The Greening of Schoolyards: Campus Master Plans are Vital Tools

by Jane Tesner Kleiner, ASLA, RLA

Hough Elementary School’s outdoor classroom
Students practicing their year-end play in Hough Elementary School’s outdoor classroom / image: Jane Tesner Kleiner

I recently attended lunch recess at a local elementary school. With a bright orange measuring tape and a can of white marking paint in hand, I made my way to the far corner of the playground. It was a typical elementary school setting: lots of grass, a few trees, pavement play, and manufactured play structures. There was not much else, including shade, and it was pretty warm already. Before I knew it, though, a small cluster of kids trailed behind me, asking the classic, “Whatcha doing?” When I said I was marking the location for their new Butterfly, Sensory, and Strawberry Garden, they told me they were going to help. And as we talked, I gave them the BIG PICTURE of what we wanted to change on their campus. I shared with them the campus Master Plan.

Greening of Schoolyards (GOSY) projects can involve many things, but central to them all are access for everyone and user safety. Of course, in a world of sanitized “play structures” and manufactured authenticity, adding natural areas can come with concerns, many of which stem from lack of experience on the part of stakeholders. They aren’t uncreative…they just haven’t redesigned large, open spaces. When it comes to schools, thoughtful master planning encompasses two main objectives: enhancing the campus and building buy-in among numerous constituent groups.

Hough Elementary School’s ABC garden concept layout / image: Jane Tesner Kleiner

A GOSY master plan is a classic project deliverable for landscape architects, but it has to take into consideration the specific needs for that school’s identity, programming, and community partnerships. A successful master plan:

  • addresses the wants and needs of school district staff, teachers, recess staff, students and community partners.
  • presents a vision for the next 5-10 years.
  • is implemented over time. When, in each successive year, the teachers and students invest their work, input, and modifications into the projects already in the ground, student engagement goes up and vandalism goes down.
  • identifies potential barriers, but also partnerships and opportunities, to expand or develop beyond the specifics of the plan itself.

One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is that GOSY projects should never include the presumption that the built elements will be used solely as settings for direct instruction by teachers. Some schools may facilitate outdoor classes, such as “animals in their habitat,” or “parts of a plant.” But successful learning models also include self-directed and self-paced experiential and observational activities. There are plenty of programs to support outdoor learning and play: environmental or garden clubs or recess programs supported by professionals such as horticultural or occupational therapists are examples.

Hough Elementary School’s Butterfly Garden exploration and plantings / image: Jane Tesner Kleiner

Master plans should always account for the various zones of play, learning, and rest (i.e. active, passive, chilling out, etc.). When it comes to learning, incorporate play and think beyond STEM, as all curricula can be taught outdoors, including art, leisure reading, writing, and performances.

Once a plan is in place and approved by the school district leadership, the possibilities for implementation are endless. The master plan then:

  • becomes a tool for the principal to guide volunteers.
  • provides targeted priorities for school fundraising.
  • supports grant requests, as the projects are part of a larger vision for the school.
  • identifies tasks to be done by the district (based on risk, safety, needs for permits, etc.).
  • invites volunteer stewardship projects by school and community groups.
  • identifies mentorship projects for high school and skill-building partners.
  • develops roles for school programs to help build, use, and maintain features in the future.
  • supports changing the overall culture and vision of how the campus is used for learning, play, and wellness.

The great thing about these master plans: while they require numerous conversations in order to capture all the ideas, the documents do not have to be complex. In fact, I understood the value of simple—but not simplistic—while laying out the elements in the newly-planned schoolyard.

Harney Elementary School students design their nature play space / image: Jane Tesner Kleiner
Harney Elementary School concept sketch for nature play / image: Jane Tesner Kleiner
The nature play at Harney Elementary School, designed and built with the school community / image: Jane Tesner Kleiner

So, what separates a successful campus master plan from one that is merely impressive? Go back to the recess: understandable plan + hands-on activity = instant buy-in. A successful campus master plan considers the school to be the kids’ backyard.

Include art in every project / image: Jane Tesner Kleiner

When kids have the chance, they love to help transform their playgrounds and add new areas for play, exploration, and adventure. They spend so much time at school, the playground really is an extension of their own backyard. Or, it IS their backyard. They really do like to own it and care for it, all year round. As Rachel Kaplan, retired environmental psychologist from the University of Michigan, taught us, in order for people to feel safe in natural settings, they need to have a safe experience with nature close to home (With People in Mind: Design and Management Of Everyday Nature, by Rachel Kaplan, Stephen Kaplan, and Robert Ryan). What better place than a child’s school?

That’s why the Greening of Schoolyards is such an important movement. It takes a different perspective on what school campuses can be for students, staff, and community. GOSY projects empower school communities to utilize the whole campus as a resource, and not just for play: for learning, stress reduction, and creative stimulation as well. GOSY presents a chance to think about the outdoors as an everyday encounter, not a weekend trip to “somewhere.”

There are myriad reasons to green up schoolyards and provide these diverse settings, and those reasons are now well-documented. Less understood is the process of getting there, and that is at the heart of thoughtful master planning. Try this exercise: pull up an aerial image of your local elementary school. Ask yourself some questions: how hot is the play area? Is there any shade? What spaces are designed for introverts, or simply the quiet kids? Where do people take a de-escalation walk? Where could you put a pollinator garden or different tactile elements? How are the activities separated? Is hopscotch near the basketball court? Where are the teaching spaces? Is there seating for a whole class? Could a teacher bring out a social studies class while another group has P.E.? When you begin to consider the answers, you’ll come up with many more questions. Here, then, is the “Why?” of your planning.

A GOSY master plan will, of course, identify use areas on an aerial photograph with supporting pages that highlight each project. It will allow specific designs to develop over time, so that new partners can contribute their ideas. Simple drawings, sketches, and representative images are invaluable guides for the stakeholders. In the end, though, a GOSY master plan is a bold statement of school and community values. It levels the playing field by expanding it. It commits to a place for every child, every day.

Jane Tesner Kleiner, ASLA, is a registered landscape architect in Michigan and Washington and Principal of nature+play designs in Vancouver, WA. She has been working in a variety of jobs to connect kids of all ages to nature, for fun, learning and their well-being.

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