A New Frontier for Grissom’s Outdoor Learning and Play

September 16, 2014

Grissom Elementary is ready for transformation!

Space to Grow is an innovative partnership led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into centers for outdoor learning, play and engagement with nature and art. Space to Grow schoolyards have the added benefit of protecting the environment and reducing flooding. Construction began this summer at four pilot schools and their reimagined schoolyards are scheduled for completion in the fall. Here we focus on one of the four schools involved in this pilot initiative, Grissom Elementary. Space to Grow is made possible by the leadership and generous financial support of Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

Grissom Elementary is always reaching for the stars. This Chicago school is the namesake of Virgil Grissom, the second U.S. astronaut in space. But these days, the school is focused on space in an entirely different way. Its outdoor areas are getting a community-inspired makeover from Space to Grow, a partnership led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands. After a summer of digging below the surface, the new schoolyard is nearly ready for students to enjoy and learn in a dynamic and more natural environment.

For starters, raised learning gardens will be installed to grow a variety of edible plants. It’s just the kind of thing to get young minds whirring and thinking, says principal Dennis Sweeney. “The garden expands a student’s horizons,” he said. “Instead of looking at plants in a book, they can see them right outside.” In the spring, the beds will be planted with veggies such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, kale and spinach. This will help students develop a basic understanding of where their food comes from, and it will build nutrition and wellness into lesson plans.

Plus it gives all types of classes new fuel for discovery. Principal Sweeney imagines students in an art class meticulously drawing just one plant, while students in a science class can explore the entire ecosystem and how the natural environment functions to help keep our bodies and homes healthy. “Kids will be able to name plants and their various parts and identify different species at all grade levels,” he says. Students can also be involved in the growing and harvesting of all that’s sprouting up.

“Healthy students are better learners, and outdoor learning and active play are proven to increase academic achievement and focus in the classroom,” said Rochelle Davis, president and CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign. “Everything about Grissom’s Space to Grow transformation is designed to boost students’ health and improve their learning environment, not to mention reduce flooding risks to the surrounding community.”

An incredible is transformation underway. In addition to gardens, new play equipment and special water absorbing surfaces, Grissom’s outdoor classroom will feature a semi-circle so that students in all subjects have extra room to stretch. “I can see it used by any teacher who wants a change of scenery,” Sweeney said, noting that because the school is in an arts magnet cluster, Shakespeare classes will especially benefit from the theater in the round.

When it’s time to get moving, active play and learning will be even easier thanks to several new courts. Two half-court basketball areas will serve as an after-school hub for students and for the surrounding community. There’s also a track that doubles as a softball diamond. Age-appropriate swings offer a fun way for younger students to move, too. Rain gardens run alongside these areas to attract butterflies and, most importantly, soak water into the earth and away from Chicago’s often-overwhelmed sewers.

Overall, Sweeney says, Grissom will simply look and feel more in harmony with nature. And that’s an exciting new frontier.