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Green Schoolyards Blog

Jaime Zaplatosch, Director, Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities, Children & Nature Network

Growing Green Schoolyards Across the U.S.

June 26, 2017

Jaime Zaplatosch joined C&NN in August of 2016 as the Director of our Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities Initiative, a project to develop a national platform to scale up the transformation of schoolyards to create access to green space for the health and wellbeing of children, families, and communities. With increased national and international interest in green schoolyards, we sat down with Jaime to talk about green schoolyards and how C&NN is helping to grow them in communities across the U.S.

Q: It seems that there are different interpretations of what a green schoolyard is. How do we at C&NN define green schoolyard?
JZ: The Children and Nature Network looks at green schoolyards in a broad, inclusive way. To us, green schoolyards are multi-functional school grounds that include places for students, teachers, parents and community members to play, learn, explore and grow. They can include outdoor classrooms, native gardens, stormwater capture, traditional play equipment, nature play, vegetable gardens, trails, trees, etc. During out of school time, these schoolyards are ideally open to the community to use.
We believe that this definition is important because of our focus on inclusive community engagement in the design, use and stewardship of green schoolyards, and supporting meeting communities where they are to allow for nature connections in their daily lives, wherever possible.

Q: There’s a growing body of evidence that Green Schoolyards benefit children. Tell us about this.
JZ: There is such great foundational research available to support the notion that kids being outside in green schoolyards for play, exploration, and instruction have incredible value. With the findings from an impressive literature review, C&NN created a series of infographics highlighting four main areas of research that show the academic, creative play, physical activity and mental health benefits of green schoolyards. There are new – though not yet published – research findings that support multiple community benefits of green schoolyards as well.

Q: Clearly, all children benefit from nature-filled school environments. How far along is the Green Schoolyards movement?
JZ: Green schoolyards are not new. There are many city-wide programs that have been successfully implemented for decades, such as in Boston, New York, Denver, Houston and San Francisco. The green schoolyard programs in these cities embody many of what our Green Schoolyards Report calls, “The Components of Successful Implementation of Green Schoolyards”(see page 13). In fact, these programs personally informed how I built two of the programs that I helped to start at Openlands, where I previously worked. However, the resources and details of these programs are not easily found if you are interested in starting a new green schoolyards program where you live, and understandably those programs are focused on ensuring their own programmatic success. These are real barriers to scaling up the green schoolyard movement.

Q: So, how do we scale up?
JZ: Many people don’t know what a green schoolyard is, but as soon as people do hear about the benefits of green schoolyards – whether they parents, community members, teachers, elected officials or government employees – they want to create a green schoolyard at their school, in their district, or in their municipality. Getting the word out about green schoolyards and their benefits is key, especially to new sectors and through new partners who are able to help put green schoolyards more squarely on the map in terms of general awareness. Water management, public health and health equity agencies, funders and organizations are examples of some of the newer partners who are bringing more awareness to green schoolyards and their benefits. During the Children & Nature Network 2017 Conference, we organized a tour of Green School Grounds in Metro Vancouver so conference participants can get a sense of some of the approaches to green schoolyards.

Q: What is C&NN’s Green Schoolyards plan going forward and how can schools, parents, and communities get involved?

JZ: Our goal is to support green schoolyard program development across the country, at scale. Over the next two years, C&NN, our partners and advisors will help to create a draft Action Agenda for approval by the network at an in-person gathering in 2018. The Action Agenda will likely include federal, state, local and school district policy, a research agenda, communications platforms and additional funding and resources needed to go to scale. This year, we will create an online Resource Hub for municipal agencies, school administrators, informal and formal educators, parents, community members and program providers to advocate for, implement, use and steward new green schoolyards. The resources will mostly be existing resources that we can point to that support C&NN’s broad definition of green schoolyards. We are also supporting five cities in their journey to develop district-wide green schoolyard programs. These include San Francisco, CA, Madison, WI, Providence, RI, Grand Rapids, MI and Austin, TX. They are teaching us what is needed to go to scale, while we are supporting them with best practices from programs across the country.

Q: What simple features can turn a schoolyard into a “green schoolyard”?

JZ: Many schoolyards are currently all asphalt or grass with playground equipment and (maybe) benches. These schoolyards are missing a diversity of schoolyard elements that offer a variety of play, learning and physical activity opportunities that are needed in order to access the full list of benefits that we highlight in our infographics. So, creating outdoor classroom spaces made from natural materials, planting trees and gardens, and adding generally adding varied nature to these spaces is key to creating a green schoolyard. There are so many additional components, like trails, nature play, and art that are important components of a green schoolyard, depending on the school, community and program goals.

Q: Is this a phenomenon in the US or do other countries also value the benefits of green schoolyards?

JZ: Green schoolyards are not a U.S. phenomenon. There is a great organization, the International School Grounds Alliance, that has been leading the international charge around convening leaders in the greening of school grounds around the world. It is a great resource for those outside of the U.S.

Stay tuned for more action and resources related to C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities initiative.

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