Part 2: Green School Yards, Joy, Equity & Access 

photo of Catherine

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

Note: If you didn’t catch Part 1: What is a Green School Yard, be sure to check it out.

We know that recess is meant to provide a physical and mental break in the day. However, when outdoor spaces are physically uncomfortable, dangerously overheated, and provide little to no relief from stress, they are actively working against the well-being of youth. Conversely, youth who attend school in green spaces report greater joy throughout the day, while teachers working at schools with green yards report that they no longer spend the first twenty minutes following recess trying to get their students resettled. (Schools that Heal: Designing with Mental Health in Mind, Claire Latané, 2021).  

It is also important to discuss equity. Across the country, school yards in lower-income, predominately Black and Brown communities are far more likely to be covered in concrete than schools in the largely white suburbs. Opportunities for nature-based play have increased in the past twenty years, but mostly in affluent communities where there is already easy access to nature. Giving youth green spaces in which to play, learn, and connect with their peers sends a message that they are worthy of beautiful spaces. At the same time, these spaces can cultivate the skills needed to nurture and care for the natural environment. It is imperative that we include youth across all demographics in these outdoor experiences. Public school yards can provide natural spaces for youth, and for families, in neighborhoods where nature is often limited. This is one simple yet effective way to address and begin to correct the deliberate lack of investment in green infrastructure in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  

To the right is a photo of my daughter’s former elementary school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the photo, you can see the standard blacktop so ubiquitous at public schools across the country. In the summer months, the black asphalt and lack of shade sends the temperature soaring (and this is Wisconsin; imagine a similar school yard in Texas, where there were over 40 consecutive days of 100+ degrees in the summer of 2023).  

Photo of a school yard, fully covered by black asphalt

And here is the new, central green space that was built in 2020. It can be used as an outdoor classroom, a peaceful respite from noise and activity, a place to climb, jump, and balance; and as a gathering spot or a place to play by members of the community on evenings and weekends.  

Covered picnic table with greenery planted all around it. No asphalt.
Sitting area made of logs and woodchips
Garden with raised beds where the asphalt used to be

It is important to recognize that very few green schoolyards around the country have been developed without the support of community partnerships. Most public schools do not have the finances, let alone the time, equipment, or grounds crew needed for the design and creation of green schoolyards without help. In Milwaukee, where I live, the Milwaukee Public School District has partnered with several municipal and non-profit groups to further the development of green schoolyards. These include Green and Healthy Schools Wisconsin, Green Schools Consortium of Milwaukee; and ReFlow, a non-profit organization dedicated to equitable water resource management and green infrastructure. 

As you read in Part 1, park systems, public land trusts, community gardens, nature centers, and even metropolitan sewage districts all have a personal stake in greening asphalt-covered playgrounds. Groups like Camp Fire – particularly affiliates running Out of School Time programs – are well-positioned to become valuable partners, as we can offer programming and even upkeep that would ensure these green yards are used and cared for when schools are not in session. Partnerships across multiple networks, including Camp Fire, can provide financial support, maintenance, curriculum, and even professional development for teachers, securing the ongoing and long-term success of these outdoor spaces. Funders in turn are more likely to take notice when approached by a dedicated and collaborative team made up of diverse organizations. More partners mean more money.  

Black and white photo of school yard with added flower and tress in color

Click here to watch a short video about the Nature Discovery Area & Inspire Trail in Lafayette, Colorado, which was built on the edge of the Alicia Sanchez International Elementary School. Partners in this outdoor space include the City of Lafayette, the Boulder Valley School District, Thorne Nature Experience, and Great Outdoors Colorado. It is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when multiple community partners come together to create a space that benefits children, families, and neighbors. 

A quick glance at the website of Green Schoolyards America shows regional organizations around the country doing this work. I encourage anyone interested in this topic to explore the Green Schoolyards website (where you can also find an upcoming online lecture series about forest school yard design), to peruse the resources listed below, and to reach out to any groups in your community that are already working to green up public-school grounds. I also urge you to keep an eye on the congressional bills that support healthy outdoor learning spaces, in particular Senator Martin Heinrich’s Living Schoolyards Act.  

The Living Schoolyards Act would establish an Outdoor Learning Spaces Grants program, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, to allow schools or districts to create outdoor classrooms and learning spaces. Schools will be able to use these funds to install canopies, tents, open-sided structures, electricity, generators, furniture, storage, Wi-Fi nodes and charging stations, outdoor food and distribution facilities, gardens, and weather-related clothing. (Press release, Senator Martin Heinrich, 2022) 

While Green School Yards cannot be seen as a one-stop panacea for systemic racism, mental illness, environmental justice, or climate change, they are one very doable and effective response that can improve communities and make a difference.  

At Camp Fire, we are working to connect young people more deeply to themselves, to others, and to nature. According to the Trust for Public Land, if every schoolyard in the country were transformed into a green space, it would place more than 80 million people within ten minutes of nature.  Who wouldn’t prefer that over concrete?  


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