Sheet Mulching Project at Sequoia Elementary

Green Schoolyards America is proud to feature Living Schoolyard Month celebrations that were held in May across the state of California. If you celebrated and would like to be featured here, send photos and a brief description to info (at) greenschoolyards (dot) org.  —GSA

This May, StopWaste led a lawn replacement at Sequoia Elementary. They had help from the community and the California Conservation Crew. 

StopWaste recommends these 5 steps for sheet mulching:

1. Prepare the site. Knock down or mow existing vegetation so that it lies flat. Remove only woody or bulky plant material.

2. Plant the larger plants. Before installing the sheet mulch, plant any 5 gallon or larger plants specified in the design.

3. Add a weed barrier. The next layer is an organic weed barrier that breaks down with time. It is essential that the barrier is permeable to water and air. Do not use plastic. Cardboard rolls are best with 8″ of overlap minimum.

4. Layer compost and mulch. This layer mimics newly fallen leaves, needles and other organic matter in forests. Good materials for this layer include chipped plant debris, tree prunings, leaves and straw.

5. Plant the smaller plants. Punch a hole in the cardboard and place plants in the soil under the sheet mulch. Smaller plants can often be planted right into the mulch/compost layer. 

More information can be found at and in the 2015 Living Schoolyard Month Activity Guide.

Contributed by Cassie Bartholomew, Program Manager, StopWaste.
Photos by David Fenton

Oakland, CA

Students Learn about Bees through Firsthand Experience

Alice Fong Yu K-8 in San Francisco partnered with Planet Bee Foundation to place and maintain a live bee hive in their living schoolyard! Kindergarten and first graders enjoyed observing a frame from the school’s bee hive and had fun identifying the different parts of dead bees. 

Then they learned the basics of pollination through a fun game: each student received a pipe cleaner bee and then searched the garden for flowers to pollinate. After finding a flower their pipe cleaner “bees” were covered in pollen and they returned to their “bee hive” (egg carton) to deposit the pollen into cells. Third and fifth graders also looked at the hive and learned more about the honey bee life cycle. 

And lastly, the middle school Green Club students extracted honey from the frames. They scraped off the wax and then strained the honey over the weekend. They put the honey in jars and had enough honey for every student to take one home.

Learn more on Education Outside’s Alice Fong Yu School Blog

Contributed by Rachel Pringle, Senior Director of Programs, Education Outside.
Photos by Education Outside Corps Member, Kristin Owyang

San Francisco, CA

Green Schoolyards America is proud to feature Living Schoolyard Month celebrations that were held in May across the state of California. If you celebrated and would like to be featured here, send photos and a brief description to info (at) greenschoolyards (dot) org.  —GSA

Presentation at Occidental College

On May 27th, Green Schoolyards America and Occidental College co-hosted a celebration of Living Schoolyard Month in Los Angeles, CA. The evening included: a presentation by Sharon Danks of vibrant schoolyard examples from around the world; networking time; and a discussion with audience participation about how to create more living schoolyards throughout the LA region. This free public event was attended by a dynamic group of leaders from local school districts, facilities departments, public agencies, nonprofits, and design firms, and engaged teachers, PTA representatives and community members.

The green schoolyard slide presentation given by Sharon Danks at this event was recorded and will be available on our website’s resources page by the end of June.

Please contact us at info (at) greenschoolyards (dot) org if you’d like to host a similar event in your region in the future.

Occidental Arts Celebrated Living Schoolyard Month with Dr. Ming Wei Koh

On May 26th, the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC) invited School Garden, Living Learnscape and Ecological Literacy champions to join us for an evening of celebration of their dedicated service at the Salmon Creek School in Occidental.

Special guest Dr. Ming Wei Koh of the Kohala Center and Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) shared an international perspective on the role of garden-based learning in living schoolyards around the world. A Montessori educator with her PhD in Sustainability Education, her dissertation is an inspiring reference: Discovering Learning, Discovering Self: the effects of an interdisciplinary, standards-based school garden curriculum on elementary students in Hawai'i.

More information about OAEC’s events can be found here.

Contributed by Vanessa Carter, Resilient Schools Program Director, Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC)
Photos by Vanessa Carter

Occidental, CA

Green Schoolyards America is proud to feature Living Schoolyard Month celebrations that were held in May across the state of California. If you celebrated and would like to be featured here, send photos and a brief description to info (at) greenschoolyards (dot) org.  

Rainwater Cistern at Manor Elementary School

Our cistern holds 3,000 gallons of rainwater. We use this water to water our Pollinator garden. We know that we are not using water from [the municipal water department] when we use the water from our cistern. We bring our one-gallon jugs from home to reuse as watering cans. 

Contributed by Laura Dax Honda, Teacher, Manor Elementary School
Photos by Laura Dax Honda

Fairfax, CA

Green Schoolyards America is proud to feature Living Schoolyard Month celebrations that were held in May across the state of California. If you celebrated and would like to be featured here, send photos and a brief description to info (at) greenschoolyards (dot) org.  —GSA


Mosaic Mural for Retiring Teacher

In her 5 years as a teacher (13 t Rosa Parks Schoo) in Berkeley, California, Cheri Hinkley expertly mentored her classes of young children while also contributing greatl the greening of Rosa Parks School’s campus and programming. In honor of her retirement this spring, the school community created a special mural that was installed on the school campus as a surprise, at the end of May.

The project was spearheaded by teachers Michelle Contreras and Kathleen Gadway, and included the assistance of first grade students, parents and many others in the school community. The Kids-n-Clay pottery studio in the neighborhood also helped with a portion of the mosaic, by firing a ceramic plaque with a dedication inscription to Cheri.

The mosaic depicts a vibrant school garden with flowers, plants, butterflies, bees and other birds and creatures. It now adorns a wall along the edge of the playground, where children and adults can see it and enjoy it every day.

Contributed by Michelle Contreras
Photos by Sharon Danks and Michael Colombo

Berkeley, CA

Green Schoolyards America is proud to feature Living Schoolyard Month celebrations that were held in May across the state of California. If you celebrated and would like to be featured here, send photos and a brief description to info (at) greenschoolyards (dot) org.  —GSA

Collaboration with Ball State University

Earlier this spring, Sharon Danks (CEO of Green Schoolyards America) had the opportunity to travel to Muncie, Indiana to collaborate with Ball State University’s Department of Landscape Architecture and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management (NREM). Sharon’s visit helped kick off the concept planning process to reimagine the grounds of Burris Lab School on campus.

She led stakeholder meetings with the school and included the graduate students in the participatory design process with teachers, parents and K-12 students. The Ball State graduate students then used the rich feedback from the school community to propose green schoolyard plans for Burris School.

Bug Hunt in San Francisco

Green Schoolyards America is proud to feature Living Schoolyard Month celebrations that were held in May across the state of California. If you celebrated and would like to be featured here, send photos and a brief description to info (at) greenschoolyards (dot) org.  —GSA

Contributed by Ayesha Ercelawn, Garden and Environmental Science Educator, La Scuola Italian International School. 
Photos by Ayesha Ercelawn.

San Francisco, CA

Our Kindergarten class marked the month of May by surveying their school garden for all the creatures they could find. They organized their bug hunts by a simple habitat classification - what lives in DARK places (under logs, under pots, in the compost bin) compared to in the LIGHT. Worms, centipedes, beetles, and spiders versus ladybugs, butterflies, bees, and wasps were just a few of their exciting finds! 

Big posters helped the children record their finds as a group and reflect later on what lives in each habitat. The children became familiar with how to use terrariums, butterfly nets, and magnifying glasses, while also learning responsibility for putting everything back in its home and putting back the logs as well. 

Meanwhile in class, they spent the month studying metamorphosis, insects versus non-insect classification, and the ecological role of different species. We had a great time and learned a lot! 

Peace Garden started at Pasadena school

Green Schoolyards America is proud to feature Living Schoolyard Month celebrations that were held in May across the state of California. If you celebrated and would like to be featured here, send photos and a brief description to info (at) greenschoolyards (dot) org.  —GSA

New Horizon School (NHS) Pasadena held its “Let’s Get the Garden Started!” Groundbreaking event May 1st to launch its Peace Garden. Mayor Bill Bogaard, in his final year as mayor of Pasadena, spoke at the event which was attended by several members of the Pasadena community as well as the 200 students of the school, parents, faculty, staff and Board members of New Horizon. The morning began with a Garden Launch Assembly followed by a Buddy Walk to the Garden (students in different grade levels paired together), a symbolic Groundbreaking and Student-led Garden Vision Tours.

Inspired by the school’s theme, “Growing Peace One Child at a Time,” the NHS Peace Garden is being established as an outdoor learning space that will cultivate deeper academic learning, spiritual inspiration, interfaith community-building and improved health through four main goals:

  • STEM Proficiency (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)
  • Environmental Stewardship & Nature Appreciation
  • Healthy Communities 
  • Farm-to-Table produce

Based on contributions of students and faculty during the design phase, unique features of the Peace Garden include:

• Salam Path (a walkway in the form of the Arabic word for peace)
• Peace-by-Piece Mosaic Wall with peace written in different languages
• Friendship Fountain (tiles honor friendships within the community)
• Contemplation Corner (for meditation and prayer)
• Silk Road Herb Garden (connects with 7th Grade World History course)
• Native Plant Garden (teaches students about water conservation)
• Plants from the Qur’an and other holy texts

The school is also inviting local artists to contribute ideas for incorporating art into the garden especially for the Salam Path, the Peace Wall, mosaics for the Friendship Fountain, the entryway, etc.

Other partners in the school’s garden or interfaith programs attended including Weizmann School, Peace and Justice Academy, and Netiya. Gerold Phillips, field rep for Assemblymember Chris Holden, acknowledged the school’s work in environmental stewardship with a special proclamation. Mrs. Azmeralda Alfi, of Aldeen Foundation, benefactor and founder of New Horizon School, participated in the morning’s activities and will be sponsoring one of the garden’s features, the Contemplation Corner. Rhonda Stone, the field representative for the new mayor, Terry Tornek, was in attendance.

Contributed by Iesha Wadala, Garden Coordinator, New Horizon School.
Photos by New Horizon School

Pasadena, CA

Making a Green Schoolyard Out of Natural Building Materials

In Asphalt to Ecosystems (New Village Press, 2014), author Sharon Gamson Danks shares some of her knowledge about increasing the use of renewable energy in schools around the United States and around the world. Her methods are not only energy efficient, but they serve to educate the children within the schools as well. This excerpt, which explains how using natural resources can create an environmentally friendly school yard, is from Chapter 8, “Ecologically Sensitive Materials for Schoolyard Landscapes.” 

Buy Asphalt to Ecosystems.             Download a PDF of this Article

Wood as a Natural Building Material

Wood is one of the most versatile, natural building materials for schoolyards. It can be incorporated in its roughest forms—as stumps, logs, branches, twigs, and mulch, and in its more refined form—as milled lumber. Some green schoolyards include entire trees, downed in a storm or felled by disease, as ornamental play elements. Others use portions of tree trunks, large branches, and sturdy twigs, obtained from local arborists or cut onsite, in their outdoor seating areas, stairways, and pathways.

Standard milled lumber and unprocessed logs can be purchased from many places. Look for local, sustainably harvested lumber, if possible. In my area, for example, reasonably priced, sustainably harvested dimensional lumber can be purchased from an urban mill that specializes in creating lumber from trees that local arborists remove from our region. Local arborists are also good sources for logs, branches, mulch or other wood products; often they would rather donate these materials to schools than pay a fee to dump them at a landfill.

Selecting Naturally Rot-Resistant Woods

When purchasing lumber from hardware stores and other conventional sources, do not buy pressure treated wood for use in a schoolyard—particularly for areas in or near edible gardens. Some types of treated wood contain highly poisonous substances that are intended to kill fungi and insects and resist rot—but they are also very hazardous for children. Some of the chemicals used to treat wood leach out over time and permanently contaminate the surrounding soil. Children may come into contact with these poisons by touching the wood or by inadvertently consuming the contaminated soil when they get it on their hands. Some types of pressure treated wood commonly sold in home improvement stores are banned from playground uses, but are not clearly marked as such in the store. 

Similarly, it is important to avoid the use of railroad ties, which usually contain poisonous creosote, treated telephone poles, “marine grade wood,” and other chemically treated wood products. Many types of plywood are also poor choices for the schoolyard – and edible garden beds in particular—since they often contain formaldehyde and other chemical binders. Because it is often difficult to tell exactly which chemicals the wood has been treated with, and how poisonous they are, I recommend avoiding treated wood entirely in a schoolyard context. Some school districts, such as the San Francisco Unified School District, adopt a similar approach district-wide and request that their schools avoid using treated wood in their schoolyards, if possible.

Naturally rot-resistant woods such as redwood or cedar are good choices for schoolyards, if they come from sustainably harvested local sources. If these are not available, choose other hardwoods or softwoods that have shorter lifespans in the outdoor environment, and protect them with a natural finish or nontoxic stain or paint. Another good source of untreated wood is reclaimed lumber from material reuse centers or from buildings that have been carefully deconstructed. Timber from these older sources may be of a higher grade than what is currently available; old growth timber frequently has tighter grain than younger wood. Be sure to avoid wood painted with lead-based paints, however.

Over the last four years, I have worked with Rosa Parks School in Berkeley, California, to green their school grounds. Many of the schoolyard improvements, installed or handcrafted by the school community, are made of wood. For example, we used redwood logs, donated by an arborist parent, to create a sturdy and sinuous bench. The log segments, each 1.5 to 2 feet long, were installed by parents and volunteers who dug a narrow, curving trench and buried half of each log firmly in the ground. The finished project, surrounded by a soft bed of woodchips, is enjoyed by the entire school community. Leftover logs, placed in small clusters around the schoolyard, act as informal benches. We also placed a few 3-foot diameter eucalyptus tree slices, retrieved from another neighborhood tree removal project, under several bushes along the playground’s perimeter to create comfortable seats nestled in the leaves.

I worked with parents and teachers at the school to build several small garden fences adjacent to the playground, using local, sustainably harvested dimensional lumber. The Monterey cypress and redwood we selected are naturally rot resistant, but we also added a soy-based wood sealer to further extend the wood’s longevity. The new edible gardens are filled with raspberries and other crops for the children to freely “nibble” at recess. The fences define the edges of the new gardens and keep (most of!) the balls out of the plantings.

Bamboo as a Natural Building Material

Bamboo is a fast-growing plant in the grass family that is well adapted to climates ranging from tropical locations to places with snowy winters. The strong stalks, called “culms,” are hollow cylinders, subdivided into individual chambers by nodes along the stalk. Some species of bamboo form dense clumps, while others spread prolifically by sprouting from underground rhizomes. Bamboo is used in countless ways around the world to construct everything from buildings, bridges, construction scaffolding, flooring, furniture, baskets, chopsticks, and paper. Its young rhizomes are also a delicious edible food crop.

Bamboo has an appealing linear aesthetic with subtle color variations and a smooth surface. Many types of bamboo are green when they are alive, then dry to a golden yellow that fades to a weathered grey over time. In a school garden, use dried bamboo stalks to build fences, trellises, bean teepees, irrigation channels, and rain gutters.

Excerpt from Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, by Sharon Gamson Danks, published by New Village Press, 2010.

The Power and Potential of Green Schoolyards

Environmental planner Sharon Gamson Danks is CEO of Green Schoolyards America and principal of Bay Tree Design in Berkeley, California. She is author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation and co-founder of the International School Grounds Alliance. Her work transforms school grounds into vibrant public spaces that reflect and enhance local ecology, nurture children as they learn and play, and engage the community.

Public school districts are one of the largest landowners in almost every city and town across the United States and around the world. In the United States alone, over 132,000[i] schools in more than 13,000 school districts serve more than 50 million pre-kindergarten to 12th grade students each year.[ii] Choices made by school districts about how they manage their landscapes profoundly impact their city and generations of local residents whose perspectives are shaped through daily, outdoor experiences at school.

A movement to green school grounds and connect students to nature is gaining momentum in the United States and around the globe, weaving the ideas of urban sustainability and ecological design together with academic achievement, public health, children’s well-being, sense of place, and community engagement.
Green schoolyards bring nature back to cities and suburbs by transforming barren asphalt and ordinary grass into vibrant environments for learning and play, set within the context of the rich, local ecosystems that nurture wildlife and the natural processes that underlie and sustain our urban infrastructure. Green schoolyards foster children’s social, physical, and intellectual growth and health by providing settings for curiosity, collaboration, imagination, exploration, adventure, and wonder.

If, as a society, we can turn our attention and resources toward creating school district-wide, ecological systems-based improvements to school grounds, we will make significant progress in addressing complex inter-related problems. Large scale schoolyard greening efforts, if implemented across our cities, have the potential to provide:

Access to Nature

  • Daily Nature Access – If green schoolyards can be built at every school, they will provide every child in every city with high quality access to nearby nature on a daily basis—democratizing nature access across socio-economic, racial and cultural lines.
  • Balance – Hands-on, daily access to nature on school grounds helps to balance real-world, sensory experiences with our increasingly digital world.
  • Sense of Place – Green schoolyards, built with local, natural materials and native plants, are each unique, reflecting the geography, ecology, and culture of their community and building a sense of place for children and adults who spend time in them.

Ecological Infrastructure Repair

  • Water – School grounds designed to manage stormwater can be beautiful and educational while containing and conserving rainwater and purifying urban runoff.
  • Habitat – Schoolyard landscapes planted with native vegetation can complement local habitat conservation plans and add many additional acres to support wildlife.
  • Climate – Trees and shrubs can be placed to provide shade for children and school buildings, reducing sun exposure, urban heat island effects, and interior cooling costs for school buildings.
  • Energy – School grounds can host renewable energy demonstration systems that power decorative fountains—or the school—teaching children and their communities about clean energy.
  • Materials – Landscape features designed using sustainable, natural and recycled building materials demonstrate green building practices and reduce a school district’s impact on landfills and other urban infrastructure.

Improved Teaching and Learning Environments

  • Educational Attainment – Studies show that many children learn better with hands-on experiences in the types of outdoor settings green schoolyards afford.[iii]
  • Improved Teacher Satisfaction – Outdoor teaching environments are also appreciated by teachers who benefit from abundant teaching resources, conveniently located near their classrooms, and the variety and diversity of experiences found in outside.
  • Reduced Bullying – Green schoolyards promote imaginative play and provide variety and diversity in children’s social and play environments, reducing boredom, shifting social leadership structures, and leading to fewer disciplinary problems such as playground bullying.[iv]

Health and Wellbeing

  • Obesity Prevention – Green schoolyard environments that provide opportunities for exploration and imagination offer child-driven, play-based solutions to the obesity epidemic.
  • Healthier Lifestyles – Green schoolyards promote healthier lifestyles through increased physical activity and nutrition-oriented gardening and cooking programs. They are also settings for learning new skills that foster lifelong health, from balance to water safety and tool use.
  • Improved Wellbeing – Green spaces of all types have therapeutic properties that lower our blood pressure, help us relax and provide other benefits that improve wellbeing of children, teachers, school administrators and visitors.

Community Engagement

Empowerment – Green schoolyards are places where children of all ages can gain experience repairing their own local ecosystems and make a difference in our world. They are places where collaborative environmental action leads to clear, positive results that counter Ecophobia and build our confidence in the power of working together—sending messages of optimism and hope to children and adults alike.
Stewardship – By transforming the idea of schoolyard “maintenance” into the broader concept of “stewardship”, school communities can become partners with their school districts and collaborate to reduce management costs while fostering increased parent involvement and community building.

Green schoolyards are a central piece of a wider vision to restore our relationship with the natural world. The time is right to invest much more significantly in our school grounds across the country. The green schoolyard movement has the power to bring nature to every child, every day while improving our local ecosystems, learning environments, and health.

Small scale green schoolyard projects now exist around the U.S., showing incredible promise but generally lacking the larger scale investments that can help them to reach their full potential.

This is a call to scale up our green schoolyard work from coast to coast, and empower school districts to lead this paradigm shift with increased support from their communities, public institutions, local utilities, healthcare institutions and other like-minded organizations and partners. Combining our resources in one place—school grounds—will multiply benefits for our cities and our children in the years to come. Is it hard? Yes, but we know where to start and together we can change our course.


[i] National Center for Education Statistics, “Digest of Education Statistics,” “Table 5: Number of educational institutions, by level and control of institution: Selected years, 1980-81 through 2010-11.”

[ii] National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts”.

[iii] Children & Nature Network, “Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educators and Educational Settings,” 2010.

[iv] Louv, Richard, keynote presentation for the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance’s Growing Greener School Grounds Conference. San Francisco, CA (October 10, 2008).

The Green Schoolyard Movement: Gaining Momentum Around the World

When you think about typical schoolyards, what image first comes to mind? For many people, school grounds are places covered by paved surfaces and manicured sports fields, adorned with a few, simple shrubs and trees, and one or two ordinary climbing structures.

Most school grounds look the same, with very little variation to reflect unique aspects of each school community, the neighborhood’s ecological or geographic context, or teachers’ preferred curricula.

Children are masters at reading what Wendy Titman calls the “hidden curriculum” of school grounds, and understand the value adults place on them through the level of care given to their surroundings. The messages most traditional schoolyards send children about their place in the world is not reassuring—particularly in our cities where many school sites are filled with asphalt and are home to very few living things.

utside of school, spaces children can explore on their own have been shrinking over the last few generations, reducing children’s domain from miles of free ranging territory to the limited zone between home and the end of the block. Schoolyards are now one of the only places many children are allowed to play outdoors on a daily basis, and they are increasingly important for fostering children’s health and development. With this in mind, I believe that schools have a responsibility to provide the next generation with outdoor experiences that help them develop their curiosity, their sense of adventure, a healthy lifestyle, and a love of nature.

A green schoolyard movement is gaining momentum around the globe and has the potential to improve the lives of every child, every day.

Schools are reshaping their traditional yards, designed for 1940s educational methods, and creating beautiful, ecologically diverse landscapes with an eye toward the future. Schoolyard greening creates rich environments that connect nature and environmental sustainability with place-based learning, hands-on curricula, and imaginative play, while building community.

I have been lucky to have the opportunity to travel around the world over the last fourteen years to see this vibrant movement in action and meet many people making a difference in their neighborhoods and cities from Tokyo to San Francisco, Toronto to Berlin, and beyond. Together, we formed an organization called the International School Grounds Alliance, and we are working to enrich children’s learning and play environments by improving the way school grounds are designed and used. In the United States, I help to support this movement through the nonprofit Green Schoolyards America. This field is growing and we invite you to join us in this important work.

Green schoolyards provide opportunities for students to tune in to their surroundings and get hands-on experience with nearby nature while gaining a better understanding of their own neighborhoods. 
They help children mark the seasons with changes in wildlife migrations, colorful leaves in autumn, and the length of shadows on the ground. They bring watershed education to life, as classes step outside when it rains to watch the rain flow off their school building, through a downspout, and out into the school’s rain garden or cistern. Many excellent, low-cost educational resources sit right outside the classroom doors, waiting to be tapped.

Green schoolyards foster children’s social, physical, and intellectual growth by providing settings for imagination, exploration, adventure, and wonder, and dynamic environments in which to run, hop, skip, jump, twirl, eat and play in active, challenging, and creative ways.

Enriched school grounds provide child-driven, play-based solutions to the obesity epidemic, and can promote healthier lifestyles through increased physical activity and nutrition-oriented gardening and cooking programs.

Green schoolyards address important environmental issues in ways that even young children can participate in and understand. There are often site-based environmental issues that students can identify themselves, and then become empowered to repair, enriching their own corner of the world with their ingenuity. While these individual actions may be small, together these projects can fundamentally improve the local environment and profoundly change the way that students understand their place the world. This is a very positive way to approach the field of environmental education, and an inspiring, optimistic counterpoint to widespread Ecophobia and Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Green schoolyards teach ecological literacy, invigorate children’s bodies, open and inspire young minds, and knit our communities more closely together in the process. Successful green schoolyards are the product of many hands that harness the collaborative potential of their school communities. Like the barn-raisings of previous generations, this cooperation among community members reinforces interdependence, local self-reliance, and a “sense of community” creating useful, beautiful places at very low cost. When parents, teachers and students work together to improve their school and grounds, they foster closer relationships that in turn support student achievement and well-being. This movement shifts the way our society views these important, shared public spaces, and supports school district land management efforts with the energy of community partners.

Well-designed green schoolyards model the ecologically-rich cities we would like to inhabit.

They do this at a smaller scale, and teach the next generation how to live more lightly on the Earth—shaping places where urbanization and nature coexist and natural systems are prominent and visible, for all to enjoy. They inspire students and their communities with organic food production, wildlife habitat, energy conservation and production, rainwater collection and management, sustainable design practices and creative artwork. By teaching students to explore their environment with their hands, hearts, and minds—whether they are climbing into a tree house or diving into the challenges of the surrounding world—green schoolyards help us to plant seeds that will blossom as children grow up and help to shape an ecologically literate society.

We are all important participants of the green schoolyard movement. You can help it reach its potential to touch children in every neighborhood—by starting with your own. Get a conversation going with your neighbors, the principal at your local school, and your school district administrators. Dream of the school environment you would like to see for our children, and then help to shape this reality at your local school. The schoolyards of tomorrow will be what you and your community make them.

Environmental planner Sharon Gamson Danks is CEO of Green Schoolyards America and principal of Bay Tree Design in Berkeley, California. She is author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation and co-founder of the International School Grounds Alliance. Her work transforms school grounds into vibrant public spaces that reflect and enhance local ecology, nurture children as they learn and play, and engage the community.

Living Schoolyard Month Kickoff Event

Happy Living Schoolyard Month! We hope you will go outside and celebrate your local school grounds in May, and throughout the year. Here are a few photos of our kick-off party on the first day of the first official Living Schoolyard Month in California! Assemblymember Phil Ting, who authored the California resolution (ACR-128), was our guest of honor and spoke at the celebration.

Event co-hosts pictured with Assemblymember Ting (3rd image, left to right): Arden Bucklin-Sporer (Education Outside), Asm. Ting, Laura Page (San Francisco Public Utilities Commission) and Sharon Danks (Green Schoolyards America

It Takes a Village: A School Community in California Collaborates to Create a Green Schoolyard

Environmental planner Sharon Gamson Danks is CEO of Green Schoolyards America and principal of Bay Tree Design in Berkeley, California. She is author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation and co-founder of the International School Grounds Alliance. Her work transforms school grounds into vibrant public spaces that reflect and enhance local ecology, nurture children as they learn and play, and engage the community. For more information about green schoolyards, please visit Green Schoolyards America at

This article was originally published by the Children’s Outdoor Environment Newsletter, Summer 2012, American Society of Landscape Architects, and is reproduced here with a few updates. Photos and text © Sharon Gamson Danks. All photos by Sharon Gamson Danks. Phrase used in article’s title is derived from an African proverb.

Schools across the United States and around the world are using their grounds to enhance hands-on teaching and learning, enrich outdoor play, improve the ecology of their neighborhoods and develop and celebrate their own sense of place. The green schoolyard movement is flourishing in many forms and can be seen in school gardens and wildlife habitats, rainwater systems, renewable energy projects, green building efforts, material reuse programs, nature playgrounds, outdoor classrooms, art installations and many other creative endeavors on school property. While individual projects on each of these themes are now fairly common at both public and private schools in many parts of the country, it is still rare to see a comprehensive approach being taken on a single K-12 campus.

Rosa Parks Elementary School in Berkeley, California, is ahead of the curve with a multi-faceted green schoolyard that contains hands-on teaching tools, a vibrant play environment and examples of green design and local ecology.

The project to retrofit an existing schoolyard is engaging students, families, teachers and school staff in its ongoing design, implementation and stewardship.

The green schoolyard project at Rosa Parks School began in 2006 with a participatory design process led by environmental planner Sharon Danks. The resulting concept plan expressed this public school community’s vision for the future of their school grounds.

Designed to be implemented in manageable phases as funds are raised, the plan is being realized project by project, with work accomplished each year by the talented school community.

Since the green schoolyard has a very modest PTA-funded budget, the labor is accomplished by volunteers from the school community who have a broad range of professional skills that they generously contribute. The school holds work parties each semester to build or plant new elements and to maintain the growing number of features already onsite. Parents and teachers also collaborate to write grant proposals to fund individual projects each year.

Over the last eight years, the green schoolyard has become a broad, unifying “umbrella” for many school-wide efforts ranging from renewable energy education to hands-on art installations and sustainable means of transportation to school. These and other projects spring from the community’s deep and diverse talent pool, and are shepherded by the individuals and groups that dream them up. The following are some projects that have been implemented onsite over the years.

Edible Gardens

The school grounds include a wonderful teaching garden used for academic instruction by the garden educator and classroom teachers, and smaller “nibbling gardens” intended to be used by children for their own, self-guided exploration and unstructured play time at recess. Fruit trees (fig, lemon, apple, plum) and berry bushes are also used as edible landscape features around the playground. The “nibbling gardens,” designed to allow children free access to edible plants, sit at the edge of the playground where they are easily available at recess (below). Plantings include herbs, vegetables and fruits children can pick as they like and incorporate into their imaginative games at recess.

Water Systems

The school district’s facilities department helped the school community by removing a small amount of pavement (300 square feet) to create a nature play zone and increase rainwater infiltration. The school also installed a stormwater cistern to supplement landscape irrigation and teach students about water conservation.

Energy Systems

Rosa Parks School is currently home to three renewable energy systems. The smallest is a solar-powered pond pump system that the students can operate (below). Students rotate the small solar panel to watch the flowing water turn on and off—creating a very effective and inexpensive renewable energy demonstration that children intuitively understand and can interact with during class time and at recess. Nearby, a 1 kW grid-tied solar array generates electricity that offsets the energy used by one classroom. The educational value of this larger, prominently displayed system is further enhanced by a parent-built digital interpretive display located in the science room that includes real-time energy read outs and additional data gathered by students. A substantial, grid-tied photovoltaic system was installed on the school’s roof in 2013 and generates approximately 40% of the school’s energy. “The new system will produce 74,000 kilowatt hours a year and save the school $13,000 a year in energy costs.” (See PG&E)

Waste as a Resource

The green schoolyard at Rosa Parks was implemented using green building principles and practices that emphasize recycling, composting and recycled and reclaimed materials. In addition to the citywide composting and recycling programs used by the school district, the school garden includes compost bins and composting curricula. Garden beds are maintained organically, using locally produced compost. The wood used to create decorative picket fences around the schoolyard came from urban timber that was harvested and milled locally. The beautiful garden gate that was created by a parent, is made of reclaimed lumber (below). The solar panel, described above, that now powers the pond pump system also had a prior life in another location.

Curriculum Ties

Teachers of several subjects bring their classes outside to enjoy the gardens and to use the setting as an outdoor teaching environment. To this end, the schoolyard now includes a variety of outdoor classroom spaces—large and small—that can accommodate an entire class or smaller clusters of students while they collaborate on their assignments. Curriculum elements, designed with input from the teachers, are also installed throughout the site. Boulders from across California and the western USA are arranged as a geology trail for science studies. A “human sundial” (below) is painted on the asphalt so students may observe the passage of time. A wonderful annual science fair, and many other school-wide celebrations, take place outside.

Imaginative Play

When it is time to play, the schoolyard provides the usual places to bounce balls, jump rope, play sports games and climb play structures. But it also includes “nature play” spaces with inviting nooks that encourage students to gather for conversation and creative, open-ended play; loose play parts (mulch, twigs, plant pods, flowers, edible plants) for children to use in games they dream up themselves; a pond for aquatic exploration; and opportunities to create art at recess using chalk and other simple materials.

Beauty, Comfort and Support

It is essential to convey to children that they are valued members of the community and that the quality of their environment is important. The school community has worked to nurture an inviting and supportive environment at Rosa Parks by fostering comfortable microclimates, providing a variety of seating options, installing artwork created by the children and planting flowers and other attractive vegetation that they can explore. These elements of the landscape mesh well with the “village-like” atmosphere created by the unique design of the school’s welcoming architecture and overall philosophical approach to “building community” through school-wide events.

Sustainable Transportation to School

Rosa Parks holds “walk and roll to school” days to encourage students to get to school under their own power by walking and by riding bikes, scooters and skateboards. Racks are included onsite to secure the rolling means of transport during the school day. Children are also encouraged to carpool and ride the bus.

Community Stewardship, Now and in the Future

The Rosa Parks Green Schoolyard Committee is responsible for keeping the green schoolyard features looking their best and for adding new elements to the yard each semester. Teachers, school staff members, the principal, parents, students and community members have all contributed to making this project what it is today and will be the ones to carry it forward in the future. This collaborative, ongoing design and building process is dynamic, exciting, rewarding and educational, for both the children who use this schoolyard every day and for the adults who help to shape their environment.

Every school changes over time as its students grow up and graduate, families move on and school staff members’ interests and careers shift. This is a natural part of a healthy school community and is something that should be taken into consideration and incorporated into all schoolyard design efforts. Green schoolyards are living entities—not static environments—and should be allowed to change as time passes to respond to their community’s needs.

Green schoolyard master plans should be revisited and updated from time to time by the school community and/or the designers. This way, a project’s ongoing development continues to reflect the school’s current population and goals and remains relevant to the life of the school.

Since the project at Rosa Parks is now in its eighth year, and all of the kindergartners who began the project have now graduated, it will soon be time for the school community to revisit the original master plan, update it and plan next steps. Our firm has been the catalyst for this project from its inception and has shaped the overall design of many of the projects implemented to date. However, it “takes a village” to be stewards of a green schoolyard. The success of this project is the result of the collaboration, dedication and hard work of the whole school community and is a tribute to the power of working together.

Additional information about the green schoolyard at Rosa Parks School can be found in the video to the left, “Turning Nature Into Classrooms,” produced by Erika Brekke for and in Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation by Sharon Danks (New Village Press, Nov. 2010).

2015 Living Schoolyard Month Activity Guide

Now Available for Free Download!

The movement to green our school grounds and connect children with nature has taken an important leap forward. The California state assembly adopted a new resolution that encourages school districts to design and construct schoolyard green spaces and use them to teach academic curricula outdoors. Authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting of San Francisco (D), the Living Schoolyard Month Resolution (ACR-128) establishes an annual, statewide celebration of school grounds to be held each year in May. Building on the success of previous statewide school garden programs, it expands the depth and breadth of outdoor education beyond horticulture and nutrition to connect schoolyard greening to the health of urban ecosystems, child development needs, and the quality of life for students and their local communities.