Is it time to reinvent the American schoolyard?
Op-Ed: In Chicago, a partnership between multiple city agencies and nonprofits is transforming school green spaces to be more vibrant and climate-resilient. Here’s how other cities can do the same.
Harold Washington Elementary School in the Burnside neighborhood, south of Chicago, got a new schoolyard in 2020. It includes a running track, sports fields and playground equipment — but what the Principal Sherri Walker of Washington likes the most is the small conversational groupings of rocks. “It’s so special for the older girls,” Walker says. “They don’t always want to play on the equipment or play sports, but they sit on those rocks and talk. It becomes a quiet space where they can sit and decompress. In a year with so much stress and loss, especially in Chicago’s most underinvested neighborhoods, these spaces are invaluable.
Principal Walker’s schoolyard is part of a program called Space to grow, which transforms Chicago schoolyards into beautiful green spaces for play and learning using green stormwater drainage infrastructure that also helps build climate resilience. Schoolyards include play structures and sports fields, outdoor classrooms for nature-based learning, edible gardens, and conversation rocks or other quiet spaces that students in Washington love so much. Studies show that access to green spaces and outdoor play during the school day is associated with improved concentration and academic performance. Daily connection with nature promotes mental health. And, since Space for Growing up schoolyards are also open to the community outside of school hours, program benefits are not just for students.
It seems obvious that every student should have access to such positive space, but there simply isn’t enough money – or the will to prioritize spending – to replace the acres of asphalt that cover schoolyards. school in many cities across the country. A 2021 State of America’s Schools Report found that the country was underinvesting in school buildings and land by $85 billion a year. “Underinvestment in capital renewal of existing public schools as well as chronic underfunding of maintenance and repairs unfortunately remains the rule rather than the exception,” the report notes. And, as the report also points out, “inequity is entrenched in the infrastructure of public education.” For example, in Chicago, the same black and Latino neighborhoods experience the same type of disinvestment over and over again.
Green schoolyard programs like Space to Grow can be an innovative solution. The program was developed in response to a need raised by school staff and partners after parent leaders successfully advocated for the return of daily recess and stronger physical education programs in public schools in Chicago in 2011. Many of the school district’s 400 elementary schools had unsafe asphalt grounds, insufficient to support vibrant recreation and physical education programs, and the district was in financial crisis.
At the same time, the city’s water agencies – Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) and the Chicago Department of Water Management (DWM) – were launching major investments in green stormwater infrastructure to fight Chicago’s persistent flooding problems and build climate resilience. Space to Grow’s nonprofit guiding partners, Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands, have come together with these public water agencies and the school district to develop a vision for green school grounds across Chicago that not only would manage significant amounts of stormwater, but also provide outdoor learning, games, gardening and community recreation. The three public partner organizations made an initial investment of $51 million to transform 34 schoolyards.
Space to Grow schoolyards are prioritized in Chicago’s historically underinvested communities that tend to lack safe, shared green spaces and whose schools primarily serve Black and Latino students. Space to Grow partners use an equity lens to select school sites, considering factors such as income, race/ethnicity, community hardship index, historical capital investments, and life expectancy in the community.
This innovative partnership is based on the idea that improving capital assets is only the first step in creating a lasting community asset. The nonprofit guiding partners oversee an inclusive planning process that engages the entire community at each Space to Grow school. Space to Grow outreach staff work with each selected school to form a committee that supports schoolyard planning and outreach efforts and helps partners develop deep community relationships. The committee includes representatives from students, staff, parents, neighbors and the wider community, and leverages relationships with local community organizations, thereby strengthening their relationship with the local school. In multilingual communities, outreach and meeting materials are translated and meetings are interpreted for all major languages of each community. The process gives a meaningful voice to community members who have traditionally had little voice in this type of decision-making process.
The process is empowering. As Sharon Mason, a teacher at Mays Academy, says, “Many of our students in the Englewood area are exposed daily to trauma that stems not only from violence, but also from poverty, substance abuse, racism and of a sense of loss of self. The process of involving students in the design gives them a sense of their own agency.
Even after the schoolyard is completed, Space for Growing up partners continue to engage and support the school community through workshops, training, partnerships with community organizations, events and assistance programs, all of which are designed to make sure community members feel welcome in schoolyards. and feel ownership of using the space. Partners are training school staff to leverage the schoolyard for physical activity, nutrition education, nature-based education and outdoor learning. The partners also educate neighbors and school staff on gardening practices, tree planting and stormwater management.
The result is that every Space to Grow schoolyard is a powerful school and community resource. As Dr. Rashid Shabazz, director of Wadsworth STEM in Chicago’s Woodlawn community, explains, the schoolyard is used not only during the day for physical education classes, recess, learning gardening and “brain breaks” during the school day, but also by the community around the clock. People see it as a safe space in the neighborhood,” he says.
Space to Grow shows how cities and communities across the country can engage in unique partnerships to generate multiple positive impacts, delivering a return on investment that holistically supports schools and communities. The next step is to make green school grounds a national priority through a major federal investment in school infrastructure. The benefits are many: safe green spaces to gather and exercise, greater community and climate resilience, community empowerment and action. And – for the girls at Harold Washington Elementary School – much-needed space to sit back and unwind.
Rochelle Davis is President and CEO of Healthy Schools Campaigna non-profit organization that ensures children have access to healthy school environments where they can learn and thrive.
Gerald W. Adelmann is President and CEO of open landa non-profit organization that protects natural and open spaces in northeast Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives.