Re-imagining Schoolyards as Places of Wonder: An Excerpt from Asphalt to Ecosystems
Sharon Danks is a member of edibleschoolyard.org and the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems. Below is an excerpt from her book, along with her author's note, which introduces her study of certain schoolyards that are transforming the way children connect with their local ecosystems, maintain a curiosity for adventure, and learn to nurture their surroundings first-hand.
When you think about “schoolyards,” what type of image first comes to mind? For many people, school grounds are places covered by paved surfaces and uniform sports fields, adorned with a few nondescript shrubs and trees, and one or two ordinary climbing structures purchased from a catalog. Most school grounds in a given city or region look like all of the others, with very little variation to reflect unique aspects of each school community, the neighborhood’s environmental context, or the teachers’ preferred curricula and teaching methods.
At the same time, children’s domain—the areas they can roam on their own outside of school—have been shrinking over the last few generations, leaving many children with only the schoolyard to explore to discover how the world works. If what we are providing them at school is limited and bland, how will they develop their curiosity, their sense of adventure, a healthy lifestyle, and a well-rounded world view?
Asphalt to Ecosystems presents some amazingly creative ideas which schools have successfully developed on their grounds including lush edible gardens with fruit trees, vegetables, chickens, honeybees, and outdoor cooking facilities; wildlife habitats with prairie grasses and pond or forest ecosystems; schoolyard watershed models, rainwater catchment systems, and waste-water treatment wetlands; renewable energy systems that power landscape features or the whole school; waste-as-a-resource projects that give new life to old materials in beautiful ways; K-12 curriculum connections for a wide range of disciplines from science and math to art, social studies and nutrition; and creative play opportunities that encourage children to explore the natural world firsthand. My book grounds these examples in a practical framework that makes it a great resource for parents, teachers, school administrators, environmentalists, and schoolyard designers who want to help reshape their local school.
“A seven-year-old girl stands in a courtyard garden with a paper cup in her hand. The two-story walls of the surrounding classrooms block out the noise from the 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 from the leaves, placing them into her collecting cup. When the cup has several snails in it, she runs to find one of the black chickens that are contentedly roaming through the straw-covered ground in another part of the garden. A little boy scoops up a chicken in his arms 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 School in Berkeley, California, I walked over to the children to ask them more about what they were doing. The girl explained to me, simply and clearly, that the snails were harming their fava bean crop, so they had to be removed. Although the snails were a problem for the fava beans, the chickens loved to eat them so they were terrific chicken food. She added that her school also took the chicken droppings, composted them, and gave the compost to the soil, helping the fava beans to grow…and she loved fava beans so this type of garden work was important. From her explanation, it was obvious that the young girl, growing up in an urban area, clearly understood the complex ecological cycles that connected their tasty fava bean crop to the snails, the chickens, and the soil. This simple but excellent elementary school garden had succeeded in teaching complex, integrated ecological concepts in a manner that young students understood and will remember.
This first exposure to school gardening during graduate school resonated with me on a personal level because I had grown up with a home vegetable garden I enjoyed. It also sparked an ongoing professional interest that I have been exploring ever since. Soon after this experience, I had an opportunity to collaborate with the Ecological Design Institute and a fellow graduate student to lead a student-centered schoolyard design project at Lake Elementary School in San Pablo, California. Later, during my thesis research (“Ecological Schoolyards”) for UC Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, I was profoundly influenced by the work of Professor John Lyle from the Center for Regenerative Studies at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona. His research examined university-level ecological design curricula and explored ways to make it more relevant to students by turning the campus into a hands-on experimental laboratory for green technologies and organic agriculture. After returning from a visit to the Center for Regenerative Studies, I decided to use my master’s thesis to envision what John Lyle’s design ideas would look like if applied to k-12 schoolyard campuses.
Over the next year and a half, I visited thirty k-12 schoolyards in California, Colorado, and Oregon that contained gardens, wildlife habitats, water systems, energy systems, and waste processing systems. I studied the ways in which the design of these outdoor learning environments, and the students’ participation in the design and stewardship processes, shaped what students learned. At the time, most of these schools had narrowly defined outdoor education projects, generally led by one or two teachers in a single subject area. Paralleling Lyle’s framework, my thesis argued that schools should try to broaden what they teach outdoors to show students the relationships among the various ecological systems in their midst. I also added “participatory design” as a key component for creating and sustaining these complex outdoor environments within the context of a k-12 school district. …
Vision for this Book
Over the years I have continued to visit schools around the Bay Area and in other cities, such as Boston, Chicago, and Washington, DC, to expand my understanding of best practices for ecological schoolyards and to gather more ideas from successful schoolyard projects. I have also kept in touch with colleagues in Canada, Europe, and Japan and continue to be informed by their excellent work and ongoing research. I have personally visited more than 200 schools in eight countries and interviewed garden coordinators, school faculty, parents and students to understand their projects in detail. I have taken photographs of their work and documented their achievements. Through these experiences, I have gained an understanding of the design principles and programmatic factors that help ecological schoolyard programs succeed and thrive. Now, I’m excited to be able to share this knowledge and experience with you.
This book presents compelling examples from my research and professional experience that I hope you, the reader, will find useful and inspiring. It documents the work of many wise garden coordinators, experienced teachers, dedicated parents, creative students, and other volunteers and professionals. I would like to thank them here for sharing their work with me, so that I can share it with you. As parents, teachers, school principals, school board members, school district staff, and community members interested in helping your local school prosper, I hope this book will lead you on a journey to create a fabulous schoolyard environment of your own. The case studies compiled in these pages demonstrate that all of these things are possible on school grounds, as they illustrate, too, how these rich environments help our children thrive. Visiting green schoolyards is the best way to experience them in action — but this book will give you a taste of that tour without leaving your chair.”
Asphalt to Ecosystems is available for purchase here.