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.

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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.

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Trends That Give Us Hope

image: Sharon Danks
image: Sharon Danks

Environmental planner Sharon Gamson Danks is CEO of Green Schoolyards America and principal of Bay Tree Design in Berkeley, California. She is the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, which was featured as a book review in the Children’s Outdoor Environments (COE) PPN section of The Field in January 2013. Her work transforms school grounds into vibrant public spaces that reflect and enhance local ecology, nurture children as they learn and play, and engage the community. The COE PPN is thrilled to have her work published here on The Field. –Chad Kennedy, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Co-Chair

The Power and Potential of Green Schoolyards

Public school districts are one of the largest landowners in almost every city and town across the United States and around the world. In the United States alone, over 132,000  schools in more than 13,000 school districts serve more than 50 million pre-kindergarten to 12th grade students each year [1, 2]. Choices made by school districts about how they manage their landscapes profoundly impact their city and generations of local residents whose perspectives are shaped through daily, outdoor experiences at school.

A movement to green school grounds and connect students to nature is gaining momentum in the United States and around the globe, weaving the ideas of urban sustainability and ecological design together with academic achievement, public health, children’s wellbeing, sense of place, and community engagement. Green schoolyards bring nature back to cities and suburbs by transforming barren asphalt and ordinary grass into vibrant environments for learning and play, set within the context of the rich, local ecosystems that nurture wildlife and the natural processes that underlie and sustain our urban infrastructure. Green schoolyards foster children’s social, physical, and intellectual growth and health by providing settings for curiosity, collaboration, imagination, exploration, adventure, and wonder. Continue reading

It Takes a Village

Rosa Parks kids engage in "free play" outdoors
Rosa Parks kids engage in “free play” outdoors
image: Sharon Danks

A School Community in California Collaborates to Create a Vibrant Green Schoolyard at Rosa Parks Elementary School

Schools across the United States and around the world are using their grounds to enhance hands-on teaching and learning, enrich outdoor play, improve the ecology of their neighborhoods, and develop and celebrate their own sense of place. The green schoolyard movement is flourishing in many forms and can be seen in school gardens and wildlife habitats, rainwater systems, renewable energy projects, green building efforts, material reuse programs, nature playgrounds, outdoor classrooms, art installations, and many other creative endeavors on school property. While individual projects on each of these themes are now fairly common at both public and private schools in many parts of the country, it is still rare to see a comprehensive approach being taken on a single K-12 campus.

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