PPN Zoom Book Club: Schools That Heal

by Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

Schools That Heal: Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind by Claire Latané, FASLA / image: Claire Latané

The ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) is pleased to share a recap of the PPN’s second Zoom book club meeting. Hosted on May 9, 2023, 32 attendees eagerly welcomed Claire Latané, FASLA, MLA, SITES AP, author of Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind, published in 2021 by Island Press. Written with an exquisite balance of evidence, sensitivity, and compassion, the book is intended for architects, engineers, and interior designers as well as landscape architects. We are grateful that Professor Latané was able to speak with us about the book and her ongoing advocacy work. Before recapping the book club meeting, a bit more about the author of this month’s PPN book selection:

Associate Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at California State Polytechnic University – Pomona, Professor Latané became a Fellow of ASLA in 2022 and was a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellow for Innovation and Leadership for 2017-2018. Her fellowship focused on high schools and high schoolers, an age when most mental health disorders get diagnosed (if they even get diagnosed). It is a tough time because by age 12, youth are no longer eligible for after school care, and are often left to their own devices. On top of it all, parents are less welcomed to participate in high schools. This period in development was, in Professor Latané’s mind, a bit of a missing piece, and very light on research focused on the mental health benefits of nature in a learning environment.

Beyond her academic role, Professor Latané’s advocacy and commitment to bettering the lives of children is evident in her work as Founder of the Collaborative for Health and Inclusive Learning Environments (CHILE—rhymes with “while”) and as Founder of the Emergency Schoolyard Design Volunteers program for the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative. With mental health challenges amongst children and youth on the rise and compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, never has connecting children with nature been more important. So too is acknowledging that learning environments need to be nature-based places of healing and must be front and center thinking in every school district, everywhere. We need more Professor Latané’s in the world to be the voice for children and youth all of whom must have opportunities to experience the mental health promoting benefits of nature.

Giant shout-outs to PPN leaders Lisa Howard, ASLA, and Lisa Casey, ASLA, for organizing the event. Lisa Howard prepared and moderated a series of thought-provoking questions that she posed to Professor Latané, summarized below. [Please note: some elaborative details have been edited for clarity.]

What was your inspiration to focus your book on the connection between schoolyards and mental health?

In an unexpected yet fortuitous process, Professor Latané’s children attend Eagle Rock Elementary School in Los Angeles, which was used for a project with her design students. Parents got excited about the project, sought out grant funding, and received it. Dr. Marcella Rainey, a behavioral health expert, was invited to join the team and add further credibility to the structure of the project. This project led to Professor Latané’s LAF Fellowship. During the Fellowship period, she received an invitation by Island Press to write Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind. Interestingly (or perhaps ironically?), the COVID-19 pandemic hit right after Professor Latané had begun writing the book. It was an unprecedented opportunity to open a window into addressing childhood physical health and mental health.

Axonometric drawing of Eagle Rock Elementary School in Los Angeles. Claire led the design of the green schoolyard with Studio-MLA. / drawing by Adrian Tenney.

In the first chapter you pull nine topics into one thread—making places that support community and children. You state that “schools are the hearts of communities, schools should connect people,” and should be designed to support healthy development of students. How did you select the nine reasons we should design schools with mental health in mind? Were there other topics that you omitted?

Professor Latané began her professional career as a journalist before turning to landscape architecture. This background served her well as she recognized a gap in conversation about landscape architecture and ecological design in the early 2000s (it has since gotten better; see landscape architects’ work in the news). Based on the hurdles that were evident when trying to transform schoolyards into health promoting spaces to learn and flourish, what Professor Latané did was develop nine topical talking points to initiate a conversation for those who are not connecting the dots between ecological literacy and schools. This information has been instrumental when trying to convince families, designers, school staff, and administrators of the need for such spaces and how to use the information when they experience pushback from those who are unconvinced about its value.

In the preface you state that “this book is an attempt to bridge the gaps between research and those responsible for shaping schools…It is written to help parents, students, teachers, administrators, and school designers find common language around the multiple issues…” What specifically would you like to relay to designers and where can they seek more understanding of these developmental needs and benefits of nature to integrate these ideas into their designs?

So much of what’s published in academic journals is not reaching designers, parents, or school administrators and staff. This chapter is intended to be a bridge between natural systems and mental and physical health. What Professor Latané found was that there are notable gaps in research, particularly in knowledge of people who shape schools. We need to shape school environments that nurture healthy development.

With deep gratitude to Clare Cooper Marcus, Hon. ASLA, for her pioneering work, there is a now wonderful body of research on the importance of therapeutic design and healing environments that includes having nature in spaces to support children’s health and wellbeing. What is lacking is a clear connection to schools, but therapeutic design principles can be translated to schools. When you start talking about schools as potentially healing environments, then people start understanding—we’re talking about transforming the education system (originally designed based on the industrial method of training the workforce) and making it into something that supports holistic children’s development.

To follow-up on the last question, can you walk us through the site design of Sandy Hook as an example for many of the ideas discussed in Chapter 2?

Newtown School District already had a list of schools to renovate but shifted things around to renovate Sandy Hook first. Everything new was needed—a new school on a different site on the campus. The design firm, Svigals + Partners, was selected for its history of robust community engagement. The firm invited 50 community members to work with them to determine design priorities. What Svigals + Partners found was there were no examples of schools that met the community’s vision—to look safe, feel safe, and be a warm and welcoming place. So, they turned to research on therapeutic landscapes, biophilic design, and connection to nature as their way forward and to promote healing.

A large biofiltration swale along the front of the school guides you to enter through the main doors where you are greeted at the entrance with full length windows. There is a huge light-filled two-story atrium full of windows and wood, and every classroom has windows with views. The design feels like being in a treehouse, with spaces for moments of quiet reflection and repose. Community-led art projects—the abstract birds flying in the atrium and colorful stained glass that fills the lobby with color—filled the school with signs of hope.

The strategies for site design are organized under three themes: nurture a sense of belonging, create nature-filled environments, and inspire awe. I’d like to dive into one of them in each of these sections. [Here we share Professor Latané’s thoughts about “Nurture Sense of Belonging” and “Create Nature-Filled Environments.”]

There are three overarching thoughts here regarding “Nurture Sense of Belonging.” For self-regulation, having small, cozy, quiet spaces is very important and often not considered in schoolyard design. Generally speaking, smaller spaces containing a variety of options give children choices to be active or to find what best meets their needs and makes them feel comfortable. It is also important to educate administrators and staff on alternative ways to address the need to be able to always see the children and for them to be safe—it need not be a prison. At Eagle Rock Elementary School, the team came up with the strategy of putting in tiny hills (2–3-foot mounds with native grasses and buckwheat that are 4 feet tall) between the basketball court and other areas to provide a sense of being away. These spaces are retreat spaces yet are semi-permeable so children can be observed.

The many benefits of funding nurturing, nature-full schools…instead of policing. Click here to view at a larger scale. / image: Claire Latané

In terms of “Create Nature-Filled Environments,” there is oftentimes concern from administrators and staff that huge trees and shrubs block sightlines at schools for all ages. This is a conundrum because the urban heat island is a major threat to children’s health. Professor Latané shared that research finds there must be 40-50% of a block covered with tree canopy to make an impact on urban heat and we are lucky if to get a 10%-20% canopy. The reality is that trees are one of the easier things to add to a school ground, perhaps in places you may not have thought about. The trees that are on a school ground often have a bench underneath for quiet play or sitting—but children also need to be able to play and have higher activity levels in the shade. What to do? Look for opportunities to plant trees between sports areas. Another exciting idea is that Green Schoolyards America and other partners are working on the concept of integrating schoolyard forests into schoolgrounds—clumps of trees and other methods to establish trees and provide much needed shade more easily and less expensively.

Professor Latané’s responses to Lisa Howard’s questions sparked a very engaged conversation with the attendees that probably could have lasted all afternoon. Questions included asking about where to find current research and resources for landscape architects. What follows is a snapshot of the discussion:

There are some important studies cited in the book that find positive behavioral outcomes before and after schoolyard changes. Green Schoolyards America is doing some research on outcomes and the Natural Learning Initiative at NC State University is conducting some interesting behavioral mapping, but mostly on early childhood. Another great resource is the Children & Nature Network’s Research Library, which is frequently updated. Professor Latané quite rightly shared that there is a lot of room for more research, and if anyone is planning to pursue a PhD, this field is ripe for research.

When asked about whether there is a scoring system that might help evaluate where to target improvements for the most benefit, like a site visit to each school in a county system and evaluating for existing features and site and then working to target lowest scoring schools, suggestions included:

  • National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative site assessment method
  • Sustainable SITES Initiative project certification, which includes designing for health and wellbeing, biodiversity, and other targets
  • CalEnviroScreen, a tool that maps areas with the most social stressors as well as highest environmental stressors (pollution, toxic sites), which is being used at the state level to prioritize grants

Another attendee asked if Professor Latané was aware of any information on how to encourage mindfulness and authenticity in students’ day to day lives and how these practices and designed settings impact children’s neuroscience. While Professor Latané has focused on changing sites physically, she fully supports integrating mindfulness practices into schooldays. She mentioned that a few years ago the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene awarded a $10,000 grant to 10 high schools for developing mental health awareness, talking to students about mental health, development of a mental health campaign poster and spaces (gardens, yoga or meditation rooms, etc.). An attendee added that public schools with public funding in Washington are required to follow LEED or Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol (WSSP), which gives points for things like outdoor classrooms and gardens.

As part of an attendee share, it was noted that a recent ASLA interview with Deb Guenther, FASLA, discusses partnering with tribes and there is a movement to have tribal participation in public schools in Washington.

Another attendee asked about any ongoing studies to keep an eye on regarding nature in schools and its benefits. Below is a mini and by no means exhaustive reference list of some interesting studies focused exclusively on nature and schools that we as a PPN compiled:

Akpinar, A. (2016). How is high school greenness related to students’ restoration and health? Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 16, 1–8. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2016.01.007

Bates, C. R., Bohnert, A. M., & Gerstein, D. E. (2018). Green schoolyards in low-income urban neighborhoods: Natural spaces for positive youth development outcomes. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 805. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00805

Bratman, G. N., Anderson, C. B., Berman, M. G., Cochran, B., de Vries, S., Flanders, J., Cooper, A. (2015). Nature and the outdoor learning environment: The forgotten resource in early childhood education. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 3(1), 85–97.

He, M., Xiang, F., Zeng, Y., Mai, J., Chen, Q., Zhang, J., & Morgan, I. G. (2015). Effect of time spent outdoors at school on the development of myopia among children in China: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 314(11), 1142–1148. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2015.10803

Kuo, M., Barnes, M., & Jordan, C. (2019). Do experiences with nature promote learning? Converging evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, Article 305. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305

McCormick, R. (2017). Does access to green space impact the mental well-being of children: A systematic review. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 37, 3–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2017.08.027

Scott, J. T., Kilmer, R. P., Wang, C., Cook, J. R., & Haber, M. G. (2018). Natural environments near schools: Potential benefits for socio‐emotional and behavioral development in early childhood. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62(3–4), 419–432. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12272

Utter, J., Denny, S., & Dyson, B. (2016). School gardens and adolescent nutrition and BMI: Results from a national, multilevel study. Preventive Medicine, 83, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.11.022

van den Berg, A. E., Wesselius, J. E., Maas, J., & Tanja-Dijkstra, K. (2017). Green walls for a restorative classroom environment: A controlled evaluation study. Environment and Behavior, 49(7), 791–813. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916516667976

Wells, N. M., Myers, B. M., Todd, L. E., Barale, K., Gaolach, B., Ferenz, G., Aitkin, M., Henderson, C. R., Tse, C., Ostile Pattison, K., Taylor, C., Connerly, L., Carson, J. B., Gensemer, A. Z., Franza, N. K., & Falk, E. (2015). The effects of school gardens on children’s science knowledge: A randomized controlled trial of low-income elementary schools. International Journal of Science Education, 37, 2858–2878. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2015.1112048

Yıldırım, G., & Akamca, G. Ö. (2017). The effect of outdoor learning activities on the development of preschool children. South African Journal of Education, 37(2), 1–10. http://dx.doi.org/10.15700/saje.v37n2a1378

For those across the PPN spectrum who joined us on May 9, thank you. We are planning on making the book club a regular occurrence. If you have suggestions for the next book club meeting, please reach out to propractice@asla.org. See you soon!

For more on the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN’s first Zoom book club, on Letting Play Bloom: Designing Nature-Based Risky Play for Children by Lolly Tai, PhD, RLA, FASLA, see the PPN’s previous post for The Field.

Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, EDAC, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, of Amy Wagenfeld | Design, serves on the leadership team for the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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