School with colorful flowers and trees

Part 1: What in the World is a “Green Schoolyard”? 

Black & White photo of Catherine against a green background

This post is authored by Catherine Hubbard, Manager, Outdoor and Nature Programming | Camp Fire National Headquarters.

Green schoolyards go by many names: Living School Yards, Forest Classrooms, Outdoor Learning Labs…But regardless of what we choose to call them, green schoolyards are part of a growing, national push to transform concrete-covered playgrounds into living, growing parks: parks designed with the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of students, teachers, and communities in mind.  

There are many proponents of green and living schoolyards.  

  • Climate activists see opportunities for green schoolyards to reduce urban heat islands, improve air quality, and model environmental sustainability.  
  • Municipal sewerage districts see ways for green schoolyards to reduce flooding and stormwater run-off, redirecting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water back into the ground rather than into local sewer systems.  
  • Agriculturalists see opportunities to teach food and farming techniques to future generations. 
  • Activists concerned with food scarcity and those working to alleviate food deserts see the potential for school sites to double as community gardens, creating opportunities for healthier, more connected neighbors. 
  • Health professionals recognize that green schoolyards promote better physical health for young people, providing fresh air and fostering full body movement. 
  • Mental health experts, as well as parents, teachers, and, most importantly, young people are perhaps the biggest advocates for green and healthy schools. They have long called for more welcoming, calming, and stress-reducing spaces, particularly in schools where the physical spaces are at odds with positive mental and emotional health.  

According to Claire Latané, author of Schools that Heal: Designing with Mental Health in Mind, green schoolyards have been shown to decrease bullying, nurture belonging, and even eliminate the social hierarchy that can develop when there is limited outdoor seating, little shade, and not enough for young people to do. In terms of academics, they can be intentionally designed to support project-based learning by offering amphitheaters, rain gardens, urban forests, and ethnobotany labs. In terms of school quality, they can improve student behavior, increase self-regulation, support inquiry-based learning, and contribute to greater job satisfaction and teacher retention.   

School playground with trees and flowers

Administrators at schools with green schoolyards report that these spaces frequently save money, particularly when it comes to air conditioning, heating, and outdoor maintenance. This is money that can often be put back into the schoolyards themselves, adding to the overall quality of the outdoor space.  

Finally, and most essentially, young people have made it clear that walking through metal detectors, participating in active shooter drills, attending classes with steel grates on the windows, and having short, twenty-minute recesses that take place atop hot, off-gassing asphalt does little to make them feel safe or healthy.  

So, what do green schoolyards have to do with Camp Fire? In part, I am writing this simply to bring more attention to the green schoolyards movement. I believe its momentum is gaining, and that affiliates around the country will soon begin to see more innovations and development in green schoolyards in their own communities, if they have not yet already.   

But Camp Fire is also poised to be an active participant in discussions surrounding green schoolyards. Camp Fire affiliates represent a broad range of learning environments and many offer programming outside of traditional school hours. Not only do Camp Fire affiliates have their own stories and wisdom about the benefits and challenges of outdoor education that are worth bringing to the table, but they could also use these spaces, and help care for them, when schools are not in session.  

Green schoolyards are very much aligned to the Camp Fire mission of helping young people connect more deeply to themselves, to others, and to nature. We also see their potential for greater joy and increased equity in communities across the country. I will explore this more in Part 2, coming next week. 


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August 21, 2023

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