Perhaps one of the biggest lessons California’s schools have learned during the pandemic is to rethink how we build and maintain our schools. It is time to build more green schoolyards, and we can do it with support from the Legislature.
Far too many of our campuses are covered in asphalt and lack meaningful tree canopy. Before Covid, California was already experimenting with transforming our paved-over schoolyards into “green schoolyards” where nature is integrated into teaching. The pandemic showed us how unprepared we were for the next emergency. And yet, another emergency is already here when we think of climate change and its negative impacts on our children.
Public schools are community hubs. In fact, 1 in 5 Californians visit public schools each year, whether to attend school, to pick up or drop off a child or to engage with other services. Green schoolyards transform asphalt-covered spaces into green spaces. They fight climate change by reducing heat islands in urban areas. They aid health by providing more outside space for young people. And above all, they improve education with greater access to nature. Indeed, access to green space and time spent in nature are associated with a number of positive outcomes: reduced stress, less depression and anxiety, improved concentration, lower obesity rates and reduced blood pressure.
Oakland Unified School District has 120 schools on about 500 urban acres. Converting our campuses into green schoolyards is a great opportunity to give people more access to nature. The Oakland Unified school board passed one of the country’s first green schoolyard policies and, partnering with the Trust for Public Land, we’ve now piloted green schoolyards in five public schools with more to come, one of which opens this month. We chose the sites by prioritizing equity based on demographics. The school communities had broad and meaningful engagement in the projects. People in the district have embraced the improvements. We have integrated the schoolyards into the curriculum. These projects are helping test approaches and inform system changes. Planning for the next pandemic should include investing in making our schools green.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has more than 1,000 school sites and covers an area totaling 710 square miles. Approximately 4.8 million people live within these boundaries. LAUSD has 44 “communities of schools,” which are groups of schools centered around a neighborhood working to support students, schools and families in the community. If these communities of schools, with the help of our local nonprofits, were transformed into campuses with green schoolyards, just imagine the numerous benefits our students, teachers, staff and community would have. A Trust for Public Land analysis found that creating open, nature-filled, parklike settings for every school site would give access to quality green space within a 10-minute walk from home for more than 1 million Angelenos.
Green schoolyards are so much more than a nice place for children to play during recess. They take a systems approach to mitigating pollution and climate change. They boost mental and physical health. They improve children’s educational outcomes. They create opportunities for social and emotional development. They strengthen local communities. So far, the Trust for Public Land has transformed 300 schoolyards around the country. These parklike spaces are full of natural features like native plants and gardens. They are open to the public outside of school hours through joint-use agreements.
Green schoolyards can be funded through grants held by nonprofit organizations, as discussed in the case studies above, by bond measures or through private foundations and donations. But they can also be integrated into efforts already underway with little to no extra cost. Los Angeles Unified already does this by reducing the amount of schoolyard asphalt it replaces whenever it repaves or removes a portable classroom. Read more about the LA efforts in this report and about the greening work in Oakland here.
An important approach to funding is to make sure facilities design and construction teams—including outside consultants—understand the value of green schoolyards and keep funds allocated for landscaping protected from construction budget overruns. Creating clear policies outlining community-led, nature-based schoolyard design guidelines at the district level will smooth the road to greening every school. Recent local and statewide legislation like California state Proposition 68 and Los Angeles County Measure A, Measure W, and Measure RR provide funds that can be used to build and/or maintain green schoolyards.
As Covid cases fall, California health officials have released the SMARTER Plan: The Next Phase of California’s COVID-19 Response. It treats the coronavirus as a manageable risk based on the lessons of the last two years.
We encourage the governor and the Legislature to consider funding for green schoolyards as part of California’s SMARTER Plan. It’s an opportunity for the state to win on many fronts and continue to lead the nation to a fairer, more just recovery.
Mónica García is a member of the L.A. Unified School District board of education and Kyla Johnson-Trammell is the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District.
To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.