Green Schoolyards: Creating A Greener Generation©

By Stevanne Auerbach, PhD
Monday September 26, 2011 - 10:44:00 PM

"Every school a garden, every child a gardener, every plant a learning experience"—Kid Grow Australia

The typical schoolyard of unappealing, hard, grey, uneven, and usually broken asphalt fosters little interaction or playfulness and does nothing to connect children with nature, play, or learning. In addition there is great concern about the substantial rise in child obesity and diabetes throughout the country and the amount of time children are bound up by electronics, and not in contact with nature. It’s vital that we help kids to be better informed and more aware of the food they eat, to get them outdoors, and be more active.

Gardening is about all of this plus it fosters imagination and optimism. The idea that you plant a tiny seed and it turns into a plant is magical in itself. Last week a new light appeared that is prominently working to shift drab grey to bright green and moving towards creating a new generation that is closer attuned to nature and the environment.

Engaging Our Grounds, the first International Green Schoolyard Conference in the United States was held September 16-18, 2011 with events held in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. The three-day conference brought together a world of designers, architects, landscape architects, teachers, administrators, parents, publishers, and gardening experts to share and learn about programs already thriving as models in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and here in the Bay Area. The sponsors for the event included Bay Tree Design—a landscape architecture and planning firm, based in Berkeley; the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance—a non-profit, focused on San Francisco schools; and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR)/New Village Press—a green building non-profit and publisher. Several dozen exhibitors provided valuable information and resource materials on the event’s opening night in San Francisco. 

As the conference website promised (www.greenschoolyards.org), “the green schoolyard movement is growing rapidly and flourishing around the world. Schools near and far are reimagining their grounds, replacing their extensive paved surfaces with a vibrant mosaic of outdoor learning and play opportunities. Schools in many different countries are leaders in this field, finding innovative ways to weave curricula into their landscapes, diversify their recreational offerings, enhance their local ecology, and reflect their unique location and cultural context.” The results are exciting and well worth heeding. 

As conference director Sharon Danks writes in her book, Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation (New Village Press, Nov. 2010), “Ecological schoolyards are outdoor learning environments that teach ecological principles through the design of the schoolyard landscape. They can substantially improve the appearance of school grounds while creating hands-on resources that allow teachers to lead exciting “fieldtrips” without ever leaving school property.” Danks’ research and her book inspired this conference—which showcased this ecological schoolyard philosophy, and brought speakers in from around the world to share their perspectives with conference participants—just as Danks does in the pages of her book. Ecological schoolyards foster participation of students, teachers, parents and many others who work together to transform unappealing schoolyards into thriving places for growing vegetables and flowers and providing interdisciplinary lessons. 

At the conference, participants shared information, resources, ideas; toured local groundbreaking school grounds; and were inspired to bring new ideas back to their own communities. Outstanding presentations focused on what each of the presenters has done to convert traditional unimaginative schoolyards into thriving, dynamic places that inspire and educate children. Extensive reports with many examples of successful transformations of schools were presented by experienced and dedicated speakers that included: 

· Dr. Peter Åkerblom, Movium & Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Uppsala, Sweden) 

· Cam Collyer, Evergreen (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) 

· Manfred Dietzen, Grün macht Schule (Berlin, Germany) 

· Mary Jackson and Julie Mountain, Learning through Landscapes (Winchester, England) 

· Dr. Ko Senda, Environment Design Institute (Tokyo, Japan) 

· Bernard Spiegal, Playlink (London, England) 

· Birgit Teichmann, Teichmann Landschafts Architekten (Berlin, Germany) 


During the conference the entire group visited four unique schoolyards in San Francisco that have undergone dramatic changes over the last decade transforming traditional paved urban schoolyards into exciting outdoor learning and play spaces. Tour sites on Saturday included: Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, Commodore Sloat Elementary School, Sherman Elementary School and Alice Fong Yu Alternative School. Conference participants also visited three inspiring sites in Berkeley on Sunday, including the outstanding Edible Schoolyard, the City of Berkeley’s creative Adventure Playground, and Rosa Parks Elementary School’s wonderful community based green schoolyard. 

Green gardens and play spaces are part of a long-standing tradition that involves nature as an integral part of education. Natural learning was proposed by John Dewey, Henry David Thoreau, and most recently, Richard Louv (author, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder). Richard Louv in an interview in Grist.org with David Roberts stated, “Interesting research is linking nature to healthy child development. In all the studies—prisoners in prisons, patients in the infirmaries—those who have a view of a natural landscape heal faster. Now they’re observing kids playing on natural playgrounds, as opposed to concrete playgrounds. On a natural playground, children think more creatively and are much more likely to invent their own games and play more cooperatively.” 

Louv continued, “There’s research on attention deficit disorder at the University of Illinois, ongoing studies showing that a little bit of exposure to nature decreases ADD symptoms—even in kids as young as five. The researchers suggest adding nature therapy to the other two traditional therapies: behavioral modification and medications such as Ritalin and other stimulants. I would also turn it around and ask: Could it be that at least some of the huge increase in ADD has something to do with the fact we took nature away from kids?” 

As the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (SFGSA) notes, “reclaiming a piece of neglected play yard and transforming it into an ecologically rich school garden is among the most beneficial activities that parents, teachers, and children can undertake together.” School gardens have been shown to improve academic achievement, promote healthier lifestyle, increase responsibility for the environment, encourage community and social development and provide a sense of place with appreciate for the natural world. For the past ten years, SFGSA has been working to create school gardens and green schoolyards in San Francisco’s schools, and has played a key role in helping the schools to connect their gardens to the schools’ curricula. 

There are several books (referenced below) that provide all the tools that the school community needs to build productive and engaging school grounds that will continue to inspire and nurture students and families for years to come. 

Today both schools and parents have a unique opportunity—and an increasing responsibility—to cultivate an awareness of our finite resources, to reinforce values of environmental stewardship, to help students understand concepts of nutrition and health, and to connect children to the natural world. What better way to do this than by engaging young people, their families, and teachers in the wondrous outdoor classroom that is their very own school garden? Additionally, adding a kitchen for preparing the food they grow themselves engages children in better understanding of their healthy eating.  

These projects are inexpensive to produce if everyone participates in the process and have long lasting benefits. Certainly every schoolyard could begin by simply creating an area for raised garden beds, simple gardens can start, and schools can find new ways to connect to local community gardens. Transformation can begin in a small way and grow. 

For example, Kid Grow, Garden Links to Learning, which covers schools throughout Australia, is represented by Helen Tyas Tunggal of Learnscapes Planning and Design in New South Wales, Australia (www.learnscapes.org) who shares her work, spanning a decade with Shelly Woodrow, with ten steps for successful gardens: 

1. Build team and research 

2. Assess and select site 

3. Measure and design 

4. Set out garden 

5. Build structures 

6. Prepare soil 

7. Plant and label 

8. Tend and record 

9. Celebrate and share 

10.Keep it all going 


Another innovative initiative is being fostered by Whole Foods who has launched the Whole Kids Foundation School Garden Grant program and raised over $ 1 million to grow school gardens. There are pilot programs underway in Enright Park Community Garden in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh; and another garden in a once abandoned baseball diamond in the heart of Baltimore, The Meadow is now a thriving community garden and agricultural learning center created and maintained by the Mid-Atlantic Region of Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods feels strongly that “Learning about the process of growing food helps children develop a deep understanding of the connection between healthy eating and a healthy body. School gardens offer an opportunity to integrate math, science and health curriculum into a dynamic, interactive setting. They also provide a base of knowledge that allows children to take an active role in healthy food choices.” 

The next step? Take a good look at the schoolyard in your own community. Ask, “Does this place foster children’s well being, good health, fitness and green awareness?” Then do whatever you can to get involved in whatever way you can to help change it into a growing place for the next greener generation. We can do it! 


Resources for more information:  









Conference Director, Sharon Danks, is the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation(New Village Press, Nov. 2010). The book includes valuable design ideas for schoolyard transformation in a colorful book (over 500 photos) that brings together examples from North America, Scandinavia, Japan, and Great Britain and demonstrates diverse natural outdoor teaching environments that support hands-on learning in science, math, language, and art in important ways that nurture healthy imagination and socialization. Sharon Danks is an environmental planner and co-founder of Bay Tree Design, inc., a landscape architecture and planning firm in Berkeley, California, specializing in the design of green schoolyards and school gardens. 


Another excellent resource book, How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers (Timber Press) offered by conference co-hosts Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Kathleen Pringle, provides the basics on how to build school gardens and to develop programs. It covers concept, planning, fund-raising, organizing, designing the space, preparing the site, working with parents and schools, teaching in the garden, planting, harvesting, and even cooking, with kid-friendly recipes and year-round activities. Packed with strategies, to-do lists, sample letters, detailed lesson plans, and tricks of the trade from decades of experience developing school garden programs for grades K-8, this hands-on approach will make school garden projects accessible, inexpensive, and sustainable. The authors, Arden Bucklin-Sporer, the executive director of the SFGSA and Rachel Kathleen Pringle, programs manager for the SFGSA have been actively involved as garden educators and coordinators of public school gardens in San Francisco. 


Exhibitors at Conference included




























International Resources 



www.ngia.com.au (Kid Grow Australia) 






Additional Resources 

www.kidsgardening.org National Gardening Association 1100 Dorset Street, South Burlington, VT 05403 



WholeFoods Foundation School GardenGrants Program www.wholekidsfoundation.org/gardengrants-application.php 




© 2011 Stevanne Auerbach, PhD stevanneauerbach@gmail.com