Exploring Connections Between School Grounds and Health

 Workshop organizer, Claire Latané, opened the program.

Workshop organizer, Claire Latané, opened the program.

On Thursday, October 11, 2018, Green Schoolyards America’s CEO, Sharon Danks, was honored to participate in an innovative workshop called Designing Schools for Mental Health. The workshop was led by our colleague Claire Latané, and was hosted by the Cal Poly Pomona Department of Landscape Architecture.

The goal of the event was to convene members of the mental health, education, design, and environmental communities in the Los Angeles region to share their work and spark a discussion about how all of these fields can collaborate to create school environments that better support students’ mental and physical health and well-being.

The event organizers created this workshop because “Los Angeles area students experience high levels of instability and stress related to urban environmental conditions, family trauma, and neighborhood disinvestment. As an indication of the degree, fifty percent of LAUSD students suffer moderate to severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Design principles to reduce stress and to support students suffering attention deficit, sensory integration, and autism spectrum disorders are remarkably similar -- [and call for schools to] provide a well-organized, comfortable, calm environment, plenty of access to nature, and small quiet places to escape chaos.”

Keynote speaker, Dr. William Sullivan from the University of Illinois, spoke about his research that connects landscape design to children’s well-being. He and his colleagues have found that views of trees and green landscapes from the classroom window reduce students’ stress levels and restores their ability to pay attention, helping students to measurably improve their academic performance.

Sharon Danks was also a keynote speaker, and gave a presentation that highlighted many different ways that green schoolyards can be used to improve or promote children’s health. This included examples from around the world about designing children’s environments: to encourage students to run and explore; to learn new skills; to develop balance and strength; and eat a balanced and healthy diet. She also presented school ground examples that help support students’ social emotional development, empathy, and mental health; and touched on environmental health topics that impact students’ health and well-being. (e.g. playground surface temperatures, protection from the sun, and organic grounds management)

 Sharon Danks, Green Schoolyards America, shares our organization’s vision and perspective.

Sharon Danks, Green Schoolyards America, shares our organization’s vision and perspective.

Dr. Marcella Raney (Occidental College) discussed her recent research that illustrates connections between schoolyard design, children’s behavior patterns, and their physical activity levels. Eileen Alduenda (Council for Watershed Health) spoke about her organization’s research into the land use patterns and tree canopy coverage of school grounds in the Los Angeles Unified School District—and their shocking findings that ~20% of LAUSD’s school grounds are completely paved and don’t have a single tree. Pia Escudero and Albert Grazioli, speakers from LAUSD, also detailed the school district’s work to provide an expanded network of wellness centers and mental health services to the District’s students. Maryjane Puffer (LA Trust for Children’s Health) spoke about her organization’s work to improve children’s health.

The event concluded with lively group discussion sessions designed to encourage ongoing collaboration to improve children’s mental and physical health at schools and districts in the region.

 Eileen Alduenda, Council for Watershed Health, explains that a shocking 82% of LAUSD’s school grounds are paved.

Eileen Alduenda, Council for Watershed Health, explains that a shocking 82% of LAUSD’s school grounds are paved.