Green Schoolyards For Healthy Students: A New Chicago Initiative

March 21, 2013 | Written By:

Important discussions are beginning around transforming city schoolyards into well-designed, usable open spaces where the school community can play, exercise, grow food, learn and connect with nature.

All children should have a safe place to play, learn, explore and grow. About six years ago, operating on this belief and the notion that healthy, active students are better learners, Healthy Schools Campaign, led by a coalition of committed, driven parents, worked to establish a recess task force and reinstate recess in Chicago Public Schools. Because of this amazing team effort, all CPS elementary school students are mandated to have recess every single day.

Now we are beginning important discussions around transforming city schoolyards into well-designed, usable open spaces where the school community can play, exercise, grow food, learn and connect with nature.

We are aware that with positive changes come new challenges. In this case, we are galvanizing the communities, organizations and city leaders to dedicate their efforts and resources to reimagine and transform schoolyards.  As a first step, we have partnered with Openlands, an innovative Chicago-based conservation-focused organization who for 50 years has worked tirelessly to connect Chicagoans to the land, water and natural resources around them.

This year, we will begin a pilot program in three Chicago Public Schools, Morrill Math and Science Academy, Grissom Elementary School and Dirksen Elementary School. The pilot will create mixed-use, environmentally responsible schoolyards that use green infrastructure to improve storm water management and basement flooding, provide relief for urban heat islands, and leverage existing goals and resources to create a green schoolyard and community space that could be implemented at every CPS school.

This effort comes at a particularly opportune time for Chicago, as the city and its leadership focus on creating more green infrastructure, play spaces and sustainability efforts. Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the Chicago Plays! campaign, with the goal of building 300 new playgrounds over the next five years. Last year, the city announced its environmental goals through the Sustainable Chicago 2015 Plan, which includes proposed actions on enhancing storm water and sewer management, increasing the number of green spaces, protecting Chicago’s natural resources and biodiversity and increasing healthy and local food options. We want to help lead the charge on these important changes, and the green schoolyard initiative is a perfect on-the-ground complementary effort to these goals. We want to expand on the improvements we have worked with our schools and our communities to make.

This week we were lucky enough to welcome Professor Lois Brink, a national advocate for green schoolyards, to Chicago for a reception and breakfast with interested change agents and stakeholders. Brink, a faculty member in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Colorado at Denver, spearheaded the Denver-based Learning Landscapes initiative.

The initiative built ecologically-friendly, multi-use play spaces designed with the environment, the community and above all, local schoolchildren in mind. The initial program was a rousing success, with 93 multi-use playgrounds built via $49 million in funds raised,  with the parks serving more than 46,500 students across the city and 500,000 residents.

Brink highlighted the successes and progress of these other school districts launching green schoolyard initiatives. Denver and Boston have completed their renovations, with other sizable school districts following close behind. Houston is transforming 500 schoolyards, while New York City is transforming 480 and Toronto is transforming 591.

“We are working with Philadelphia on smart tools where children can help with stormwater monitoring within schoolyard habitat areas,” Brink told the crowd. “This concept takes schoolyard redevelopment to a new level of sustainability and education. We see great opportunities for such a partnership in Chicago where the city is facing similar stormwater issues. I am excited to be partnering with Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign on the three pilot schools.”

We have also been meeting with parents, teachers and staff members to hear their thoughts on what they would like to see with a green schoolyard. This week, the parents at Morrill were incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking in offering their vision for the schoolyard. Some suggested a place to compost and teach about composting, a water fountain or sprinkler, a place to run and activities such as tetherball; others asked for a way to keep the yard open on weekends for parents in the neighborhood who want to take their children to play. We applaud these engaged parents and school community members for raising their voices.

For more information on how to get involved in the green schoolyards initiative, please contact Rosa Ramirez (

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