Realizing the Potential of Our Schoolyards
The grounds surrounding our schools can and should be more than parking lots or vacant space. A thoughtfully designed schoolyard can be an extension of the classroom, rich with potential benefits for students, communities and the environment. These benefits include:
- Boosting physical activity. CPS has recently taken steps to expand opportunities for physical activity through recess and PE. But many schools lack the infrastructure—both indoor and outdoor—to make this a reality. With features ranging from playgrounds to running tracks and grassy fields, well-designed schoolyards provide space for health-promoting and brain-boosting activity.
- Nurturing social-emotional development. Research shows that a well-designed playground can reduce bullying while providing opportunities to develop social skills. Plus, access to nature is linked to a host of academic and emotional benefits.
- Supporting learning. From science lessons in a school garden to learning how to grow and identify healthy fruits and vegetables, a well-designed schoolyard is a true extension of the classroom.
- Reconnecting communities with local schools. Schoolyards provide welcoming space for community activity and can host programs such as fresh vegetable delivery.
- Creating space for the arts. Schoolyards often bring public art into communities and provide space for art-related activities such as theater and musical performances.
- Addressing disparities in access to green space. Schoolyards can provide green space in otherwise heavily urbanized neighborhoods and can play a role in addressing the disproportionate lack of access to playgrounds and parks that residents in some Chicago neighborhoods face.
- Improving stormwater management and reducing flooding. CPS schoolyards comprise over 1,000 acres of impermeable surfaces in a highly urbanized area. Transforming schoolyards with special materials and surfaces that absorb and filters rainwater can make a significant contribution to the city’s water management efforts.
What Is a Green Schoolyard?
Just as no two school communities are identical, no two green schoolyards are exactly the same. Here in Chicago, our Space to Grow schoolyards do share important common elements, including:
- Spaces for physical activity, such as turf fields, jogging tracks, basketball and tennis courts, and age-appropriate play equipment
- Areas for outdoor learning and exploration, such as outdoor classrooms, native trees and plants, vegetable gardens and art installations
- Landscape features that absorb large amounts of water, such as rain gardens, grassy fields and permeable surfaces
What Principals Are Saying
“Our schoolyard changes the climate and culture of the neighborhood. Having a common space like this brings us back to the day when there was a community center where everyone interacted. I go walk around the field, and I get choked up… The roughest kids in the neighborhood all walk by and call out to me, and say thanks for doing this. It’s literally affecting thousands of people.”
—Mike Beyer, former Principal at Morrill Elementary School
“The entire campus is turning into a learning opportunity for our kids and our community. 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. We are solidifying students’ understanding of how the world works, and how water works, in such a unique way.”
—Andrea Black, Principal at Schmid Elementary School
What CPS Is Doing
In recent years, CPS has taken significant steps to support the health and long-term wellness of the city’s students. This includes bringing back recess, expanding PE, supporting school gardening, adopting a strong Wellness Policy and improving nutrition standards for school food. Nearly all of these initiatives can be enhanced through the transformation of a school’s outdoor space.
Transforming Schoolyards, Addressing a Gap in School Facilities
Despite this progress, schoolyards at the majority of the city’s elementary schools are not yet adequate for supporting vibrant recess and PE programs. Many schools lack playgrounds or green space altogether. In many cases, schoolyards were paved to create parking lots years ago when recess was phased out across the district. In low-income communities that already face disparities in access to parks and green space, this problem is especially significant.
CPS is becoming a leader in addressing this challenge by engaging the community in creating vibrant green schoolyards through Space to Grow.
Space to Grow is an innovative program led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands to bring the many benefits of green schoolyards back to Chicago schools. Space to Grow uses a unique model that brings together capital funds and leadership from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. This effort transforms more schoolyards every year. Learn more about Space to Grow.
What We’re Doing
Space to Grow uses a unique model that brings together capital funds and leadership from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Space to Grow also engages nonprofit partners to support wellness at each schoolyard.
This approach reflects our commitment to bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders to make sustainable health-promoting changes. Our approach to transforming schoolyards is based on our effective and tested model to engage, advocate and build.
At the heart of our work is a focus on engaging stakeholders—parents, teachers, students, principals and others—in creating healthier school environments. With green schoolyards, this includes:
- Engaging school and community leaders to define the schoolyard characteristics that are most important to their needs and engaging in the schoolyard design process.
- Engaging educators with the knowledge, skills and physical infrastructure to boost student health and learning through outdoor experiences.
- Engaging students, parents and community members to take part in health-promoting experiences that green schoolyards bring to the heart of the neighborhood.
While working with stakeholders to make change on the ground, we advocate for health-supporting policies at the school, district, state and national levels. With green schoolyards, this includes:
- Advocating for investment in schools and infrastructure in under-served communities.
- Advocating for the voices of community members to be recognized and valued by decision-makers, by structuring each schoolyard transformation around an inclusive process in which each community defines its needs and priorities for the space.
- Advocating for inclusion of health and wellness on the agenda of organizations focused primarily on environmental and land-use issues.
To sustain a transformation, schools need to have the capacity to maintain and leverage their green schoolyard for long-term success. With this in mind, we support schools in accessing resources and building their own capacity. With schoolyards, this includes:
- Hosting community planting days and workshops to educate community members about their schoolyard’s unique features and how to properly maintain them.
- Building the unique public-private partnership behind Space to Grow, which brings together stakeholders who recognize the broad and diverse set of benefits that green schoolyards bring to our city and our neighborhoods.
- Building educators’ capacity to make the most of their schoolyards through professional development that provides knowledge and skills specific to outdoor education.
Join the Movement for Green Schoolyards
You can make a difference for green schoolyards in Chicago and beyond. If you’re interested in learning more about our Space to Grow program, or how our unique schoolyard model might work in your community, contact Meg Kelly.
Stay Informed + Stay Connected
Informing yourself about the issues involved in school health and sharing this information with others is an important step in creating meaningful change. It’s about learning, sharing and sparking conversations that get people thinking. We encourage you to:
- Check out our Resource Center
- Sign up to receive our newsletters
- Connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @healthyschools
Make a Donation
As a nonprofit organization, we rely on support from people like you so we can continue to make schools healthier places where all children can learn and thrive. Your gift–large or small–will make a meaningful difference.
Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.