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Reimagining Schoolyards to Improve Health and Learning

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Thursday, May 11, 2023   

By Carl Smith for Governing.
Broadcast version by Suzanne Potter for California News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration


On an 81 degree day last September, environmental city planner Sharon Danks went onto the playground at a California elementary school with an infrared camera. Grassy areas in full sun measured 83 degrees, but unshaded asphalt was 107 and rubber surfaces under an exposed play structure came in at 135. Asphalt shaded by tree canopy was more than 30 degrees cooler.

Danks, the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems, a book published more than a decade ago to guide the transformation of schoolyards, wasn't surprised at what she found. She and her colleagues had made similar measurements many times over.

But shade itself had gained heat that September with the announcement that $150 million had been set aside in the California state budget for a two-year program to fund school forests and green schoolyards at K-12 schools. The decision was driven by the need to protect the health of students as average temperatures in the state continue to rise.

The September 2022 heat wave in the West was the worst on record; temperatures soared above 110 degrees in multiple cities in California. In announcing the funding for schoolyards, Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, noted that average temperatures across the state were projected to rise 6 degrees by mid-century.

As bad as things might look for Californians, warming trends are projected to be even more dramatic in other parts of the country. According to a peer-reviewed model published last year, by 2053 more than 100 million Americans will live in an "extreme heat belt" extending from Northern Texas and Louisiana borders to Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, with temperatures exceeding 125 degrees.

Most of the daylight hours that children spend outside are on school grounds. The simple act of planting trees on campuses is a powerful way to shield them from heat-related health problems.

"Twenty-two percent of the population of California is under 18," Danks observes. "I'm not saying they need 22 percent of the budget for climate mitigation, but a substantial portion needs to go to those who are too young to vote to make sure they are protected from the effects."

A Network of Forest Makers

Last summer, the nonprofit that Danks founded, Green Schoolyards America, announced the launch of the California Schoolyard Forest SystemSM, a partnership with the California Department of Education, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and Ten Strands, a nonprofit devoted to improving environmental literacy.

During the pandemic, Ten Strands and Green Schoolyards helped develop a National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiativeto build a community of practice around outdoor learning and to create an extensive learning library encompassing case histories, design ideas, curriculum, policy and funding guidance and more.

The schoolyard forest work will be a multi-decade effort, Danks says, and will have its own community of practice and online library. It got off the ground with a state grant to evaluate the need on campuses and the best strategies to move things forward.

Preliminary research suggests that more than 4.2 million of the students in California public schools are on campuses with less than 10 percent tree canopy. More than half of the campuses have less than 5 percent canopy coverage.

"The question we're asking is how do you get 10,000 schools on 8,600 campuses with 6 million children to have shade," Danks says. The immediate goal is to plant enough trees by 2030 to cover at least 30 percent of the areas of school property that children use during the day.

California will be the first state in a National Schoolyard Forest SystemSM. Green Schoolyards America will use the coalition-building experience from the COVID-19 initiative to seed a network of forest makers throughout the country.

Shade and Health

Children are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses than adults. Their bodies don't produce sweat as rapidly, and because water is a larger percentage of their body weight, they are more prone to dehydration. Younger children are less likely to recognize that they need to remove clothing or hydrate.

According to research by the U.S. Forest Service, increasing urban tree cover by even 10 percent can have a significant impact on heat-related mortality. California school campuses have much lower tree canopy than the communities that surround them, says Walter Passmore, the California state urban forester. As a result, students can be exposed to both extreme heat and pollution.

Passmore works for CAL FIRE, which is administering the $150 million grant program. Application guidelines were released this month. The bulk of the funding, $117 million, will be awarded in the first year. Passmore expects about half of the grants to be planning grants and half to be grants for project implementation; funds come with a 75/25 matching requirement.

Schools in disadvantaged communities will be grant priorities. It's not unusual for applicants from these sectors to lack the resources to put a competitive proposal together. The CAL FIRE finance department has provided funding for time-limited staff to help guide schools through the process of compiling a proposal that meets its guidelines.

The idea, Passmore says, is for those who submit planning grants to engage with parents, teachers, adjacent communities and design professionals in preparing their proposals. "That way, they have a project that is ready for implementation if funding becomes available."

California has 10,000 K-12 campuses, and Passmore expects CAL FIRE's $150 million will be enough for 50 planning grants and 50 implementation grants. "We're not getting there with grants alone," he says. "Grants will start the process, and we hope that a lot of our partners are going to be as excited about this initiative as we are."

There are already signs it's happening. In September the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest in the nation, passed a resolution adopting a standard with a minimum of 30 percent green space on campuses, directing the superintendent to find funding that will make it possible to achieve this goal by 2035.

The Miyawaki Method

The school forest on the campus of Washington Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif., planted by children in the 1970s, is believed to be the oldest of its kind. It was the work of landscape architect Robin Moore, whose Washington Environmental Yard involved tearing out asphalt to make room not just for woods, but for meadows, streams and fishing ponds.

Fifteen years later, the district reclaimed about half of that space for blacktop, says Stephen Collins, manager of buildings, grounds and sustainability for the Berkeley Unified School District. About a third of the original forest remains, populated by redwoods, oaks and other species.

Surprisingly, not everyone in the district is aware of the existence of the forest and its role in outdoor play and teaching at the school. Visitors leave inspired, wanting to replicate what they have seen in some way, says Sofia Peltz, the district's sustainability program coordinator.

One of the science teachers in the district introduced Collins and Peltz to the Miyawaki method of urban forest planting, an approach that combines dense planting and high biodiversity in spaces as small as 30 square feet. According to the nonprofit SUGi, which plants these pocket forests in communities around the world, Miyawaki forests grow 10 times faster and are 100 times more biodiverse.

The Miyawaki approach is well suited to foresting at Berkeley schools, which are on small sites in tightly packed urban neighborhoods. Four have been planted in the district already, Collins says.

Pushback from facility managers who say they don't have staff to maintain newly planted trees is not uncommon. At some schools, parents have stepped up to help with green schoolyards, strengthening the school community.

Collins and Danks both stress that if a tree is well cared for in its first few years, it is largely maintenance-free from that point forward. "One of the solutions we've talked about is when you apply for the grant for these kinds of projects, you include the first three years of maintenance by the contractor," says Collins.

Social and Behavioral Benefits

Marci Raney's research focuses on health and well-being in urban environments, specifically low-income neighborhoods. From her position as a member of the kinesiology faculty at Occidental College in Los Angeles, she conducted a long-term observational study of differences in recess behavior at two elementary schools with lower-income student populations.

The schools were in similar neighborhoods, with similar demographics. But one had an asphalt schoolyard and the other, LAUSD's Eagle Rock Elementary, had a newly renovated green schoolyard.

Raney was particularly interested in finding out whether outdoor spaces had benefits for younger school children. Students tend to establish lifetime physical activity behaviors by about the fourth grade, she says. "If we don't make sure that they have an opportunity to engage in physical activity that they find fulfilling and fun, they're probably going to end up being sedentary adults with increased risk for chronic disease."

The findings were striking. The introduction of a schoolyard forest was associated with more moderate to vigorous physical activity during recess and lunch periods. Standing inactively against a building to hug its shade is detrimental to both cognitive development and brain function, Raney says.

"When we introduce trees, logs, stumps, nature, we see students engaging in creative, collaborative, moderate to vigorous physical activity play," says Raney. Moreover, she found, the gap between the physical activity levels of boys and girls decreases. Girls likely to be intimidated by, or not interested in, ball games or competitive sports on asphalt surfaces were seen balancing on or hopping between stumps, rocks or other features in outdoor classrooms.

Anti-social behavior was less frequent in the schoolyard in which green features were interspersed with asphalt areas. "The amount of bullying that happens in these asphalt schoolyards from boredom is quite phenomenal," Raney says. Pro-social verbal and physical behavior became more common in outdoor spaces with trees, stumps and plants, which present opportunities to work together to build things or solve tasks.

Benefits were observed immediately post-renovation (in 2016) and have been sustained since then. In subsequent work involving five Title I LAUSD elementary schools, Raney concluded that adding green space alone is not enough to achieve the greatest benefits from schoolyard renovation, highlighting the importance of incorporating unique, diverse and distinct play areas.

Raney left her faculty position at Occidental and is now serving as senior manager in the office of well-being at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. She's bringing her experience to adults who care for children, hoping to incorporate rejuvenation spaces with views of nature and to optimize use of the hospital's healing garden.

Changing a System

For more than a decade, Ten Strands has been helping develop environmental literacy standards and curriculum in California. The organization was founded by a science educator to support environment-based teaching and learning. School grounds weren't a main feature of its work before it became a co-founder of the outdoor learning initiative, says Andra Yeghoian, chief innovation officer for Ten Strands.

As more and more teachers moved their classrooms outdoors as a last-resort measure to preserve in-person connection to their students, more and more realized there were good reasons to continue the practice. For Ten Strands, it prompted a deeper appreciation of the ways school grounds and buildings are part of the educational system it is working to transform, according to Yeghoian.

Using outdoor learning spaces to create unique opportunities for teaching about the environment is not a new idea, but California's infusion of tens of millions of dollars to bring green features and trees to schools in disadvantaged communities is significant, as is the alignment of educational and public health missions in school forest projects.

"What this is really about is how we can be resilient enough to maintain our health and safety through climate change," says Yeghoian.

There's no reason environmental education can't be effective in the absence of school ground features designed to support it. But if the current movement results in more opportunities to make lessons stick, that's only to the good.

School, Yeghoian observes, is the only required cultural element in our society, the only chance to at least try to give every citizen analytical tools that help them keep their bearings in the face of environmental challenges.

Tipping Point

Sharon Danks has used design, research, teaching and writing to raise awareness of the ways green schoolyards can benefit students, teachers and communities for more than two decades. The combination of COVID-19 forcing education into the outdoors and a relentless series of climate and weather-induced disasters brought things to a tipping point, she says.

"The questions we're getting from districts are no longer, 'Why should we do this?' but 'How do we do this?'"

It may be safe for educators to return to their indoor spaces, but many resolved to double down, if not "triple down" on the things they gained from being outdoors with their students, Yeghoian says.

Access to green space is a component of health equity, and it's not uncommon for schools to allow the public to use school grounds after school hours. According to analysis by American Forests, tree canopy is 25 percent less in communities where low-income residents are in the majority than in communities where the poor are in the minority. Passmore says that the CAL FIRE grant guidelines encourage joint use agreements.

Danks paints the situation simply. "If we want children to be able to have PE outside in 20 or 40 years, they'll need a place that's shaded to do it."

Carl Smith wrote this article for Governing.


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