The energy in Room 104 at George Leland Elementary school in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago was palpable. On April 8, about 25 teachers bustled around enjoying a healthy breakfast before a morning session of a Space to Grow professional development, hosted by Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) and Openlands.
Space to Grow is an innovative partnership led by HSC and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into centers for outdoor learning, play and engagement with nature, while also addressing neighborhood flooding issues. Leland Elementary is one of several Space to Grow schools to receive a $1.5 million schoolyard transformation through the program, which is supported by capital funding and expertise from Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
Each Space to Grow school takes part in a months-long process where input is gathered from a broad range of school and community stakeholders not only about their vision for what the schoolyard should look like but what health and wellness goals they want to meet as a school. The design process focuses on incorporating features to support outdoor learning, as well as features for stormwater management, such as permeable pavers and rain gardens. At Leland, like all Space to Grow schools, those priorities, design ideas and visions were incorporated into the final designs for the schoolyard and support the focus for the school’s tailored professional development plan.
The day’s workshop kicked off emphasizing the powerful role schools have in shaping students’ lifelong habits and behaviors, and sharing an overview of the research that educators and school administrators intrinsically already know: healthy, active, well-nourished students are better prepared to learn. Studies show that offering short physical activity breaks, as little as five minutes, during standard classroom instruction have a positive impact on students’ ability to concentrate and behave well, and yield academic achievement.
The first portion of the workshop focused on sharing practical approaches to making health and wellness a regular part of the school and classroom experience. HSC shared ways to fit healthy habits into daily learning by integrating nutrition education and fitness into classroom lessons that meet academic standards, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) goals. Specifically, teachers led peer-to-peer learning exchanges by working through two teaser lesson plans—Walking the Walk and Fruit or Not—which were designed to incorporate physical activity and nutrition education into classroom learning. One teacher commented, “I plan to use “the Fruit or Not and Walking the Walk lesson plans with my students,” while another stated that “The workshop provided practical exposure to physical fitness and good classroom practice to help promote health awareness for students.”
The next portion of the workshop, led by Openlands, focused on how outdoor and garden-based learning can positively impact student achievement and be an exciting part of any healthy school environment. One teacher pointed out that spending time outside is integral to developing social, intellectual, and other skills. According to a 2009 study, children ages 8-18 spend an average of eight hours a day watching television, listening to music or sitting in front of the computer. This statistic led one participant to lament that her own children consider going outside a punishment.
Leland is combatting this mentality with their green schoolyard where they plant twice a year and will eventually have a farm stand with produce for families, teachers and students to take home. Some teachers suggested that sometimes all it takes is starting small—just sitting outside reading for 10 minutes can be a great way to incorporate outdoor time into the day. “I do plan to incorporate some of the healthy nutrition activities as well as the moving more activities [into my lesson plans],” said one of the day’s participants.
With programs like Space to Grow and our additional professional development opportunities, Leland Elementary is working make its schoolyard a dynamic venue for outdoor learning, play, exploration, physical education and connection with nature. We are thrilled with the Leland staff and teachers’ enthusiasm for their Space to Grow schoolyard, and can’t wait to see how they use the space this spring. What will the school garden’s first harvest of the season yield?