Green Schoolyards: An Interview with Sharon Danks, Part 2

by Lauren Iversen, Student ASLA

Hoover Elementary School students in their school's garden
Students at Hoover Elementary School in Oakland, California search for interesting insects to study in their beautiful half-acre garden. / image: Paige Green, © Green Schoolyards America

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

Welcome back to the second part of Lauren Iversen’s interview with Sharon Danks, Founder and CEO of Green Schoolyards America. For the first part of this conversation, please see last week’s post.

How do you see play fitting in? I’m really interested in how play affects children’s mental and physical development. How do you see things like nature play fitting into the schoolyards?

I think it’s important that our schoolyards encourage all types of play: gross and fine motor, pretend play, social play, and nature play—particularly for preschool through elementary school. We need to be developing environments that interest children, as they play in the same place year after year, as their needs expand, and interests change.

Adding trees, shrubs, and other plants to a schoolyard—and designing them in ways that invite interaction—is important. Plants in a green schoolyard should not just be there to add to curb appeal for adults but should be designed first and foremost to facilitate child development and children’s happiness.

What do children like to do in natural settings? They generally enjoy crawling into bushes to make forts and dens. They like to climb trees. They enjoy picking flowers and collecting pine cones and acorns. They enjoy using different plant parts in their games as the seasons change—picking flowers in the spring, collecting seeds or nuts when they fall, and gathering brightly colored autumn leaves.

Designers and school administrators can facilitate children’s desires to do these things, rather than fight them, by planning and planting accordingly:

  • Plant durable bushes with structures that create natural “forts,” placing them to maintain sight lines for adult supervision (if the school administrators request it).
  • Plant small stature, sturdy trees and prune them for enjoyable climbing low to the ground.
  • Maximize the diversity of the planting palette and include trees and shrubs that produce large quantities of loose play parts such as pine cones, acorns, small twigs, and interesting leaves.
  • Prioritize plants that produce hundreds or thousands of small flowers, rather than plants that produce just a few larger flowers, to allow children to pick them without repercussion from adults.

In general, it is understood that creating a rich, park-like ecosystem on school grounds for children to play in will increase positive interaction between the students and will give them a much greater range of things to do. A nature-rich environment creates more opportunities for nature play, and affords a wider range of hopping, jumping, climbing, and other self-directed physical activities.

Many school staff find that because children are no longer bored, there is less bullying. Children engaged in imaginative nature play on one side of the schoolyard also just naturally find themselves out of the way of other children who would rather play ball—so social conflicts are reduced. In addition, research indicates that there is a therapeutic benefit to the presence of trees and shrubs for children and adults, leading to lower stress levels and higher test scores (children) when their environments include trees and other plantings.

San Francisco Unified School District, for example, has done a wonderful job over the last 15 years greening the grounds at more than 100 schools. They are currently working to further encourage nature play as part of their schools’ overall design goals.

For older students, those in middle and high school, I think that adding nature to school grounds is less about play—although many students in these age groups would love to climb bigger trees and nestle into substantial forts. It is more about creating nature-rich social spaces to gather with small groups of friends.

I would love to see more school districts include nature play and the associated benefits to children’s health, wellness, and happiness as part of their stated goals for their school ground design RFPs in the future. That would help get the ball rolling in places where this is a new idea.

Planning for nature play on a schoolyard need not be complicated or expensive. At Rosa Parks Elementary School in Berkeley, California, parents created “forts” by pruning existing bushes to invite children to shelter under their branches, and added large, flat log rounds and stones to make informal, small group seating. / image: Sharon Danks, © Green Schoolyards America

It sounds like a lot of your work is focused on policy and the over-arching intersection between the site and the planning effort. How does your landscape architecture training help you be better at what you’re doing now in more of a policy and an educator role?

I studied landscape architecture in my master’s degree program at University of California, Berkeley, and graduated with an MLA-MCP in 2000, as an environmental city planner. I have greatly benefited from the combination of my degrees because it helps me to move back and forth between different levels of scale—understanding the world of landscape architecture and site design, for individual plots of land, and also the wider city and state context and policy landscape afforded by the planning background.

On the landscape side, I would say that my training and work experience with individual schools has given me a detailed understanding of what it takes for a school community to come to consensus about the design of their grounds, and to build a sense of ownership of the project, and enrich the design with everyone’s ideas. The work I’m doing now, to help school districts establish a vision and create district-wide green schoolyard programs for all the schools in their city rests on this underlying site-specific understanding. For example, at the school level, you can plant a butterfly garden or some shrubs that act as food or shelter for local birds. When we work at the city scale, we can expand this thinking to consider how to plan for wildlife corridors that span multiple school sites and the intervening city. Districts working at scale can also consider how to use their grounds at multiple schools to improve stormwater flows in their neighborhoods, and plant trees in large enough numbers to help cool urban heat islands. Understanding the interplay between the local and city levels of scale has been incredibly helpful to my work.

I’d also like to mention that there’s one area I wish I had received more training in in landscape architecture school—and that is the skills and background knowledge to design high quality environments for children. I had to pick that information up after grad school through my work experience, outside reading, and through conversations with educators. In my work, I have found that very few landscape architecture schools in the U.S. seem to teach child development, and design methods that are specifically tailored to children’s needs. This is surprising because children are a substantial part of our overall population (~25%)—and it has resulted in a lot of oversimplified, adult-oriented “design for children” at our schools and elsewhere. I would love to see all landscape architecture degree programs give every landscape architecture student a solid background in child development so that they will better meet children’s needs in all of their designs, in the future.

Based on what you’ve learned from your work in the past 20 years, what do you think is a takeaway for landscape architects who are working on designing schoolyards and areas primarily for children?

Optimize for children’s outcomes. Be sure to think of the children as the primary client and the adults (parents, teachers, principals) as advisors. Ask the children open-ended questions about what they want, rather than giving them pages of adult-formulated ideas. Be prepared to listen to their ideas and incorporate their priorities in meaningful ways. Do not allow their ideas to be value engineered out of the final version of the design.

Children of all ages have very practical, creative ideas. We have found that after being introduced to a wide-range of possibilities, elementary school students almost always request ecologically-rich landscapes, intermixed with sports pitches, swings, slides and zip lines, obstacle courses, forts, and tree houses that let their imagination flourish.

We designers also need to protect the landscape budget, for schools in particular, so children’s use of this vital public land is not third, fourth, or fifth priority behind what adult’s forcefully articulate as priority. Also, there’s often a weak spot in the interactions between architects and landscape architects that allows building cost overruns to limit the landscape budget for school grounds. We need to stand up together and prevent that from happening. In the places you see around the country that have successfully implemented green schoolyards, the landscape budget has been successfully defended.

More than 20 years ago, Berlin, Germany made city-wide policy changes that required all schools to infiltrate 100% of the rain that falls on each site, and to plant large numbers of shade trees where children benefit. Reinhardswald-Grundschule (shown here) and hundreds of other schools across the city removed their pavement and created inviting park-like settings for learning and play. Green Schoolyards America uses Berlin’s example as a model and helps school districts in the U.S. to create similar living schoolyard initiatives. / image: Sharon Danks, © Green Schoolyards America

Since you began Green Schoolyards America have you noticed the conversation with people who aren’t landscape designers or environmentalists change?

When writing my master’s thesis in early 1999, I argued that the landscape should be used as a teaching resource. It was radical and new to make a case that schools should bring children outside to learn, and that the same school that had a garden should also have a wildlife habitat or plan for their stormwater, set up a compost bin, or involve kids in the design process. These separate elements of green schoolyards were taking shape, but they were happening at a very small scale, in separate schools, as the pet project of a single teacher or parent. So, the first conversations I had with parents and teachers related to the need for trees and gardens. This was before we had strong research to back up our intuitive understanding of the human need for nature for our health and well-being—so our arguments were limited to the educational and ecological benefits of individual projects.

Today, numerous studies have been done on the therapeutic value of nature, the educational value of outdoor classroom spaces, and the need for green infrastructure in all parts of our overly-paved cities. We can draw on this research when making the case to the public, making it much easier to communicate the value of this work from multiple perspectives. At the same time, the concept of green or living schoolyards has grown to become much more interdisciplinary, connecting children’s well-being and learning with environmental resilience in the face of a changing climate. Greening school grounds sits comfortably in this expanded context, able to improve many desired outcomes at the same time. It’s clear that we need systemic change, that spans entire districts, cities, and state education systems.

Green schoolyards are also a natural fit for current trends in the environmental literacy field, which teaches ecological systems thinking. Green schoolyards provide places for teachers to do their science and other lessons outside. They can bring geology to life by studying igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks in the boulders used in their seating circle; or study watersheds by standing outside in the rain to watch stormwater flow across the yard; or measure surface temperatures of the playground when studying urban heat island effects; or work on other math, art, literature, or language lessons. 21st century education is so much more than computers and technology. It’s also about having first-hand experience in understanding the world we live in, so that we can be better stewards of our shared planet. Green schoolyards bring learning to life.

Is there anything else that you’d want to add or share with the landscape architecture professionals, students, and community members who will read this article?

I think that there are people who look around at the schools in their neighborhood and see fairly green spaces and say, “what’s the problem?” When I talk to people living in suburbs or who went to suburban schools, they can’t quite picture urban, barren, unmaintained school infrastructure. Everyone needs to understand that this is a significant and dramatic equity problem. There are hot, barren, treeless school environments in almost every large city in the U.S. that have been collectively allowed to degrade because we haven’t prioritized them. A colleague of mine who was involved in redesigning East German schools after the reunification came to see our schools in the Bay Area and said, “what you have here is worse than East Berlin before reunification.” It is shocking for us to hear that, but it’s true. And as one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, we have to act to change this.

If we want to make sure that every child has a chance to grow up in touch with the natural world, we can democratize access to nature by bringing it to the places where it is most needed and will be used and enjoyed on a daily basis. We can grow living schoolyards and repair and green our urban infrastructure at the same time. Please join us in doing this important work that makes an enormous difference to children’s lives.

Thank you, Sharon!

Environmental city planner Sharon Danks, MLA-MCP, is CEO and Founder of Green Schoolyards America. Since 1999, her professional work and passion have focused on transforming school grounds into vibrant public spaces that reflect and enhance local ecology, engage the community, and nurture children as they learn and play. 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. For more information, please see Green Schoolyards America’s website.

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

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