A seven-year-old girl stands in her school’s courtyard garden with a paper cup in hand. The tall walls of the surrounding classrooms block noise from nearby urban streets and make the courtyard a quiet space for the goats, chickens, and children within. The little girl reaches up into the lush row of fava beans in front of her and carefully removes plump snails, placing them into her collecting cup. When she has gathered several snails, she runs to find one of the chickens contentedly roaming through the straw covered soil. A little boy scoops up a chicken and pets it while the girl feeds the snails she has just captured to the happy bird.
After observing this scene in the spring of 1998 at LeConte Elementary in Berkeley, California, I asked the children about their activities. The girl explained simply and clearly that the snails were harming their fava beans, so they had to be removed. The chickens loved eating the snails so they were given to the chickens. She added that her school composted chicken droppings to feed the soil and help the fava beans grow…and she loved fava beans so this type of garden work was important. From her explanation, it was obvious the young girl, growing up in an urban area, clearly understood the complex ecological cycles connecting their tasty crop to the snails, chickens, and soil. This simple but excellent elementary school garden had succeeded in teaching complex, integrated ecological concepts in a memorable way that young students understood.*
This first exposure to a green schoolyard during graduate school—21 years ago—resonated with me on a personal level and sparked an ongoing professional interest that I have been exploring ever since. One question I’ve asked myself over the years is, “How can we engage more children in the natural world every day, and weave it into the spaces and places they already visit in their neighborhoods?” To me, school grounds are big part of the answer since they are the places that many children visit at least five days a week for 15 or more of the most formative years of their lives, as they move from preschool through high school, developing their world view and creating their place within it.
How can we make school grounds into rich, outdoor environments for all children? We need large scale changes to improve our school ground infrastructure, programming, and stewardship—and they are important, and require coordinated efforts to achieve. At the same time, there are also many things we can do right now, on any school ground, to improve and enrich children’s experiences every day. We have the power to start that transformation on our own patches of land at school, with our fellow community members.
Transforming school grounds is both physical—bringing nature back to our cities—and mental—changing the way we think about and use the new spaces we create and the environments we already have.
International School Grounds Month
During the month of May each year, Green Schoolyards America partners with the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) and other organizations to celebrate a “global schoolyard block party” of sorts, with students of all ages (pre-K - 12) and their communities. This annual May event is called International School Grounds Month and we’d like to invite you to join us for this global celebration of school grounds. It’s a perfect opportunity to use the outdoor environment you already have at your local school to its fullest, and can also be a chance to implement small changes to your grounds with the help of students and the community.
California adopted this school ground celebration in 2014, and calls their annual May event Living Schoolyard Month. In addition, Outdoor Classroom Day, started in 2017, is another global school ground event that is celebrated on two designated special days in May and November each year.
Free Resources for Bringing Children Outside at School
You can celebrate all of these events in May by bringing children outside on your local school grounds to experience nature or to simply enjoy the fresh air while doing any type of activity that sparks your imagination and is a good fit for your school community.
We invite you to download our free set of school ground Activity Guides, published in collaboration with the International School Grounds Alliance. Together, the two books in the Activity Guide set include a total of 235 hands-on, school ground activities, written by 187 organizations across the United States and around the world!
This rich collection of hands-on outdoor ideas is intended for children and youth, ages 3 to 18 years old. The activities support learning across the curriculum, promote healthy lifestyles, and encourage play and exploration during children’s free time and before, during, and after school. Many of these activities help kids understand the places they live, build life-long skills, and collaborate to improve their schoolyard's ecosystems. All activities are intended to be used anywhere in the world, year-round! Download your free copy of both books, today!
Share Your Work and Learn from Others
We hope you will encourage your local schools to participate in International School Grounds Month and other events in May! After your celebration, please send us a brief summary of your activities so that we can share them on our blog in the months following the event. Please click here for directions about how to register and share your school’s activities. Sharing your work will help us paint a global picture of these events.
We hope these celebrations in May inspire you to engage your local schools in using their grounds year-round. We look forward to hearing about your adventures! Thank you for joining us outside!
— Sharon Danks, Founder and CEO, Green Schoolyards America
* Modified text excerpt, used above with author’s permission: Sharon Gamson Danks, Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, New Village Press, November 2010, p. ix.