Igniting Questions, Fueling Play: Schmid’s New Schoolyard

September 04, 2014

The entire campus is turning into a learning opportunity!

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, while contributing to a significant reduction in stormwater runoff across the city. 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, Schmid Elementary.

Schmid’s groundbreaking ceremony

Schmid Elementary is deeply connected to its surrounding community, both the people and the environment. When HSC and partners organized a groundbreaking this summer, the school community turned out to fill the audience. Why? In part it’s because the school is nestled in a close-knit neighborhood between the Bishop Ford expressway and Chicago State University. When something happens at Schmid, it affects everyone.

Says Principal Andrea Black: “Our land is on a slope, and the block goes down a hill. Most of our neighbors suffer from significant flooding when it rains.”

But the transformation taking place will also serve another purpose: educating students about their ecosystem, while providing a safe and fun place for the whole community to play outside.

Black says: “The entire campus is turning into a learning opportunity for our kids and our community.”

Igniting New Questions

Space to Grow is developing unique solutions to stormwater management while creating space for play and outdoor learning. Each of the four schools participating in this year’s Space to Grow pilot have different needs, and landscape architects addressed each of them individually by holding community meetings.

Again, for Schmid, the community aspect was central. Openlands Education Coordinator Kristin LoVerde says: “We want the school to be using the schoolyard, but we also want the community to be using it. Having their input is highly valuable.”

Based on the stormwater issues at Schmid, the design team created a “runnel” — a small man-made feature that will capture rainwater from the school’s roof.

The informal term “runnel” was coined because it’s not really a creek or stream, and it’s also not a naturally occurring waterway. Instead this is a small half-pipe that’s only about four feet wide, forming a narrow concrete path that slopes slightly inward on both sides. It stretches all the way from the school building, past a play area and ends in one corner of the schoolyard.

There, it feeds water into a rain-loving garden that’s ready to soak it up.

The runnel is an unusual feature — not quite a sidewalk, not quite a drain — and is perfect for generating questions, says Black. “Those questions ignite learning,” she says. “The runnel makes you ask, ‘What is this and what is it for?’”

Space to Play and Learn

The timing of Space to Grow fits perfectly with some of the school’s learning goals. Says Black: “This year we have a significant focus on being healthy and active. Our PE instructor will utilize all those fields and courts, and even the playground equipment will support PE instruction. Science teachers will be encouraged to use the space to teach botany and the water cycle. Everything on campus will be utilized for understanding and to promote healthy activities.”

The runnel will play a starring role in some of those curricula, says Black. “Students can see, here — it’s raining, and this is how water flows into our ground and supports living things. But at the same time, if its not captured and it runs off into cement, that can create flooding.”

It all adds up to an incredible educational opportunity. Black says: “We are solidifying [students’] understanding of how the world works, and how water works, in such a unique way.”

View photos of Schmid’s groundbreaking with the whole community, on HSC’s Facebook page!

Space to Grow is a multi-sector, public-private partnership led by HSC and Openlands and is made possible by the leadership and generous financial support of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Chicago Department of Water Management (DWM), and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD).