher-income communities.”
What better spaces than the schools at which kids spend a majority of their time? I certainly see these benefits in the students I work with, not to mention my own kids. I have also seen students build self-confidence, learn new skills, and take great pride and ownership in these spaces. In addition, involving students throughout the planning, design, fundraising, installation and maintenance of school greenspaces gives them hands-on experiences that they may not get elsewhere.
Research strongly asserts adding nature back to our campus layouts. Not better play equipment. Not more basketball courts. Nature.
During the recent build of an alphabet garden, two 5th-grade girls who rarely participate in school projects helped plant the kindergarten sunflower starts. They beamed with pride, and told me they had never planted anything in a garden. The school counselor said she rarely saw one of the girls smile. She was smiling that Saturday morning.
Looking at many of our current school grounds, we see plenty of asphalt and concrete sports courts and pathways, large swaths of lawn, and manufactured play equipment. Many of these spaces have limited natural features accessible for kids to explore, on their own or with a class. This typical schoolyard layout is the function of many factors: reducing risk and limiting maintenance are two of the most prominent. School districts have their hands and budgets full just making sure kids are learning the standards they need within the school buildings, while keeping the campus safe.
The challenge is how to meet the needs of schools while creating learning and play-rich campuses that incorporate nature. There is a growing movement in our region, across the country, and internationally to look at how kids play and learn at their schools. The resulting research strongly asserts adding nature back to our campus layouts. Not better play equipment. Not more basketball courts. Nature.
In the past 10 years, dedicated professionals have started documenting the various factors to consider when changing schoolyards. Of course, each school and its campus are unique, and each offers opportunities for and challenges to adding natural elements. Essentially, a thoughtful approach to greening a schoolyard calls for including as many perspectives as possible; a widely inclusive process will ensure that the project is successful, and sustainable, for the life of the school.
In some communities, local experts facilitate design conversations with school stakeholders to create spaces that support curriculum needs, students’ special needs, and interactive learning. These professionals are also working together to collect information about local projects, which can then offer examples and lessons learned for school administrators, teachers, parents and students.
National experts have also been sharing their rich knowledge through books and presentations. Sharon Gamson Danks, a leader in the field of Ecological Schoolyards and an accomplished international speaker, published the award-winning Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation in 2010. Danks, a landscape architect, traveled the world to speak with school leaders, teachers and coordinators about their schoolyards. The resulting book is a visual story of how schools have followed a design process to change thinking about their campuses.
Asphalt to Ecosystems is a great guide for designing successful projects. The book includes 500 color images that serve to translate ideas and share examples. The book covers the most important steps for planning and designs, including:
- explaining why it is important to have green schoolyards
- providing eco-teaching tools and lessons
- diversifying spaces for active play, creative play, art and music
- shaping schoolyard infrastructure to create comfortable, effective and memorable places
- putting ideas into action
Often, school leaders interested in transforming their campuses feel overwhelmed about where to start, but this excellent guide provides a framework for each step.
The Portland-Vancouver Greening of Schoolyards movement, through The Intertwine Alliance, is bringing Danks from the Bay Area for a free, public lecture next Monday evening, Jan. 23, at EcoTrust in Northwest Portland. Please RSVP to hear her advice and insight for our region.
The lecture, and The Intertwine Alliance’s green schoolyards initiative, may be the beginning of a conversation, but projects have been evolving over the last decade. Whether schools are interested in gardens, nature play or outdoor classrooms, there are plenty of local examples to help people dream big.
Our call to action is to make sure that every school has the opportunity to rethink its campus. Look at the unused and empty spaces that could host butterflies, ladybugs and strawberry patches. The professionals in our communities are ready to facilitate the conversations; teachers are motivated; and students crave the chance to connect with nature. Let’s make this happen.