Green Schoolyards: An Interview with Sharon Danks, Part 1

by Lauren Iversen, Student ASLA

Children playing, green schoolyard, Golestan School
Children play exuberantly in the vibrant green schoolyard at Golestan School in the San Francisco Bay Area. / image: Paige Green, © Green Schoolyards America

Green Schoolyards: Our Cities’ Opportunities to Create Thriving Public Land Where Children and their Communities Benefit

We are delighted to share Lauren’s interview with Sharon Danks, who talks about her vitally important work with greening schoolyards. This is a topic that is applicable to anyone who cares for and about children!
– Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network Co-Communications Director

Interview with Sharon Danks, Founder and CEO of Green Schoolyards America, by
Lauren Iversen, Student ASLA, graduate student in Landscape Architecture at the University of Washington

Sharon, please tell me what Green Schoolyards America is and works towards.

Green Schoolyards America is a non-profit organization, based in Berkeley, California. We focus on transforming asphalt-covered school grounds into park-like green spaces that improve children’s well-being, learning, and play while contributing to the ecological health and resilience of our cities. We are working to change the norm for school ground design, use, and management so that all children will have access to the natural world on a daily basis, right outside their classroom door.

School districts are one of the biggest land managers in the country, and yet they often don’t see land management as their role. As a result, school grounds are often unusually barren places from an ecological perspective, particularly in our cities. Sadly, we’re putting millions of children—some of our most vulnerable citizens—in these places without adequate protection from the elements or the mental and physical health benefits that the natural world affords. The most barren school grounds are typically also in places with the fewest resources, creating an extreme equity problem and shocking level of disparity.

What drew you to the concept of green schoolyards?

When I first started doing research in this field 20 years ago, the original question I asked myself was: how do we create green cities, and how do we restore sustainable ecological systems? It seemed to me that this societal issue was not a technical one—we know how to design green cities. Instead, it’s a consensus problem that I think stems, in part, from a lack of public understanding of how ecosystems work. Living in cities where many natural systems are hidden or absent, most children don’t get to witness natural phenomenon first-hand—so they miss a piece of their education that is critical to becoming a good environmental steward later in life, and all the enjoyment the natural world brings to daily life.

If we create a green schoolyard for every school, we can intervene at early stages in children’s development and put what is essentially a microcosm of a green city into their daily school routine. We can create living schoolyards that manage stormwater flows, cool the climate, reduce urban heat islands, and provide wildlife habitat—while modeling stewardship practices and democratic decision-making processes for shared public land.

The environmental problems we face in the world are so big that children get very discouraged when they hear that polar bears are dying, the rainforest is being decimated, and there is nothing they can do about it. They feel powerless. Green schoolyards provide opportunities to teach important environmental principles and concepts in a way that is empowering and optimistic, and they are at a scale that is age-appropriate for young children. A 5- or 10-year-old child can’t solve an environmental problem that’s far away, but they can change what happens in their schoolyard. They can help plant butterfly or bird habitats and see the difference they make. They can feel the heat on their asphalt and help plant trees to provide shade to fix that problem. In a schoolyard, children can help make changes on a scale that is meaningful for them, and that helps to make a real difference in the world.

The school community at Commodore Sloat Elementary in San Francisco, California collaborated with San Francisco Unified School District and other local partners to transform this 1/8 acre (5,750 sf) portion of their asphalt schoolyard into an engaging, nature-filled play space. The simple pathways and fenced edge provide a durable framework that allows the plantings they contain to change over the years to adapt to the evolving needs of the school community. / image: Sharon Danks, © Green Schoolyards America

When did you start the organization? How did you start making connections with schools and school districts?

I received my master’s degrees in landscape architecture and city planning (MLA / MCP) from University of California, Berkeley about 20 years ago. My master’s thesis was on green schoolyards, so I’ve been focused on it ever since. After graduate school, I co-founded a landscape architecture and planning firm called Bay Tree Design with my colleague Lisa Howard, ASLA, a landscape architect. We did a lot of school ground design work and children’s environments together for about eight years.

In doing this work, we found that many problems cannot be solved by individual schools. They might have funds to create a living landscape, but their teachers might not have been trained to teach outside. School district budgets also typically lack maintenance funds for “park management” and don’t generally think of themselves as land managers, even though they are often responsible for stewarding hundreds of acres.

After working for many years on green schoolyard design for individual schools, I left Bay Tree Design and founded a nonprofit called Green Schoolyards America that aims to identify the barriers to creating green schoolyards, disassemble them, and help to establish a new green schoolyard norm. It’s a goal so big that no single organization can tackle it (no matter how big they are!) so much of our work is to create interdisciplinary partnerships to collaborate on bringing about change at the city- and state-levels.

That’s a fascinating way to promote larger change. An individual school can do something, but it’s more effective if the whole process is set up district-wide to support their efforts. What are some challenges that you face in talking with school and school district-level administrators or people that don’t see the value in the programs? Maybe you don’t run into people who don’t value this, but what are some general challenges?

I fear that people look past the degraded or empty school ground landscapes that they see on a daily basis and come to think of it as normal. I rarely encounter people who don’t see value in bringing the natural world into students’ lives. There is an enormous amount of research that supports the benefits of daily contact with nature to improve children’s health and happiness, and some that also connects academic achievement to the presence of trees nearby.

The question of how to create green schoolyards within the context of our educational system is more complicated than convincing people it’s a worthwhile goal. It’s not hard to make the case that the best schoolyard environment balances things to do and living ecosystems to be studied and enjoyed.

Currently, most urban schools serving low income students have a “monoculture” of asphalt that supports ball play, and little else. In a “living schoolyard” model, we value sports and ball play and see their place onsite, but we seek to set those activities within a broader context. I call it creating an “ecosystem of opportunities” so there are all types of things that children and adults can do on the school grounds—different niches to inhabit—that work together to create something of greater value as a whole.

I think one of the biggest barriers to creating green schoolyards is our accounting procedures that artificially divide school districts’ limited landscape budgets into “capital budgets” and “maintenance budgets,” rather than thinking in terms of lifecycle costs. That way of thinking often means that there may be money available for constructing something new, but there is almost never enough money budgeted to maintain it. The analogy I make is that people like to cut the ribbon on a new project, but no one wants to take care of the grass. It just doesn’t make sense, and I think this way of budgeting doesn’t produce the best outcomes for children.

Most urban school grounds in the USA are heavily paved and have almost no shade. Markham Elementary School in Oakland, California is working to change that, as part of Oakland Unified School District’s new Living Schoolyard Initiative. In this image, school leaders and local partners gather to discuss the planned changes to green their schoolyard. By 2021, this school will have substantial gardens, extensive shade trees, and nature play areas along with space for ball games and a climbing structure. / image: Sharon Danks, © Green Schoolyards America

That’s a great point. I was wondering if there are any specific examples of initiatives that you’re proud of and want to share.

Green Schoolyards America has been working with Oakland Unified School District, in a collaboration with our partners at the Trust for Public Land, for the last three years. Together we wrote a school board policy to shift the standard schoolyard design across Oakland from traditional paved treeless expanses to a new vision of “living schoolyards” at every school. The policy weaves together the idea of creating outdoor environments for 21st century learning with goals to improve children’s health, well-being, and joy. It also seeks to make school grounds ecologically rich places that children and their communities can access every day.

The Living Schoolyard Policy was adopted by the School Board in February 2019, and we are now working with our partners to plan next steps and implement pilot projects. Oakland is one of the first U.S. school districts to adopt a living schoolyard policy that is as sweeping and grand as this vision to make all schoolyards into parks. I’m thrilled that the school board was engaged in the process, and that many different departments across the district are active partners. There is also terrific collaboration from a wider community of local nonprofits. It’s pretty exciting.

Sharon Danks, is Founder and CEO of Green Schoolyards America. She is the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation as well as a set of guides with hands-on ideas for schools to use to get started outside.

Lauren Iversen, Student ASLA, is a graduate student in Landscape Architecture at the University of Washington.

2 thoughts on “Green Schoolyards: An Interview with Sharon Danks, Part 1

  1. Lisa Bailey February 9, 2020 / 8:52 pm

    YES!

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